Where is our Assembly member when we need him?

Lib Dems have been campaigning for years for improvements to the crossings and lights at the corner of the Hook Centre. It has been a huge struggle because the Hook Road is managed by Transport for London, not by Kingston Council, so the local councillors have no direct influence. And it has not been helped by the complete lack of action by the person who represents us on the London Assembly.

To start with the problem - well, two problems, actually.

When the traffic lights were installed at the junction of Elm Road with Hook Road, they did not include pedestrian lights, which means that at no time is there a pause to allow pedestrians to cross Elm Road. Now this is on a busy walking route between the shops on the one side, and the Hook Centre and St Paul's school on the other.

The route across Elm Road was made even more dangerous in a way that is not really obvious until you try to cross it. There are dropped kerbs and a central refuge which indicate where you should cross, but if you stand waiting you cannot see any of the actual traffic lights in any direction. So you do not know what colour they are. You simply have to look at the traffic and try to guess what is about to move next.

When I was a councillor I brought this up regularly with Kingston's traffic engineers, and they did their best to persuade TfL to look at it, but it was always dismissed as a minor problem. And why was it considered a minor problem? Well, because no-one had been killed or seriously injured there.

I'm afraid it took a fatality to get them to listen to our concerns.

But I now need to explain the second problem. The Hook Road is, of course, much busier than Elm Road. The traffic lights in Hook Road at the Hook Road/Elm Road junction were designed to make it safe for vehicles turning in or out of Elm Road. The main pedestrian crossing across Hook Road is just 50 yards away so I do understand why they did not install another pedestrian crossing across Hook Road at this point.

But for years people have taking the risk and crossing the Hook Road between the Hook Centre and the Lucky Rover. I have seen elderly folk walking very slowly across after the lights have changed and two lanes of traffic are ready to move. There have been accidents, but the worst one resulted in the death of Mike Cowley, a local man known to many of us.

That tragic accident happened four years ago. I was Chair of the Neighbourhood then so I made sure that TfL were contacted immediately. Eventually, we persuaded them to carry out a feasibility study of the junction, which they did. But nothing followed for ages.

Now at last, after persistent questioning from the councillors, TfL have promised that they will carry out the improvements. Proper pedestrian crossings will be installed across both Hook and Elm Roads.

But why has it taken so long? Haven't we got an elected member of the London Assembly who should be acting on our behalf?

Yes, we do, but you could be forgiven for not knowing who he is. His name is Tony Arbour and he has been the London Assembly member for SW London for 12 years. I have never seen him around here, except at election time. He never makes contact with the local councillors, who are the people who know what is going on.

You might think that representing a constituency that covers the boroughs of Kingston, Richmond and Hounslow would be a full-time job. But Tony Arbour is also a councillor in Richmond, where he is a Cabinet member. Indeed, for four of those 12 years he was Leader of the Council.

Now when I was a Cabinet member (known as an Executive member in Kingston) I reckoned it took around 50 hours a week to do the job properly. It's no wonder he doesn't have the time to work for the residents of Chessington and Hook.

Notes

London Assembly members are each paid £53,439.

In Richmond in 2010-11, the Leader of the Council received an allowance of £33,515. Cabinet members received £17,648.

What should a Liberal Democrat do when a friend and political colleague becomes a Cabinet minister?

Lib Dems don't do status - we don't use titles, just first names all round. Lib Dems don't do power either; to be precise we are embarrassed by it.

One hundred years of identifying ourselves as radical, anti-establishment, even quasi-anarchist, has meant that being thrust into Coalition Government has created all kinds of conflicts and tensions within the party. I'm not just talking about the sometimes fraught relationship between Conference reps, the Federal Policy Committee, and the parliamentary teams - complicated as that is - no, I'm referring to the internal struggle that all Lib Dems experience (or perhaps should experience) when faced with power.

Of course, the issues have been played out already over the last 30 years or so in town and county halls across the land. As Lib Dems have gained control of Councils we have had to face the challenges of using that power responsibly. It's uncomfortable, for a start. Many of us would prefer being in opposition, where we can tear into the administration without the need to actually put together a coherent policy programme.

But controlling Council groups have gradually learned to distinguish what is feasible from what is merely desirable or crowd-pleasing. They have achieved some real successes which have both improved the lives of residents and made the places where they live more liberal and more democratic.

However, they are not always good at communicating those successes to the population at large, nor even to their own members. Sometimes they are accused of spending far too much time in meetings when they should be knocking on doors and campaigning on the ground - and indeed that may well be true.

But the fact remains that councillors are elected to make life better for their electors, and this can often only be achieved, when in power, through lengthy negotiations in meetings. I think back to some of the campaigns that I was involved in when I was a councillor - for the Hook Centre, pedestrian crossings nearby (about to happen, at last!), a new bus for pupils attending Hinchley Wood, funding for the new Chessington Community College, childrens' centres at Castle Hill and Lovelace schools, the medical centre in Merritt Gardens - all of these were brought to fruition through many hours spent, by me and my colleagues, in committees and meetings with council officers.

And yet some party members might have thought that I had gone over to the dark side, by being drawn into the internal politics of the Guildhall and aligning myself with the establishment. I worked hard to avoid that, to always maintain an edginess, to remind myself that I represented the people to the Council, not the other way round.

Here is the dilemma for Liberal Democrats. We are conscious of the dangers of power, so we tend to talk down those who have it, rather than grasp the opportunities it brings. We do not wish to become part of the establishment, but we find that we have to work with and through large institutions in order to bring about change. We dislike conformity to the extent that it is written into our constitution, yet we have to work within the constraints of formal decision-making processes to achieve anything.

All this is a long preamble to a statement about Edward Davey and his new role. On the one hand I am ridiculously pleased for him. And I know him for a decent, stable person who will not let it go to his head.

On the other hand, can the rest of us understand and cope with proximity to real power?

Roger Hayes - our local hero

An article by Mark Pack on Liberal Democrat Voice has sent me back to my blog again. Mark does an occasional series on local liberal heroes and yesterday he wrote a delightful piece about our own Roger Hayes.

If you don't know Roger then I should start by mentioning that he was the agent behind the Lib Dems recent victory in Surbiton Hill, our success in the local elections in 2010, and the re-election of Edward Davey to Parliament, and ... (the list could go back some way). He has also been Leader of Kingston Council, councillor and Parliamentary candidate.

Mark writes:

"Roger Hayes is an unusual sort of dedicated community campaigner in Liberal Democrat ranks. Whilst he is certainly devoted to the communities he has stood to represent, rather than spending long periods of time in just the one area he has been a councillor in four different wards, three in Kingston and one in the Isle of Wight. He has also, by his own choice, been an on and off councillor, with three separate stretches as a councillor, each time standing down of his own volition."

Read the rest of the article here.

Well deserved, Roger!

Communities taking and using power: Kingston's contribution on community politics at Conference

Kingston Liberal Democrats submitted an amendment (amendment 2) to a motion on Community Politics at Conference this week. The motion was put forward by our Party President, Tim Farron MP, and our amendment was passed unanimously.

This is my speech:


When Tim Farron asked Kingston Liberal Democrats to support this motion we were initially very pleased that Community Politics was once again taking its central place in the party’s narrative.

But Kingston did not sign the original motion because - in the time honoured phrase – it did not go far enough.

Before I talk about what is in amendment 2, I want to mention what isn’t in it.

A substantial part of our amendment was deleted by Federal Conference Committee on the grounds that it could be better dealt with by questions at future conferences.

The deleted points were a list of actions that we wanted the Federal Policy Committee, the Federal Conference Committee, the Federal Exec, the Federal Finance and Administration Committee and the Party President to commit to.

There is a real danger that we will all assent to this motion, and go away with a lovely warm feeling about community politics, but that our practices, as a party and as individuals, will not change.

So we give notice that at conferences next year we will be asking questions about the steps taken by party bodies to achieve the aspirations in lines 31 to 49.

To return to amendment 2.

Kingston believes in Community Politics.

We encourage public participation at every level of decision making.

Years ago we devolved everything we could to Neighbourhoods (known elsewhere as Area Committees), including the relevant budgets. Community plans are drawn up by local communities; public assets are managed by communities.

We developed strong relationships with our community partners, long before we learnt to use that term.

As a result of our experience we felt that some of the wording of the motion was not brave enough.

Line 33 of the motion claims that our role as political activists is to “help organise people”.

That is too top-down in tone, hence we suggest that our role should be to “help empower, enable and encourage people in communities to take and use power”

We proposed adding in a new point:

"Conference calls for ... The principle of subsidiarity to be adopted by elected representatives at all levels of government, ensuring that decision-making is devolved to the lowest feasible, democratically accountable level".


Our new point refers to subsidiarity.

The party gives very little guidance on local government.

Yes, we have advice about leadership, about running a group, about working with officers, but the really important stuff – how to build a liberal democracy at local level – is left to us to work out on our own.

This extra point gets us started on the right path.

We then proposed a change to point 3 in the motion:

"Conference calls for ... Politicians at all levels of the party to ensure dialogue with the communities they serve through 'pavement politics' including: residents surveys, street surgeries, public meetings and effective use of social media."

so that it reads:

"Conference calls for ... Politicians at all levels of the party to listen and respond to the communities they serve by engaging with community groups and by seeking out those without advocates, and to ensure dialogue and personal contact through 'pavement politics' including: residents surveys, street surgeries, public meetings and effective use of social media."M/p>


And finally, we deal with point 3 in the motion. This does give the impression that Community Politics is about the specific techniques labelled pavement politics.

To quote from The Theory and Practice of Community Politics:

“Community Politics is not a technique. It is an ideology, a system of ideas for social transformation.”

Communities have lives of their own independent of us.

It is not enough to set up and control a process of dialogue, we should be embedded in our communities, listening to our neighbours where they are, and identifying the voiceless.

Ed Davey at Party Conference

I have just been listening to Ed Davey give a major platform speech in Birmingham.

He talked about three major new policies that he is implementing as Minister.

First, he made it clear that no more post offices would close. Labour actually closed more POs than Margaret Thatcher, which is shameful for a Labour Government which was supposed to stand up for the disadvantaged.

He then announced that he has plans to make post offices the 'front desk for Government, national and local". This is an excellent plan to breathe life back into Post Offices and once again give them a role at the core of our communities.

And Post Offices Ltd is to become a mutual - that is a company owned by its workers not by its shareholders.

Second, he went on to talk about his scheme to allow parents to divide up parental leave as they see fit. So maternity and paternity leave will be combined into one and the couple will be able to choose who takes what and when.

Finally he spoke about the appointment of a Supermarket Adjudicator, who will stand up for the rights of consumers and farmers againgst the often unfair and price-fixing practices of the big supermarkets.

A great speech, delivered with fervour and conviction.

Another day, another phone scam - this one from Nerd-i about my 'faulty' PC

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Today I had a second phone call from someone telling me that my computer was faulty. The first time I got this call, a couple of weeks ago, I must have sounded suspicious because they put the phone down on me.

This time I decided to play naive and let them take me through the spiel. The caller told me that he 'knew' that my computer had more than 1000 faults and that it might crash at any time. He rather spoilt his line by then asking if I had a computer, but I ignored that and battled on. He said he would show me the problems.

First he told me to go to Start and click on Run, then enter eventvwr. This launches the Event Viewer and is a perfectly safe thing to do. I was then to click on Applications and notice how many errors there were.

As it happens this did alert me to a problem with my backup service, but I didn't tell him that. Apart from that there were in fact very few errors, but even if there had been more I imagine they would have been perfectly normal events.

Next came the dodgy bit. I was instructed to go to Run again then key in a web address. This is highly dangerous and no-one should do it. I wrote down the web address he gave me (but I will not share it with you) and asked him what would happen if I typed it in. He said it would allow me to access some remote software which would fix the problem.

Aha!! I explained that I would take some advice before going to a strange website because I was afraid of downloading viruses - I didn't tell him that I was more concerned about downloading spyware that might access my personal data. Not surprisingly he assured me that there wouldn't be any viruses.

I still said that I would not go to a strange website so he tried another tactic. This time I was to Run and enter msconfig. Once again, this is perfectly safe and launches the System Configuration Utility. Now I wouldn't advise anyone to make any changes to this utility unless they know what they are doing, but no harm can come from looking at it.

I was told to click on the Services tab and then look at how many applications were logged as 'stopped'. He told me that these were all applications that were needed by the computer and without them the PC would crash.

Total nonsense, of course. Applications which are stopped are just that - applications that have been running and are no longer needed.

At that point I had heard enough, so I asked him the name of his company, which he spelt out for me: Nerd-i. I repeated my story about not going to unknown websites and said goodbye.

Then I started googling. Nerd-i also crops up as Nerd Support Services and The Nerd Support, with plenty of complaints about its methods. Here is one warning from PCPro: Pensioner targeted by fake virus phone scam. It seems that they charge £185 for providing a so-called solution to the non-existent problem, presumably through a simple process of clearing out the error logs.

Unlike other scams I have dealt with there does seem to be a legitimate company called Nerd-i, with a comprehensive website. It is registered at Companies House with an address in London. The Nerd-i website has the appearance of a professional company and offers a range of internet security services.

I was wondering if someone was using their brand illicitly. So I phoned the number given on the website and asked the woman who replied whether she was aware of the techniques being used. At first she agreed that the phone call had come from them. When I explained that I was an IT professional and knew that they were using unfounded scare tactics she said that it 'wasn't her department' and that she would try to trace the person who called me to have words with him. I then told her that I would be reporting them to the police.

Have you received a phone call like mine? Do you know anyone who has fallen for the scam?

Update

I phoned the new Met 101 helpline, and explained what had happened. They tried to put me through to the Intelligence section at Kingston Police Station but the call transfer failed, and the 101 line was then busy.

But before that happened they did advise me to get in touch with Trading Standards. So I called Trading Standards on 08454 04 05 06 which goes straight to Consumer Direct, and told them my story. They thought I should report it to Action Fraud, the Government counter fraud organisation.

I called Action Fraud and after some explanation I was asked to submit a crime report and was given a crime number.

By that time I had noticed that Nerd-i had only been registered at Companies House two months ago, which would explain the change of name.

If you want to report something similar I would suggest you go straight to Action Fraud or call them on 0300 123 2040.

Girls are brighter than boys - but let's try to forget that

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

Once again, girls have out-performed boys at GCSE. This, apparently, is a 'cause for concern.' By whom? Well, by men, of course.

I'm sorry; that was a cheap jibe. But then like all women of my age I spent the first 30 years of my life being subjected to cheap jibes about women's intellectual abilities.

I do have some background in all this. During my gap year, I spent 6 months working as a number cruncher for an educational research team on two significant longitudinal studies. It was quite a revelation to me when I discovered that the raw scores in IQ and other tests were standardised by gender.

Throughout primary school girls performed, on average, better than boys - in other words, the mean score was significantly higher for girls. Raw scores on these tests were then mapped for each gender on to a normal distribution with a mean of 100. So the mean score for a girl was standardised to 100, as was the mean score for a boy, even though the girl's raw score was actually higher. This was done with the best of intentions but had the effect of masking the higher performance of girls.

The population at large genuinely didn't know that girls scored higher than boys. The popular view was that boys were brighter.

One of the consequences of this was that a girl had to achieve a higher score than a boy in the 11+ in order to get a place in a grammar school. And that was significant at a time when most pupils who did not get into grammar schools left school at 15 with no opportunity to gain any qualifications at all. That gender disparity is still true today; girls have to reach a higher threshold score than boys to get into the two Tiffin schools in Kingston.

In spite of the differential at primary school, once they got to secondary school boys tended to surge ahead and did better than girls at O levels (which were not standardised by gender) . Educational studies showed that girls continued to be brighter than boys at secondary school, but their performance at 16 did not reflect that. Oddly enough, this was never a 'cause for concern'.

Comprehensive schools were created in order to give everyone a chance of reaching their full potential, so you might have expected them to redress the imbalance. But they didn't. Boys still outperformed girls in most subjects, except English, at 16. What was going on?

In the late 1960s I started my teaching career in a mixed comprehensive in Peckham and began to understand the social pressure on girls to perform less well than their male classmates. Their performance dropped off just at the point when they wanted to attract the attention of the alpha males in their social groups.

Undoubtedly the expectations of teachers and parents had an impact too. I remembered when I was a pupil myself at a girls' grammar school, and a number of my friends were not allowed by their parents to stay on to the sixth form because of the prevailing view that it was not worth keeping girls in education. Others were sidetracked into so-called secretarial courses in shorthand, typing and filing, or encouraged to take the traditional paths into nursing or primary school teaching, neither of which required A levels at that time. Of the 60 girls in my year (in a grammar school, remember), only four of us went on to University. Expectations were low, and we know that children live up, or down, to the expectations that parents and teachers have of them.

When I started to complain about the underachievement of girls - which I continued to do when I was lecturing in Education at what is now Roehampton University - I was, as you might have guessed, treated dismissively.

Gradually, though, values changed, particularly in girls' schools, where young women could be encouraged to achieve academically without the pressure to play dumb in front of the boys. This became very marked in Kingston where in the 1980s and 1990s, under outstanding female headteachers, the students in Tolworth Girls and Coombe Girls were obtaining GCSE results which were substantially above those in the boys' schools.

Over the last 30 years girls across the country have found confidence, raised their expectations and reached their potential. This is something to celebrate.

And yet, predictably, the pundits complain that boys are in some way being penalised or discriminated against. Some even suggest that we need to change teaching methods to ones that overtly favour boys. That is patronising nonsense. Good teaching takes into account the personalities and learning styles of all the pupils in a class, and works with and around cultural, social and gender differences. Good teachers have expectations of individual pupils based on their knowledge of their abilities and interests, not on their gender, race or social class.

Oh, and talking of race ... try substituting black children for girls and white children for boys in my comments about expectations in this post, and another truth may emerge.

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