Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Good time to have an offie in Ormskirk!


Frank Field - who some in my party seem to like for reasons that almost entirely escape me - has been bouncing with glee at the prospect of a minimum price for alcohol in Merseyside:

Former welfare minister and poverty tsar Frank Field told the ECHO today: “Increasingly in many of our constituencies alcohol is a bigger social problem than drugs – particularly amongst young people.”

The Birkenhead MP added: “It is outrageous that big supermarket chains exploit the situation, selling alcohol below cost to draw in customers and increase their profits.”

I won't bother with trying to set the facts straight for Frank - like most New Puritans (and boy is Frank one of them) the facts are as nothing beside the rhetoric of "it's for the children" and "it costs the NHS". However, like the proposals a while back from the Manchester Diocese of the Church of Public Health, this is just stupid:

Merseyside is set to lead the way by introducing a minimum alcohol price tag.

The proposed 50p per unit cost is intended to stop supermarkets selling cheap booze as loss-leaders fuelling binge drinking amongst local youngsters.

Look, it's pretty simple. According to good old Google Maps it is 14.4 miles from the centre of Liverpool to Ormskirk - a journey taking 28 minutes. So you get in your car and you drive there and go back to Liverpool with your cheap booze. Or maybe the bloke up the road fills his van up with said booze and sells it on to you. Or your cousin Steve in Skelmersdale brings load over when he visits.


Remembering and the prism of prejudice

Mum's Garden

Do we really remember stuff or do we rather see glimpses of the past through a prism of our prejudice? Sometimes that crystal is kindly, showing the past as a wondrous, carefree time filled with pleasure. Other times – other people – see the past as dark, scary, a place of evil ghosts and terror.

In one respect we can nail down the past – there are events and occurrences, things that happened. The day you started school, the time you broke your arm, family marriages, births and deaths. Are these the past or are they simply a framework on which we hang reminiscence?

Throughout my upbringing, we were told (with varying degrees of assurance) that our surname – Cooke – was Irish. Nothing wrong with that and the name is certainly is a good Irish name and we were brought up Roman Catholic too.

Yet when someone actually looks at the family history, it turns out that my father’s family has very little Irish connection and that the surname – originally without what we liked to called the ‘superior’ E – takes us back to the Isle of Wight. Turns out there’s a great deal more Irish in my Mum’s (Anglican) family than in my Dad’s (RC) family.

Reminiscence, in this case, had trumped history. The truth – the framework of facts – had been broken by the weight of that remembering. History was replaced by myth – in this case harmless but such myth-making might be dangerous.

There is a fine tradition of family biography. We are rightly fascinated by where we came from and how it made us what we are. But there’s a dark side to this – what I’d call the search for excuse rather than explanation. Too often this involves reminiscence cloaked in darkness, painting of the personal past as a terrible time.

We do this dark remembering because we believe it cathartic – let it all out, says the therapist. But does that person stop for a second and consider how such reminiscence might hurt others? Do we examine the truth or merely state that our recollection – however dark – is a true recollection? And, in our reminiscence, do we condemn others as wrongdoers so as to set ourselves as victims?

I suppose that it doesn’t matter much really if we are discussing the distant past (although the damage of myth is plain to see in Ireland, the Balkans and many other places of conflict) but what if our reminiscence – the myth-making – is about the living? We cannot let indulgent catharsis come ahead of truth and our remembering is not truth. Yet too often we are tempted to tell others of our remembering.

For me, if we remember only bad things – and blame our current predicament or the struggles of our lives on those things – then we are little better than the things we criticise. We choose to hurt others as a means of explaining our personal position.

We want that remembering to justify what we think today. And so we do it through that prism of prejudice.


Monday, 30 January 2012

Dying for a drink (or not as the case may be)!


While it seems relatively quiet so far, we can expect that "alcohol-related deaths have risen" will become the preferred argument of temperance campaigners, nannying fussbuckets and the Church of Public Health:

Alcohol related deaths in the UK have increased slightly between 2009 and 2010, according to official figures. The number of deaths linked to drinking has gone from 8,664 to 8,790 - a rise of 126. The Office for National Statistics said the increase was due to more deaths in men.

So should we be "doing something" about this scourge? Well, the official figures (and accompanying narrative) are quite helpful. Firstly the ONS point out that whatever the current strategy* looks like, it seems to be working:

GLF data also show that alcohol consumption for both males and females tended to increase until 2000–02 and declined thereafter (data available to 2009, 2010 data on alcohol consumption will be available in March 2011 in the GLF (ONS, 2011b)).

So we are drinking less but more of us are dying from drink. Again the statisticians helpfully explain this:

However, despite an apparent decrease in alcohol consumption, it is likely that it will take a number of years for any resulting reduction in alcohol-related deaths to become apparent as diseases associated with excessive alcohol consumption are often slow to develop. For example, Alcoholic Liver Disease, the most prevalent of all alcohol-related causes of death included in this bulletin, responsible for approximately 64 per cent of all alcohol-related deaths in 2010, takes approximately ten years to develop.

So we should start to see a decline in alcohol-related deaths from around 2012. Obviously, this remains to be seen but in no way can this very slight increase in 2010 (after a fall in 2009) be set as a argument for draconian intervention - minimum pricing and so forth.

*You know that strategy - 24-hour drinking, liberalised licensing, a grown-up attitude to drinking? The one that the prohibitionists and Daily Mail want to stop!

Sunday, 29 January 2012

Boards of Directors need a Devil's Advocate

In 1587 the Promoter of the Faith was established by the Vatican:

His duty requires him to prepare in writing all possible arguments, even at times seemingly slight, against the raising of any one to the honours of the altar. The interest and honour of the Church are concerned in preventing any one from receiving those honours whose death is not juridically proved to have been "precious in the sight of God"

The post quickly became known as Avocatus Diaboli – the Devil’s Advocate – and continued until John Paul II abolished the requirement in canonisation and beatification. Nevertheless, the idea of formal challenge to reward seems to me a good one – it doesn’t eliminate error but it sets out, in a written form, objections to that reward prepared by an impartial source.

When we look at reward – whether the payment of bonus or the granting of honours – we often comment at the seeming absence of things we like to call “checks and balances”. And, although these comments are sometimes spiteful and motivated by other considerations than the wider public good, there is a real need for such challenge.

We are watching such a slow motion challenge in the matter of Stephen Hester’s bonus (and saw a similar public castigation in the discussion of Fred Goodwin’s knighthood) where each and every politician is fighting over a tiny scrap of moral high ground. Now there are some important considerations here:

"The contract says that he should be considered for bonus in good faith. That decision is taken by the board. Yes, shareholders have a role in that. UKFI, as the government's shareholder, takes a very active interest. But we are not the only shareholder in that company … The board is required to act in the interests of all its shareholders and the board takes this decision."

To not even consider a bonus payment for Stephen Hester would be a breach of his contract but equally, the firm is under no requirement to pay that bonus. It seems to me that this makes such a payment subject to discussion – negotiation even. And those who decide on the payment (or non-payment) would benefit from a written statement explaining all the reasons large and small, petty and momentous, for not paying that bonus. From a non-partisan source.

Instead we have the quite hideous spectacle of politicians clambering over each other to be the one who rams the knife into the quivering corpse of Stephen Hester’s bonus. Plaintiff cries of “fair” are heard as the strange birds flock, each one looking for the headline rather than for the future success of RBS.

So let’s instead require one Director to set out the argument against discretionary rewards to his peers. Not to decide on those payments but to make the case for those who will make that decision. And that case should be formal, written and subject to external audit. A Devil’s Advocate for the Board!


Friday, 27 January 2012

Friday Fungus: More about mushrooms and depression

A while ago I reported on the ongoing research showing that Psilocybe mushrooms have a beneficial impact on depressive conditions:

...the immediate effects of psilocybin are not as important for clinical benefit as the longer-term effects. That's because psilocybin increases the expression of genes and signalling proteins associated with nerve growth and connectivity, he says: "We think that the antidepressant effects of psilocybin may be due to a possible increase of factors that activate long-term neuroplasticity."

Now more evidence is coming to light about these beneficial effects:

Far from expanding your mind, the hallucinogenic chemical found in magic mushrooms induces widespread decreases in brain activity, researchers report today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Psilocybin has been revered for centuries for its ability to induce mystical experiences, and has potential therapeutic value for various psychiatric conditions. The drug is known to activate serotonin receptors, but how this produces its effects is little understood.

And this reduction in brain activity is what helps with depression:

Depression involves hyperactivity in the mPFC (medial prefrontal cortex), leading to the pessimistic outlook and pathological brooding characteristic of the condition, so mPFC deactivation could alleviate those symptoms.

Which all rather begs a question! Why, when these mushrooms have killed no-one, cause no long-term health problems and may even be beneficial, did the UK government make possession of them a criminal offence in 2005?


Thursday, 26 January 2012

Heart attacks - and why there are fewer of them...


A great deal of this represents a triumph for awareness and medical intervention - in the UK, the NHS done good! But there are some interesting side issues that should matter a lot to public health folk:

For the last 70 years we have been in the grip of a heart disease epidemic that began in the 1940s, rose to a peak in the 1970s and then began to fall. All Western countries were affected and all followed broadly the same pattern.

And two things public health people liked to finger for this epidemic - fat and smoking - seem to be less to blame than we thought. On fat:

Total fat consumption in the UK has changed little – down from 40 per cent of average calories in the 1980s to 38 per cent today (though there has been a bigger reduction in the most harmful type, saturated fat).

In 2000, a pan-European study by the World Health Organisation was unable to show a convincing link between heart disease levels and fat consumption in the 21 countries studied.

And smoking:

Smoking, meanwhile, makes blood more likely to clot and is a known cause of heart attacks. But smoking peaked in the 1940s and then began to decline, just as the heart disease epidemic was taking off.

The truth seems to be that those endless nannying public health campaigns are, at best, a very minor part of this change:

The Oxford researchers conclude that just under half the decline in heart attack death rates in England over the last decade is due to better hospital treatment; the rest is due to changes in lifestyle and the widespread use of pills to lower cholesterol and blood pressure.

Do you think BHF and the like will admit they were wrong about smoking and fat? Somehow I doubt it!


More on the need for benefits reform...


Some readers may be familiar with Debbie Purdy the 'right-to-die' campaigner but she's been in the news again. This time the campaigning lady was in the Magistrates' Court for non-payment of Council Tax. And, while there she said this:

...benefits officials told her on five occasions that she would get more money if her musician husband Omar Puente stopped working.

“It is outrageous. The benefits system is supposed to be a safety net, not a hangman’s noose,” she said.

The couple’s benefits were recently reviewed and officials told them if her husband was unemployed they would get further benefits such as free council tax, free prescriptions and help with paying the interest on their mortgage. 

Tell me again about having a system that rewards working?


Wednesday, 25 January 2012

In which CAMRA join the "we hate drinkers" brigade (plus of course smokers)


I'm not a member of the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), never have been and have no intention of becoming one. Not because CAMRA didn't do a great job back in the 1970s and 1980s rescuing us from dire, barely drinkable ales but because they have become an organisation with no point other than to place the imprimateur of their brand on pubs. And to campaign alongside the prohibitionists, temperance advocates and assorted nannying fussbuckets against the ordinary drinker.

So it is great news that The George Hotel in Cullingworth was named "Pub of the Season" by Bradford CAMRA - not bad going after less than a year since the folk at Old Spot Brewery (more specifically, Chris and Jo) took over. I can recommend a visit should you find yourself in Cullingworth.

The bad news is that the other thing CAMRA have stamped their approval on is a report written by lefty think-tank IPPR into why so many pubs closed. Apparently it isn't anything to do with the smoking ban at all because (wait for it):

Our brief analysis of why pub closure rates differ between parliamentary constituencies indicates that there is a weak positive correlation between closure rates and smoking rates in England. However, this may be hiding other explanatory variables: for example, it may be simply because smoking rates are higher in more deprived communities.
Now the denizens of pubs pre-ban will know a couple of things - in wet-led pubs in urban areas around three-quarters or more of regulars were smokers. And, as we've all noticed, it's these pubs that have closed. The big food-oriented pubs with large gardens on the edge of town or in country villages haven't closed in the same numbers (although I noticed that The Triangle at Triangle - perhaps the only village named after a trademark - is boarded up).

Instead of this, the IPPR/CAMRA wants us to believe that the main reason for people stopping going to the pub is that booze is too cheap in supermarkets. Indeed, IPPR/CAMRA go on to say - without evidence or foundation - that:

The supermarkets are able to use their market power to ensure that increased duty is not passed on by their suppliers.

They can also afford to sell alcohol at below cost and as a loss leader to entice customers through their doors and spend on other products. 

I'm pretty sure that both these statements are untrue. Even the prohibitionists don't think these statements are true, for heaven's sake!

And tell me, do you really believe that that nice Mr Smith who used to come in, sit on the stool at the end of the snug bar and smoke his pipe isn't coming in because he's buying 38p cans of watery lager from the Co-op? No, he's sat in his living room watching the telly, drinking a glass of bottled ale and smoking his pipe. And he's not coming into the pub again (except once a month with the local history club) because he can't smoke that pipe.

And CAMRA along with the idiots at Greene King and the nutters at Diageo have fallen hook, line and sinker for the nannying fussbuckets' agenda. Introduce a minimum price per unit for alcohol (just 40p say the bearded ale-suppers) and it will all be fine! Except it won't.

That 40p will soon be 50p. Then 60p and in no time £1. And the prohibitionists, nannying fussbuckets and adherents to the Church of Public Health will still scream about the terrible damage alcohol is wreaking on society.

So we'll get advertising restrictions and advertising bans. We'll get licensing restrictions and regulatory controls. High alcohol content beers will be banned. Warning labels will be placed on alcohol products - getting more and more extreme with each new iteration.

Soon universities and colleges will close their bars. Some will ban alcohol on campus. Only teetotallers will be recruited by the NHS and having alcohol in their private cars will lead to some workers being sacked.

And still the prohibitionists will scream about the evils of drink. We'll still get haggard doctors frowningly explaining how even one sip of booze could lead to alcoholism, liver disease and cancer.

This is not what CAMRA want - this is an organisation supposed to be an advocate for a healthy, mature and quality approach to boozing. Yet they are lining up with the ghastly people whose aim is to "denormalise" drinking, to make it something that normal people don't do - to kill the very think that CAMRA campaign for.


In which I agree with Cllr Greenwood...


The nannying fussbuckets have been badgering at the West Yorkshire Pension Fund:

Health campaigners have criticised West Yorkshire Pension Fund after research found it has £125 million invested in the tobacco industry.

Apparently this is unethical because these health campaigners don't approve of the investment. However, Cllr Greenwood, as Chairman of the Fund responded correctly:

“Decisions should be taken entirely on commercial grounds.” 

Hallelujah! Perhaps the anti-smoking fanatics will go away now (but somehow I doubt it)



More unintended consequences: killing off the Royal Mail


One of those little regulatory changes (from last year’s Budget as it happens) that rather sneaks up on us arrives on 2nd April this year. The Government has extended to application of VAT to cover “bulk mail” and related services:

Changes to VAT law and the way in which our services are regulated have affected the VAT status of a number of our products.  A limited range of our services became subject to VAT through 2011, and this will extend to all bulk mail services from April 2012.

Now the government suggests that, because businesses are VAT registered they’ll be able to reclaim this and it won’t be noticed. But think for a second of the big users of bulk mail:

  • Local government – all those Council Tax bills and other official bulk communications such as electoral registration forms
  • Utilities – water, gas, electricity are all subject to a lower VAT rate or exempt
  • Financial services – no VAT is charged on banking, insurance or related services (now there’s a blessing)
  • Charities – direct mail is a central tool for charities to raise funds and keep their supporters informed
  • Publishing – magazines, journals and so forth again carry no VAT

Now I don’t know about you but it seems to me that the big loser in all this will be the Royal Mail. The 20% increase in mailing costs will accelerate the move to paperless billing and statements for utilities, banking and other businesses. It may even prompt local government to look at the mail they send – perhaps consolidating or moving to electronic means.

One hidden effect of this change will be that some businesses – and especially those unable to claim back the VAT – will stop using targeted direct mail preferring to use cheaper mass leafleting. Meaning that rather than a personalised, specific appeal, we will receive general literature targeted using geodemographic profiling rather than real information.

That and it will cost local government a load of money that might have been spent on front-line services.

And, without a doubt, hammer another nail or two into the coffin of the Royal Mail.


Tuesday, 24 January 2012

A further comment about Bradford and free schools (and Katherine Birbalsingh)


This evening Bradford Council debated free schools. Or rather a motion the Conservative Group submitted on school places. We firmly believe that the opportunities presented by Michael Gove’s liberalisation provide a solution – a blessed breath of fresh air – to the challenge facing Bradford’s education.

On one level the debate was polite, considered and informed – statistics about Bradford’s need for new school places were set before the Council and options for responding to the challenge were examined. But underlying all this was an unspoken disagreement. One captured by Ralph Berry, Labour’s Education Portfolio Holder repeatedly saying, as if to convince himself:

“I am not an ideologue. I am NOT an ideologue...”

In our motion we had innocently suggested that, rather than dealing merely with what turned up as a result of the free schools idea, Bradford Council might actively seek to promote new schools, might seek out the very best managers and leaders in education. For Cllr Berry this was too much and he started burbling about “Birbalsingh” and the “IT Free School”. I think he believes we all read the Guardian like he does!

Now Cllr Berry isn’t a teacher, he’s never led a school. He’s a social worker come Labour Councillor who too often blurs the ground between these two roles to the extent that we are unsure whether he is making a political point or expressing a professional opinion. Ralph knows his stuff! He can wax lyrical in fluent educationalist jargon and the gist of this is that he believes people like Katherine Birbalsingh to be tantamount to devils.

The only route to educational salvation is through the goodly direction of a local education authority. Without the Council, what would happen? Who would decide who goes to which school and how the buses run!

So back to what Cllr Berry called “Birbalsingh’s IT Free school”. I was curious since I’d seen reports on Ms Birbalsingh’s intention to set up a free school but knew little of her intentions. So here’s what she says;

The Michaela Community School combines tradition and innovation. It attempts to give inner-city youth a taste of the private sector, where knowledge is taught, benchmarking is common, and high expectations of behaviour and dress are the norm. But the Michaela Community School also recognises it is in the inner city. So there will be an extended day where children will be required to complete their homework, where there will be classes analysing media culture, something that is extremely destructive to our inner-city youth.

Not a mention of IT! But the truth about what Ralph doesn’t like is in that phrase “a taste of the private sector”. For the Cllr Berrys of this world the private sector in education – the world’s best schools – is simply not to be considered as a model for children’s education. And those schools focus on what we might call “traditional” subjects – you know, the one’s you and I learned when we were at school. English, Maths, Sciences, Geography, History and modern language or two. The essence of a ‘liberal arts’ education.

The sort of education that people are prepared to pay thousands of pounds each year to buy – delivered free to ordinary children from an inner city community. What could be a problem with that? Indeed, in Bradford, the idea of free schools has been grasped. Here’s the list (there may be more):

Dixons City Free Primary
Dixons City Free Secondary
One in a Million Free School
Kings Science Academy
Rainbow Primary
Bradford Girl’s Grammar School
Bradford Christian School
Netherleigh & Rossefield School
Bradford District Free School

The Council should wake up and take note of these innovations – this is the future of education in the City, these are the challenges to years of underperformance by the existing schools. And this is a faster, more assured and more effective way of meeting the future needs of the City than the bureaucratic, hand-wringing, jargon-loaded system Cllr Berry (and the Council’s professional leadership) promote.

We should note that, despite panels, boards, meetings, strategies, press briefings and hours of expensive officer time, these creative and innovative schools are the only ones addressing Bradford’s need for new school places – places in good schools.

So to answer Cllr Berry’s ignorant assertion – yes, I’d be delighted if a successful, effective and exciting educational leader like Katherine Birbalsingh came to Bradford to set up a school.