Monday, 25 August 2014

Food heroes of the day - Ninewells Hospital, Dundee...

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Assorted health fascists and nannying fussbuckets are frothing at the wonderful dish served up at Dundee's Ninewells Hospital:

The pie is crammed with sausage, bacon, black pudding and beans and is topped with a fried egg. It is available from a takeaway counter at the Dundee hospital.

This is a hospital, people are gloomy, ill, depressed and in need of some decent nosh - hence such a fantastic pie. But the nannies  hate it:

Professor Mike Lean, a former government advisor and chair of human nutrition at Glasgow University said it was a "shocking" example of a meal.

"It should never be anywhere near a hospital," he said. "It is laden with fat, salt and without a vegetable in sight. There should be strict guidelines for all food sold in hospitals."

And Tam Fry, the self-appointed obesity expert shouts:

"What we have here is a heart attack on a plate. It should be absolute obligatory for the NHS to have wholesome food whether it is from a takeaway shop within hospitals or on menus."

I don't get it at all - what could be more wholesome that a fry-up in a pie. At least it's not deep fried (yet).

A good view of the pie (and a fine sight it is, if not for the faint-hearted) can be seen here.
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Sunday, 24 August 2014

Leave the MPs on holiday...

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"Recall Parliament" goes the cry without really any consideration as to what Parliament is going to do when it arrives back in London. Dragged untimely from holidays, from rare time spent with friends and family away from politics, the MPs will be in a grumpy mood. So when they're presented with a motion that doesn't authorise anything, doesn't extend powers or create new law, it's understandable that the response is a combination of grandstanding and grumpiness.

Yet again the business of our legislature is determined more by what it looks like - "how it plays out in the media" - rather than by whether it is doing anything of any real substance and purpose by holding a debate about the Middle East, ISIS, Gaza or indeed any other topic dominating the headlines.

My preference is for the legislature to meet less often rather than more often - after all the full time presence of MPs in London only encourages them to meet together and, in doing so, manufacture more laws in the interests of MPs and those who lobby MPs rather than the wider public interest. For sure it isn't pitched to us that way. The media savvy woman from the charity or think tank on Radio Four explains how the new rules will protect children or save lives or stop hate crime or prevent some humanitarian disaster. And we - along with the MPs - lap it up.

The matter of whether we bomb terrorists in Syria - or is it Iraq - isn't really any concern of the legislature except in so far as that legislature has a say in appointing the government and votes to allow that government to have the money to buy the bombs and fuel the aircraft. Meeting together to discuss the situation achieves nothing other than for the more pompously self-informed politicians to twang their braces as they intone sombre speeches while others nod as they admire the sagacity of those braces-twangers.

The truth is that not only does recalling parliament not serve any valuable purpose, it is likely to draw the attention of government from the practical task of considering what to do and to focus it instead on the pathetic media circus that would accompany the recalled parliament. Hordes of journalists and pundits who match the MPs blow for blow in their know-all attitude. And battalions of suited think-tankers - from places with names like th Royal United Services Institute or the International Affairs Academy - swarm over the airwaves feeding their undergraduate essays to MPs so as they (the MPs that is) can sound like they have the faintest idea about the situation 'on the ground'.

It's likely too that, given this is the Middle East, there will be protests and representatives of the protestors - often emigres from the places now ridden with war, pillage and rape. The media will add this to the hopper of opinion - it won't point to any solution but it adds a 'human dimension' to the debate and shows, without question, that something must be done. The problem is that it doesn't tell us what that 'something' might be - diplomacy, military aid, bombing raids, troops...we don't know but something.

Soon though the debate - as well as leading to new rules and new powers for the friends of politicians - will begin to be portrayed by the media in terms of what it means for future political events here in the UK. The words are still frowningly concerned with a terrible humanitarian tragedy but the political tactics become a case of getting one over on the other side. Did the Prime Minister take a few hours to spend a little time with his family? Can we criticise the Foreign Minister for failing to meet with some group or other? And the BBC or ITN or Sky person with the Downing Street door behind them will spend five minutes of prime time news explaining what all this might mean for the polls or for next year's general election.

"Recall Parliament" they say - not because it's a good idea (any more than dragging people back off their holidays for no real purpose other than a media story is a good idea) but because it looks like something is being done, like the powers are taking the matter seriously and therefore that, in some magical way, we are getting better government. The reality is Parliament has no role in this, would contribute nothing new or helpful to the debate and would shift the emphasis from an appropriate response to the usual, pathetic media circus.

Leave the MPs on holiday, let the ministers have some time with their family and treat the business of government as if it were the business of government rather than a source of endless media tittle-tattle and gossip.

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Saturday, 23 August 2014

Socialism in action...doing what it does best, making poor people poorer

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Venezuela is fast becoming today's example of socialism and of how it starts with excitement about liberty, crushing the Yankee Devil, taming big business and eliminating poverty. And soon turns to control, suppression, rationing and shortage:

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro announced Wednesday that the country will introduce a mandatory fingerprinting system in supermarkets. He asserted that the plan will keep people from buying too much of any single item. 

But, you ask, why would anyone want to buy 'too much of any one item'? When I go to the supermarket, I buy to suit my immediate requirements. Since capitalism has given me a fridge freezer, I'm able to buy good for the whole week but that's it. The reason for buying 'too much of one item' is simple - the buyer anticipates shortage. We see this occasionally when some tabloid newspaper creates a scare over a consumer product's availability. But for government to seek to stop such buying behaviour, shortages have to be the norm.

And this is the case with Venezuela - the country where a smart phone app locating supplies of loo paper was developed. The government, having condemned the businesses making and distributing food and other consumer goods decided that it should intervene - controlling supply, setting prices and generally throwing its weight around in the marketplace. Such activity is justified, the government says, so as to allow the nation's poor to live more dignified lives.

The problem is actually pretty simple - by fixing prices artificially low (to help the poor) Venezuela's government created shortages. Now they've blamed variously the CIA, the political opposition and business in general for the problem using these perceived attacks on the socialist revolution in Venezuela to justify first the introduction of ID systems (described in the Guardian as "a grocery loyalty card with extra muscle") and now the use of fingerprinting to prevent 'hoarding'.

"We are creating a biometric system … to function in all distribution and retail systems, public and private," Maduro said in a televised address on Wednesday. "This will be – like the fingerprint scan we use in our electoral system – a perfect anti-fraud system."

So what's the problem here? Essentially the problem is socialism and its adherents' belief that you can abolish the market. For what Venezuelans are doing is variously: buying cheap stuff in Venezuelan shops and taking it across the border for resale at the price it should have been or else simply reselling it to other Venezuelans. Either that or else not having bread, oil, flour or loo paper because there's none to buy in the shops.

We can laugh a little as we are reminded again that fixing the price and supply of basic goods - especially while indulging in an inflationary splurge of oil money on public infrastructure - really isn't a great way to manage the economy. We can make jokes about the stupidity of socialism and make fun of Venezuela's fans like sweet little Owen Jones. But we should not forget that the current leader of the UK's opposition supports price fixing - for energy prices, for train fares and probably for anything else that gets him the votes of the ignorant.

Socialism is lovely. It's adherents are often caring, sharing folk who want the world to be a better place. But, put into action, socialism results in poverty, unemployment, authoritarian government and shortages of life's essentials. The losers in all this are those without the connections or the wherewithal to survive - the very people that socialism claims to support - the poor. As one Venezuelan put it:

 "The rich people have things all hoarded away, and they pull the strings," said Juan Rodriguez, who waited two hours to enter the government-run Abastos Bicentenario supermarket near downtown Caracas on Monday, then waited three hours more to check out.

The terrible thing is that this man, having spent five hours getting basics at a supermarket, still believes the socialists when they blame the rich. It's good politics but, like those who want to blame immigrants, simply isn't true and those setting out the policies know that it isn't true. The fault here - and every time with socialism - rests with the government.

Every time socialism is tried - and Argentina is now having another go at it - it fails. Yet another generation of people who care about the poor, who hate America and believe business is exploitative will come along, get power and prove again that socialism doesn't work. The saddest thing here is that, as that man in the Caracas supermarket queue points out, the rich seldom lose out under socialism - it's the poor that lose out.

Socialists may often be lovely caring people. But socialism is evil.

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Friday, 22 August 2014

Today's public health lies...the Faculty of Public Health on rickets and malnutrition

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The Faculty of Public Health - a sort of training institute for health fascists - is on about rickets:

The Faculty of Public Health said conditions like rickets were becoming more apparent because people could not afford quality food in their diet.

This is of course the same Faculty of Public Health that urges us never to go out in the sunshine without first daubing ourselves in Factor 100 cream. And then we should only go out in the sun for a few fleeting moments or else we will all die a horrible death from skin cancers.

So what is it that causes rickets? Ah, yes! It's a lack of Vitamin D. And where does the Vitamin D come from:

The main sources of vitamin D are: 

Sunlight – your skin produces vitamin D when it is exposed to the sun. We get most of our vitamin D this way
Food – vitamin D is also found in some foods such as oily fish, eggs and fortified breakfast cereals. 

So rickets is caused by lack of a vitamin we get from going out in the sunshine, eating eggs and eating cornflakes. I don't think for a second that either eggs or cornflakes don't feature in the diet of most kids - so it's our obsession with covering children from head to toe to protect them from the sun that's causing the problem not 'food poverty'.  And I also know that the people from the Faculty of Public Health know this - indeed they could discover these fascinating truths from NHS Choices. They prefer instead to lie so as to make a political point.

Their second lie is a more subtle one, it's about malnutrition.

It comes after health figures recently revealed a 19% increase in the number of people admitted to hospital with malnutrition over the past year.

Now there has been a sharp increase in hospital admissions for malnutrition in the UK and this is something that should concern us. But, just like rickets, it really hasn't got very much to do with 'food poverty'. Rather, it is connected to changed diagnosis and to an increasing elderly population:

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.  

This makes a great deal more sense and tells us that perhaps we should be considering how to ensure that single elderly people living in the community are eating properly (and drinking enough fluid - dehydration is a common factor in cold-related deaths in older people). But again, it doesn't fit with the political agenda of the Faculty of Public Health - they want to have us believe that the problem is the result of welfare reform and rising food prices rather than more complex issues relating to an ageing society or the unintended consequence of public health campaigns around skin cancer.

What I get most annoyed about here is that public health professionals know full well what the underlying factors are for the increase in rickets and for the rising incidence of malnutrition but then chose to ignore these factors and make misleading claims - lies - about food poverty and ill-health. It may well be the case that many poorer people are eating a less than healthy diet but the figures on rickets and malnutrition do not tell us this - they have other causes.
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It's poverty not inequality that should concern us...

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Although Fraser Nelson falls foul of some factual errors (when will people stop using mortality statistics to say things like "a boy born in Liverpool is expected to live five years less than one born in Westminster" when it simply isn't true), he does get to the heart of a big challenge - poverty:

As our politicians enjoy summer drinks on Parliament’s terrace, they can hear Big Ben echoing from buildings in a part of the city that badly needs their help. But they will have known this for years, and grown inured to it. Our poverty is hiding in plain sight. 

And can we be clear about something else here - the issue isn't 'inequality' either it is simply and straightforwardly poverty. What we have allowed to happen, first with that pseudo-academic tract, "The Spirit Level" and now with the more substantive and rigorous work from Thomas Piketty is to replace concern about absolute conditions with concern about relative conditions - inequality is more important to policy-makers than poverty. More importantly, one specific and tightly-defined pair of inequalities are more important - income inequality and wealth inequality.

So other inequalities - of provision, of opportunity and of attention - are pushed aside by a torrent of largely purposeless debate about this king pair of inequalities. And the result of this is that the problem becomes systemic rather than personal, a concern of think tanks and sternly proclaimed generalisations rather than a question of what we do for the single mum trapped in a sink estate, the semi-orphan lad roaming the street half the night and the 50 plus bloke who finds no-one wants the skills he spent three decades perfecting. Instead, 'inequality' will be solved by an international wealth tax, more income redistribution, clamping down on big businesses dodging taxes and generally squeezing the rich until blood drips from their pips.

The assumption in all this debate - the premise of "The Spirit Level" - is that if we fix inequality of income and/or wealth (it's not always clear) then, as if by magic, that poverty will disappear. Well I've a message for the inequality campaigners - it really ain't that simple. And instead of fussing about Gini Coefficients and such guffle, we should fuss about developing proposals that really do help get people out of poverty. In the short term we can (and do) redirect money and other resource so, in the main, people do not go without. The problem is that, as the foodbank story shows, this system of redistribution doesn't work very well.

The solution is not to have the poverty in the first place and to do this we must recognise that some people get into such a tangle - "chaotic lifestyles" as the  jargon would have it - that they lose the capacity and ability to escape. And into such tangles of poverty, addiction, crime and ill-health are drawn whole families. Bradford's 'Families First' programme (part of the wider government-supported 'troubled families' programme) has successfully supported over 1000 families getting important changes and a little bit of order - kids attending school regularly, the right medical support and intervention to address addictions. People's lives aren't transformed and this isn't a fairy tale where Eric the Good Witch waves his wand and everything is fine. But from a situation where the only expectation would be grinding poverty, ill-health, the courts and the mortuary slab, we now have for some of the most troubled people some degree of hope.

None of this is about inequality. Making the wealthy less wealthy won't sort out the problems of these families. We should be talking about poverty - whatever Fraser Nelson may say, the fact of living in Southwark doesn't make you live less long than living in Westminster. What make people live less long and the reasons they end up in places with the worst housing and the highest crime is because they are poor.

Fraser Nelson is right when he points to the impact of better schools - the entire purpose of Michael Gove's campaigning leadership - on poor communities. We can be cheered by the incredible performance of places like King Solomon Academy in central London but what we can't afford is to let go the mission to see every school aspire to those standards. It is the best hope for those people living in poverty.

But in the meantime we have to do more about that poverty. Not by taking money from one set of people to spread around another set. Not by making out that the problem is greater than it is so as to make a cheap political point about inequality. Rather it's about actions that reduce poverty. And about stopping those things that make poverty worse - levies that increase the price of fuel, tariffs that make food more expensive, business rates that drive retail out from poor communities and public health policies that demonise the poor's choices.

But first for Conservatives it is time to start talking about poverty. And to start that conversation by saying that it is poverty that should concern us not inequality.

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Wednesday, 20 August 2014

...you're never too old (unless you want a new career).

How some employers see the 55-year old job applicant


James Delingpole has been indulging in some middle-aged angst:

...I wanted to muse a little on the career choices I’ve made and on the regrets that now haunt me as a result. Fellow nearly-fiftysomethings — and post-fiftysomethings — will I’m sure understand where I’m coming from. Time is running out and the options are closing by the day.

The funny thing is that there is no obvious reason why James' options - playing high-level sport and ballet dancing aside - need to be closed off. James still has all his faculties and is likely to enjoy his role as 'king of right wing snark' for another 25 years allowing that accident or ill-fate doesn't intervene. Yet our culture tells James that the evenings are closing in and that soon he will need to think about stairlifts, comfortable footwear and elasticated slacks.

The real issue here is one about careers and whether it is possible for someone to change horses once they've passed some arbitrary milestone - 45, 50, 55. It seems that the possibility of doing so diminishes - not because people do not have the capacity, capability or drive to change career post-50 but because society sees this as a slightly odd thing to do. This isn't the same as someone deciding to take redundancy from their mid-ranking professional or managerial position and set up a 'lifestyle busines' carving walking sticks or giving talks about Cretan ruins to cruise passengers. Rather it's about someone deciding to change career - so, in my case, I might opt to retrain as a town planner and call an end to the joys of politics or marketing.

The problems are two-fold - firstly employers don't believe you when you start again at the bottom of the heap and secondly a manager won't want to take on somebody older then they are (this is a visceral remnant of the respect for elders that we were brought up to believe in). That manager rationalises his ageism by saying to himself that the older person wouldn't fit in - "everyone in the office is under 35" our  manager would mumble to himself, "it just wouldn't work". Or else - and worse - the employer might explain away his bias by saying that the older person wouldn't be up-to-speed with modern technology. In my world of marketing all that 'digital' stuff needs young people doesn't it? What would some balding, old-time planner know about 'social media' or 'SEO'?

There is no earthly reason why a twenty-three year old should better understand digital media strategy (or anything else for that matter) than a fifty-three year old. Yet that is precisely what people making employment decisions will do, just as they will dismiss a thirty year career in another field as somehow irrelevant to the appointment decision. Essentially because they don't want to appoint an 'old' person.

We have to stop doing this for some very important reasons. Firstly the government now expects us to work to 67 and it's only a matter of time before we are expected to work to 70. Moreover this expectation is compounded by the pillage visited on private pensions by the greed and selfishness of governments. And secondly, there will be fewer young people available to fill all those jobs (and perhaps - at least in my field of marketing - an appreciation that, if the market consists mostly of older people it might be an idea to employ some older people who might understand better how that market works).

James Delingpole can rely on people like me punching the air with delight at his right-wing polemic but for others there's the prospect that the world doesn't want what they do any more. And if those people want to change and become town planners, marketing folk or digital advertising sales people then perhaps employers need to consider how to make it work. Not just because of that classic piece of lunatic New Labour legislation, the Equalities Act (which makes age a protected characteristic) but because those employers are missing out on some excellent people because they'd rather have a bunch of 25 year old recent graduates to boss about than a more questioning set of folk with twenty or thirty years of fascinating experience to bring to the job at hand.

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Tuesday, 19 August 2014

The causes of bad policing...

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Since I'm going to write about rioting I shall start with an important caveat - when everything has been said and done riots are the fault of the rioter. There may be mitigation, perhaps a little explanation but there is never excuse. I remember Bradford's riots - thirteen years ago now but still a pretty vivid memory for many who recall what it was like:

Ilyas was captured on police cameras wearing an Afro-style wig and throwing burning cardboard through a broken window of Manningham Labour Club while 23 people were inside.  The club was burned to the ground after petrol bombs were thrown by a group of Asian youths.

That is the reality of riot as much as is the grievance that set light to the trouble. We should not forget this regardless of how we view the events that follow the riot. And we should remember that not everyone participating in the riot is doing so for reasons of protest - as we know from London's riots there are some who see the opportunity disturbance presents for a little light looting.

However all this doesn't explain or excuse another factor in the cause of protest and in escalating that protest to riot - bad policing. Here's a bit of an illustration in the words of NFL player, David Bass a native of Ferguson, Missouri:

“I was 15 and one of my best friends had just got a car from his mom, a white Lincoln, and he picked up my brother and I to go to The Loop. When we parked there were police behind us, and next thing you know, there are about 10 police cars surrounding us. They’re screaming, ‘Stay in the car! Keep your hands up! Hand over your IDs.’ People are starting to gather to watch. They took 45 minutes searching the car while we sat on the sidewalk."
 
I don't know whether Bass's memories exaggerate but, even if the incident was half as big it is still an unnecessary over-reaction from the police. An over-reaction that presages what has happened in Ferguson over recent days. A response that is all about bad policing and maybe a little bit of racism too.

But why is this? Why do police - whether in Bradford, in London or in a suburb of St Louis - get their actions so wrong? I've observed before that the police act too often as some sort of occupying army rather than the agents of a community protecting that community. Here in Bradford we have huge barracks with small windows looming over poor communities. Not just the buildings but the police vehicles and even the police are bristling with antennae and, when there's a disturbance it almost seems as if there's an excitement in the quasi-military response to riot.

And from what we've seen, the USA has even more of a problem - a police force now armed to the teeth on the back of false fears about terrorism. This militarising of the police - in terms of equipment and operations is what, in part, creates the tension between a poor community and the police whose job is to protect that community. Plus the fact that, regardless of the additional tension that stems from racial difference, those police officers are no from that community. Here in Bradford there are probably no police officers living in West Bowling or on the Allerton estate - like the social workers and community developers the police live elsewhere and visit just to ply their trade.
 
The second cause of bad policing is the tendency to see everything out of the ordinary as a threat to order - whether it's people saying unpleasant things on Twitter, folk gathering to protest some perceived injustice or simply the reaction to a crime or spate of crimes. And since "something must be done" us politicians respond with regulations that give the police more powers - we criminalise harmless possession, define disorder is such a way as to make almost any public action arrestable and we make the definition of 'anti-social behaviour' so wide as to provide the police with the power to make criminal things that even the politicians haven't defined as criminal.
 
As a result of these powers coupled with an aggressive quasi-military approach, we have replaced the idea of policing by consent with a different approach - policing as social control. With each additional power the business of law enforcement becomes less PC Dixon and more Judge Dredd with the police exercising almost arbitrary power underwritten by compliant magistrates and legislation so broadly defined as to remove any ability for peaceful resistance to the orders of a police officer.

In the end society has to respond to riot, looting and violence because decent people expect us to do just that. But we also need to ask whether tear gas, water cannon and armoured vehicles are the best way to respond. For my part I'm not sure they are the right approach since they reflect a macho, testosterone-fuelled response to disorder and merely act to build up resentment, grievance and the seeds of future disorder.
 
We need to return to the idea of policing by consent and rediscover real community policing - not merely as an operational strategy but as the entire purpose of policing. We do not need huge barracks where the brass hats dish out the orders for the day in some sort of war room. Rather we need what we lost - local police based in local police stations, the sort of places with a welcoming blue light over the door and police officers with familiar faces seen every day - more akin to Officer Krupke than to today's flak-jacketed cop with his face hidden in a helmet.

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