Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Oxford - more evidence social work is not accountable


Inevitably the finger will point at those in high authority (and this is always right - if you doubt this read Lord Carrington's letter) but there is, for me, a much deeper malaise in social services. Perhaps it relates to the way in which social workers are taught or trained - my feeling is that the left wing sociology dominating social work courses, a sort of Heinz Kiosk "we are all guilty" approach, has contributed. But there's no doubt we have a problem and the Serious Case Review into grooming and abuse in Oxford reminds us (it should also remind us that the problem isn't party political - Oxfordshire has a Tory leadership after all):

Blyth said that from 2005-10 there was sufficient knowledge about the girls, drugs and prostitution and their association with adult men to have generated a rigorous and strategic response from police and social workers.

This knowledge included many “worrying” warning signs over a number of years involving more than one girl, multiple alleged perpetrators, who were usually Pakistani, and a strong association with children in care. But this was not passed on to the highest levels of management or acted upon until 2011, when police and social services finally started to piece together the organised grooming and sexual exploitation.

So for perhaps as long as six years, social workers in Oxford simply allowed what was happening to carry on. The abuse was in front of their eyes but was not seen as a problem worth reporting to senior management.  This may be true but it must raise serious questions about supervision, management and appraisal within Oxfordshire social services. And at the heart of this is a culture that - as the report makes clear - tolerated under age sex and seemed not to understand that, in UK law, having sex with a minor is always a crime.

However, the fundamental problem here is that authorities simply believed there was nothing that either could - or in some cases even needed to - be done:

The fact that scores of professionals from numerous disciplines, and tens of organisations or departments, took a long time to recognise CSE, used language that appeared at least in part to blame victims and see them as adults, and had a view that little could be done in the face of ‘no cooperation’ demonstrates that the failures were common to organisational systems.

The shock of the public at failings of this sort has begun to change how local authorities view child sexual exploitation and, in particular, the situation where that exploitation involved girls in their mid-teens. Every example of street grooming throws up the same limitations - girls making complaints then withdrawing them, other girls denying there's any problem and the police or social services not following through where they know the situation is exploitative.

In the end (which is the point Lord Carrington made) accountability is absolute. But this means that political leadership in social services needs to be clear - it isn't because successive national governments and the social work profession has undermined it - and prepared to challenge the decision-making of professionals. I don't think, for example, that the leadership of Oxfordshire County Council would consider underage sex as something to be tolerated, to be understood, yet that is precisely the view taken by those acting on that leadership's authority.

The problem in the police is less clear. The move to Police and Crime Commissioners should act in time to make accountability clearer but the situation remains that the police are simply not accountable - in corporate terms - for their operation decisions. We have seen local councillors in Rotherham resigning. Senior council officers resigning. The elected police and crime commissioners for South Yorkshire (eventually) resigned. Yet not one senior police officer in the South Yorkshire force has gone despite so many of the poor decisions and service failures landing at that force's door.

This situation is a reminder of what you get - and let this be a warning to NHS campaigners - when you allow public services to operate without effective political scrutiny. Yet this is the reality across many of our locally delivered services - there is either no realistic scrutiny or else (as with response to child sexual exploitation) scrutiny is simply not possible or even allowed.


Monday, 2 March 2015

Things famous economist, Brad Delong says that are utterly wrong...


Brad Delong is a famous economist. He wrote this - it is utterly wrong:

And yet there are few signs that working- and middle-class Americans are living any better than they did 35 years ago.

Does this man - who was a top advisor to Bill Clinton and is Chair of Economics at a leading US university - really believe this for a second?

We - and I include working and middle class Americans in all this - are living much better than we were 35 years ago. This is a fact - back in 1980 let's consider what we didn't have that all those middle-class Americans take for granted now:

The Internet and the World Wide Web
Mobile phones - indeed 'smartphones' that are really little computers
Microwave ovens
Satellite navigation and mapping
Instant payment by card
Home delivery for groceries

Feel free to add to this list - there are literally thousands of things we didn't dream of having back in 1980. And then consider those things people had back then but which are vastly better today - cars, washing machines, vacuum cleaners, hair products, music reproduction, telephones, air travel and central heating to name just a few. Our domestic machines are faster, more fuel efficient, have more capacity, better features and cost relative less than they did back in 1980.

And this is before we get to things like food, fuel and travel being cheaper relative to income. The only big black mark is housing. And nearly all of that is down to the stupidity of big government idiots like Delong.

To put this simply, Brad Delong is talking (not for the first time) complete drivel.


Local councils, grassroots football and the TV money...


The Local Government Association, in the guise of Cllr Ian Stephens, chair of the LGA's Culture, Tourism and Sport Board, is worrying about the state of 'grassroots football':

‘There is an ever-widening chasm between the grassroots game, which is being allowed to wither away by the football authorities through pitiful investment, and elite football.'

And there's no doubt that this comment responds to a popular perception about the game - that the huge sums in TV rights and sponsorships aren't trickling down to those grassroots with the result that England's national team is rubbish. As ever, I suspect this is a case of the LGA looking for a source of funding for its parks departments.

But first let's look at that withering grassroots in English football:

Over 7m people play football on a weekly basis and they are supported by 400,000 volunteers, 300,000 coaches and 27,000 referees who give up their time to keep the game going.

There are some issues - more adults (and a thriving market) now prefer to play 5-a-side football and there is the perennial problem of having enough qualified coaches and referees not to mention people to do the dull old job of collecting subs and playing fees, registering players, organising fixtures and ensuring that, come Sunday morning there's a game for the team to play.

The Football Association spends a lot of money (much of which comes from those TV rights and sponsorships) on supporting grassroots football - around £50 million every year directly into supporting and developing all that local club football with a further £50 million spent on other development programmes. On top of this is a similar amount invested by the Premier League - along with the FA through the Football Foundation plus supporting the community programmes of individual clubs. This latter activity plus investment in other community sport (and an overseas programme) will see some £138 million invested by the Premier League in community sport. In its total three-year programme the Premier League will spend over £200 million on the grassroots of football.

It may be the case that more could be spent but to suggest that the grassroots of English football are withering away is pretty much untrue. The truth is that more money is now spent on developing football than has ever been spent. Those glory days when West Ham won the world cup for England were not brought about by investment in grassroots football because the infrastructure was all in place - even the cubs and scouts had extensive and organised leagues or cup competition.

The English Schools Football Association (ECFA) reports that 6,432 teams were entered into its competitions - this includes boys, girls and mixed teams. To provide some context, there are around 24,000 maintained schools in England suggesting to me that the biggest change in English football since 1966 hasn't been the lack of support for the game from the top teams or the big leagues but rather the collapse of competitive school football.

The Liberal Democrats recently call for 5% of the money from the Premier League's TV deal to go into the 'grassroots'. The new deal - the biggest ever - is for £5.136 billion over three years. Just so we're clear, 5% of this is £256.8 million. Under the current smaller deal the Premier League will invest over £200 million in grassroots football, community sport and the development of local football infrastructure.

What we're seeing here from the LGA - pig ignorance aside - is a crass bid for the FA and the Premier League to give local councils money:

The LGA said if the money invested in local pitches was increased and administered by local councils, it could help councils build upon grassroots initiatives.
This isn't about grassroots football at all. It's about local council budget choices.

Saturday, 28 February 2015

Does the public sector see some complainants as trolls?


Or something along those lines. Lawrence Serewicz explores this question asking whether the easy way in which the public sector leaps to use the word 'vexatious' in closing off the ability of the public to complain about how that public sector treats us:

The public sector in the UK, which has to do the same or more with a reduced budget, has sought way to limit those customers that take up the most time. These customers were often called “problem customers” or “serial complainers” who, for any number of reasons, take up the organisation’s time and resources. They are considered persistent, prolific, or vexatious applicants and organisations, and their customer services, need a way to deal with them. The preferred approach appears to be to declare them vexatious. Once declared vexatious, the organisation can refuse them services, reduce them or manage them in a specific way.

I suspect Lawrence has a point here - he cites the easy avoidance of Freedom of Information Requests (a good illustration being this one) as a good example of how public bodies avoid what might be seen as their responsibility under the law. As a Councillor I have a little bit of sympathy for public bodies - they can't ignore enquiries or complaints but after the twentieth iteration of the same question it can get to be a little galling. Partly this is because it's not a lack of  'customer service' that drives someone to submit over 50 enquiries about the use of around £120 of council resource (in the case I'm thinking of the motivation might be called the 'politics of vengeance').

However, Lawrence's point is a good one and reminds us that most of the time it's those in authority that hold the cards, can call the cops (and have those cops respond) and are often minded to act to protect their own rather than seek to resolve public grievance.


Friday, 27 February 2015

Friday Fungus: Duet for slime mould and piano

Slime mould is pretty weird stuff. But I never saw its musical genius coming:

A duet for slime mould and piano will be premiered at an arts festival this weekend, giving new meaning to the term "culture".

Festival director and musician Eduardo Miranda has put the decomposition into composition: his new work uses cultures of the fungus Physarum polycephalum.

This mould is the core component of an interactive biocomputer, which receives sound signals and sends back responses.

The result is a musical duet between the fungus and Prof Miranda, on piano.

"The composition, Biocomputer Music, evolves as an interaction between me as a human playing the piano, and the Physarum machine," Prof Miranda told the BBC's Inside Science programme. 

I'm sure we'll find out what the slime sounds like in due course.


Urban agriculture - the latest green indulgence

Jane Jacobs argued in The Economy of Cities that agriculture was a consequence of urbanism not, as is commonly held, the reverse. Jacobs' argument was that settled communities developed in places where there was plenty of food and people in those cities began cultivating gardens and experimenting with growing rather than gathering food.

The problem is that, so far as archaeological investigation allows, this is not the case:

In The Economy of Cities, Jane Jacobs conjectured that the world's first cities preceded the origins of agriculture, a proposition that was most recently revived by Peter Taylor in the pages of this journal. Jacobs' idea was out of line with extant archaeological findings when first advanced decades ago, and it remains firmly contradicted by a much fuller corpus of data today. After a review of how and why Jacobs formulated her ‘cities first’ model, we review current archaeological knowledge from the Near East, China and Mesoamerica to document the temporal precedence of agriculture before urbanism in each of these regions. Contrary to the opinions of Jacobs and Taylor, archaeological data are in fact sufficiently robust to reconstruct patterns of diet, settlement and social organization in the past, and to assign dates to the relevant sites. 

This isn't to say that urban living isn't an important driver of invention and innovation but rather to observe that, however appealing, the idea that the countryside is sclerotic and trapped in an unchanging stasis wholly misrepresents agriculture and agricultural innovation. This doesn't stop urban designers, wrapped in green ideas, wanting to recreate that mythical urban agriculture. In one respect this represents the dream of having and eating the urban cake - we want the things that a large city offers in terms of variety, culture and opportunity as well as the bucolic charms of the countryside.

A team led by Perkins+Will and the LA River Corp just released the results of its Urban Agriculture Study for the area, which borders the LA River and gritty neighborhoods such as Chinatown, Cypress Park, Lincoln Heights, and Glassell Park. Funded by State Proposition 84, the study zeroes in on agriculture projects that can both attract green developers and serve local needs. Pilot projects are set to start this spring, and some related infrastructure has already begun. Other members of the team include community outreach partner GDML, urban agriculture expert Jesse Dubois, and financing consultants PFAL.

The proposals are financed through a bond intended for "safe drinking water, water quality and supply, flood control, waterway and natural resource protection, water pollution and contamination control, state and local park improvements, public access to natural resources, and water conservation efforts", and represent the usual smoke and mirrors associated with multi-agency urban environmentalism. At the heart of the project's rationale is the idea that the current model of agriculture less than environmentally optimal especially given the geographical distance between production and consumption.

However, the carbon footprint of food is overwhelmingly in its production rather than in its distribution - and this is why, in environmental terms, urban agriculture is a bad idea. This LA scheme illustrates the problem with its proposed production model:

Because the neighborhood has few greenfields, and could potentially have ground and air contamination, the plan suggests largely “controlled agriculture,” with internally regulated techniques like hydroponics, aquaponics, and greenhouses.

So rather than grow the food in a more-or-less natural environment, we opt instead for the use of high-cost, high-carbon 'controlled agriculture', for a world of high specification, architect-designed greenhouses rather than dull old fields with crops growing in them.

The proposers of the scheme also recognise that urban agriculture - other than for particular high margin markets - makes little or no economic sense either. They don't quite put it this way but that's what they're saying:

The study also suggests developing alternative financing methods, and in order to begin implementation, the team is now talking to non-profit partners like EnrichLA, which builds gardens in green spaces in local schools; Goodwill, which has a large training center in the area; Homeboy Industries, which runs a training and education program for at-risk youth; and arts group Metabolic Studio. The team is also meeting with local schools, food processing centers (like LA Prep), and government entities such as the Housing Authority of Los Angeles.

Nowhere in this is there any of that old-fashioned financing and this is because those old sort of investors (the ones without big charitable trust funds or taxpayers' cash in their piggy banks) look at urban agriculture and conclude that it simply isn't viable. We're getting a lot of very expensive infrastructure intended to grow food that right now is available cheaply and readily in the local supermarket having been grown in fields elsewhere in the world. More to the point those investors will look at the land being taken for this inefficient and expensive agriculture and ask questions like "wouldn't it be better to build houses with gardens?"

Indeed it's this question of land values - made worse in California by their very limiting planning system - that makes that urban agriculture uneconomic. Here's Pierre Desrochers describing the end of Parisian urban agriculture:

Urban agriculture in Paris and elsewhere quickly faded away at the turn of the twentieth century. The development of new technologies such as the railroad, refrigeration and improved fertilizers made it possible to grow food much more cheaply where nature provided more sunshine, heat, water and better soils. The movers and shakers in more profitable industries that benefitted from an urban location were willing and able to pay more for land while urban agricultural workers moved in ever-increasing numbers into more lucrative manufacturing operations. These realities haven’t changed. Urban farming simply does not create enough return on investment from scarce capital relative to other activities in cities.

Urban agriculture - whether grand schemes such as this one in California or local schemes such as Incredible Edible in Todmorden - is an indulgence rather than some form of environmental salvation let alone a viable economic proposition. And don't get me wrong here, if communities want to invest in these things - to collectivise the vegetable patch so to speak - that's great. Surrounding ourselves with living and growing things helps make the urban environment more pleasing - indeed there's nothing new about urban greenery:

According to accounts, the gardens were built to cheer up Nebuchadnezzar's homesick wife, Amyitis. Amyitis, daughter of the king of the Medes, was married to Nebuchadnezzar to create an alliance between the two nations. The land she came from, though, was green, rugged and mountainous, and she found the flat, sun-baked terrain of Mesopotamia depressing. The king decided to relieve her depression by recreating her homeland through the building of an artificial mountain with rooftop gardens. 

The world is improved by parks, gardens and we get joy from planting and growing but the prosaic industry of growing, producing and distributing the food needed to feed the world's billions isn't about that joy or pleasure but rather about hard economics facts. And one of those hard economic facts is that cities aren't the place for growing our food.


Thursday, 26 February 2015

Corruption in government. How bad can it get?


This is Chicago, Illinois:

Thirty-three Chicago aldermen and former aldermen have been convicted and gone to jail since 1973. Two others died before they could be tried. Since 1928 there have been only fifty aldermen serving in the council at any one time. Fewer than two hundred men and women have served in the Chicago city council since the 1970’s, so the federal crime rate in the council chamber is higher than in the most dangerous ghetto in the city.

This is the city that spawned Barak Obama:

Just look at who President Obama hired as top staff members. Daley fundraiser Rahm Emanuel served as Chief of Staff. Mayor Daley’s brother William followed him as Chief of Staff.  Another powerful figure is Mayor Daley’s deputy Chief of Staff, Valerie Jarret. The head of the less than successful Chicago Public School system, Arne Duncan, got promoted Secretary of Education. Chicago machine donor and housing fraudster Penny Pritzker got appointed to Secretary of Commerce. 

I make no comparisons in the UK. I can't think of a place as comprehensively corrupt. I fear though that the decline in mass membership political parties and the 'one-party' nature of some places means that a mafia or brotherhood could capture one of our great cities or counties.