Breakdown in society or government policy? You decide

The headline comes from a quote from Nick Clegg yesterday. According to the Guardian "he said there was a tendency for parties to adopt 'cardboard cutout' positions to social problems with one side blaming the problems on a breakdown in society and the other blaming government policy."

Both positions are far too simplistic.

The country is still in a state of shock after last week's riots, and we should always be wary of far-reaching solutions to problems advocated in the middle of a trauma. Unfortunately people look to politicians for leadership, and politicians want to grasp the moment for their own reasons, so there is a serious danger that popular strategies will be implemented without proper thought given to the possible consequences.

So I want to look at some of the knee-jerk reactions to the riots, all designed to position the proponents on one side or the other of the question in my headline.

First, the proposal to removal of benefits and/or social housing from rioters. This strategy doubly punishes the poor, but has no impact on the better-off, so is inherently unfair. In a democratic society it is the courts, not social services or housing agencies, that have the task of meting out punishment on behalf of society.

Now I am not suggesting that people should never be evicted from social housing because of their behaviour. As a councillor, on two separate occasions I actively supported two families whose lives had been made totally miserable by neighbours from hell. But the social landlords had to go through lengthy investigations and legal processes to obtain eviction orders, and it was right that these safeguards were in place. It is a serious matter to deprive a whole family of their home, and it should only be done after other solutions have been tried and failed. The fact that one member of a family had been convicted of a criminal offence would never alone be a sufficient reason to evict all the members of his or her family. The test must always be the amount of harm they are directly causing to the neighbourhood. I see no reason for that to change.

Then there are the consequences of removing benefit or social housing. Both act as safety nets for people in need; without either or both there is the danger that people will be driven further into criminality.

Second, placing the blame on a 'broken society'. I've argued before that our society, whilst not perfect, is no more broken than it ever was. The broken society rhetoric implies that there was once a golden age when crime was minimal and we all lived in pleasant neighbourly communities. For most of us, this time was apparently when we were children. But we forgot that, as children, we were protected from, and unaware of, many of the realities of social life.

I now know that when I was a child, parents and teachers could legally beat children with sticks, men could rape and assault their wives by right, homosexuals were imprisoned or forced to take drugs that chemically castrated them, pregnant girls were hidden away and forced to give up their babies, people with mental health problems or learning difficulties were locked away in bleak institutions, unwanted children were sent to Australia where they were treated appallingly. And I have written before about a case where a headteacher was given nothing more than a conditional discharge for sexually assaulting a pupil at his school.

That was not a golden age.

Third, heavier sentencing. We expect consistency from our justice system. Courts should be imposing roughly similar sentences for similar offences, after taking the personal circumstances of the accused into account. So someone who broke into a shop and stole a television last week should expect the same level of sentence as someone who committed the same offence two months ago, after taking into account previous convictions.

There appears to be evidence that the courts are being heavy-handed in the sentencing of people involved in the riots. The courts do not have to be soft on criminals, but they should be consistent.

Politicians can blame the so-called broken society, or blame the current or past government and its policies, but neither can provide a comprehensive explanation of the causes of the riots, or a blueprint for improvement. However, I do believe that there is an analysis of society that both describes how things are and gives pointers for change. It is based on a study of the effects of inequality - but more of that in a future post.

I have complained to the Advertising Standards Agency about Sit and Slim

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Today's Kingston Guardian carried another full page advert for the Sit and Slim system that I wrote about last week.

It still repeats the misleading claims about a 'NHS Hospital Trial' and implies that you can use weight 'by simply sitting on' one of their chairs.

So I've put in a complaint to the Advertising Standards Agency. Perhaps you would like to do so too?

Ooops - that should be Advertising Standards AUTHORITY.

Going out to play

"We have a generation of young people who do not respect society or their parents" - that is one view on the streets this morning. But it's not true. Attempts to demonise a whole generation of young people - or their parents, or schools - must be resisted. The country is actually full of young people who are a delight to know and who abide by the conventions.

But the dreadful activities of recent nights have highlighted the fact that communities work for most of us because of the unspoken social conventions that bind us together. On the whole, people do not behave decently because they are in fear of the police or social retribution; they behave well because they respect others and want their communities to function smoothly.

There was a very dangerous moment in Tottenham last week when we could have seen an explosion of racial violence. The death of a young black man - we still don't know the real circumstances nor why the police were armed - could have been the catalyst for race riots. Instead a peaceful protest by his family and friends became an excuse for a disturbance which seemed to bear no relation to the original issue, and was not racially motivated.

But then the copying began.

When I was a student there was a craze for smashing up old - I emphasise 'old' - pianos and pushing the pieces through a small hole, all for charity (I think). It was glorious fun, with the added excitement of breaking a taboo against damaging musical instruments.

Smashing a large window must carry the same thrill. And having broken one of the conventions that keeps society together, it must seem like a liberation. We can do anything and no-one can stop us. Theft then becomes a guilt-free option. Once over that threshold moral constraints melt away.

As far as I can see from the reporting, the core smashing and looting has been carried out by existing gangs - people who have already passed over that threshold.

But around them are scores of vulnerable and impressionable young people who are witnessing challenges to social norms all around them. Once they have picked up and thrown that first bottle, without being stopped, the adrenaline starts flowing and they become hooked on the heady excitement. I imagine this is what is driving them; the illicit luxury goods are just an added trophy.

Don't blame young people, parents, schools, local councils, the Government or any other generic group. Instead, let's pay heed to researchers and youth workers who have analysed gang culture and who understand their dynamics. Let's get to grip with the features of urban living that turn natural friendship groups into lawless territorial gangs. And let's act on what they tell us.

Footnote

I hear from the Police that things have remained relatively calm in Kingston and the local town centres, in spite of some rumours going around the social networks. The only incident was in Cambridge Gardens where some youths threw things at the police, but no-one was hurt and they were dispersed.

Some shops have been closing early and removing valuable goods, but there have been no breakages or looting.

The Olympic trial cycle race will go ahead as planned on Sunday.

Lose weight by sitting down?

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I was highly sceptical about a full page advert that has been appearing in the local papers for a product called 'Sit and Slim'. Having seen Dragon's Den last weekend I'm now wondering whether I should report them to the Advertising Standards Agency.

The product is a combination of a massage chair and an audio tape, and the company really does claim that you can lose weight sitting down. Apparently, in order to use the system, you have to enrol at a local centre at a cost of over £600 per year.

The founder of the company was roundly criticised by the Dragons. He seemed incapable of answering questions about his business plan and didn't know how many people had enrolled at the differing rates. But the most telling thing was his reaction when asked whether there was any scientific basis for his claims.

He kept saying that a hospital somewhere was carrying out tests, but he had to be pushed hard to acknowledge that there was no evidence to back his assertions. And yet the advert in this week's Kingston Guardian (page 12) states unequivocally "NHS Trial Proves Sit & Slim Chair Works".

There is also an article about it in the paper on page 3. I'm not sure whether he lives locally, but he has a centre in New Malden.

I have checked his NHS Trial claim. It seems that he did not have results from the trials when the programme was recorded, but now that he has got his 'evidence' it is not all it seems. Norfolk and Waveney Mental Health NHS Foundation Trust was given a chair which was tested on 18 members of staff for a 3 month period each. Of these 12 lost weight and 4 gained weight.

To quote from the Norwich Evening News: Vicky Stone, one of the trust’s physiotherapists, said the trial results were not “statistically valid” or rigorous, but they do offer the health and wellbeing board an insight into whether the chairs could continue to help staff and reduce sickness rates, and if they could even possibly be used for patients in the future.

In other words, it was not a controlled experiment and not a formal NHS trial, although the anecdotal evidence could certainly be a trigger for more detailed investigations into the promoter's claims. It certainly does not justify the "NHS Trial Proves ..." headline in the advert.

Now before anyone jumps in and tells me that his idea does have some merit, I would say that I think I do understand what this is about. Having lost 3 stone in a matter of 8 months recently, I do know that the most important thing was getting the psychology right. Motivation was crucial, as was a positive attitude to the process, and a determination not to demonise food. So sitting in a massage chair, listening to some positive thinking on an audio tape, could possibly help some people to find the motivation they need. Indeed, it is a form of hypnotherapy, but without the professional hypnotist.

But the ad says this: "We understand that you may be sceptical about losing weight by simply sitting on a Sit & Slim therapeutic wellbeing chair, most people are." Note simply.

Yes, I am sceptical. At some point you have got to get out of that chair, shop for suitable food, count calories, carbs or fat units, and get some exercise. Nothing else works.

Revd David Ward

Sadly, David Ward died last weekend. He and Pat became friends of ours when he was appointed as Vicar of St Paul's Hook, and I served under him as church warden.

David was not reticent about his political views, and when he retired and moved to Tolworth he decided to run for Council for the Liberal Democrats. He was successful in being elected for Alexandra ward in 1994. When Ian became Mayor in 1996 he appointed David as his Deputy, and the four of us had a wonderful year together.

There will be a family funeral, but everyone is invited to his Memorial Service on Tuesday 16th August at 3pm at St George's Tolworth.

We will miss him.

Petitions to Parliament - waste of time or golden opportunity?

This is an article that I have submitted to Liberal Democrat Voice.

The Government has just launched its brand new e-petitions system. You can find it here: epetitions.direct.gov.uk . The first petitions will be going live next Thursday.

Haven’t we been here before? Well, it is true that Labour surprised us all by setting up the Number 10 online petitions website some years ago, and that this attracted thousands of petitions.

But after the initial enthusiasm there was inevitable disappointment, because, in the vast majority of cases, the only response received by petitioners was a statement from a civil servant. It is true that, in some cases, petitions channelled strong public concern about an issue, such as road pricing, and did lead to political action. But these cases were very rare.

Sadly, it is impossible to trawl through the Number 10 petitions site now as all attempts to find it redirect you to the new site.

The Number 10 petitions scheme, set up by the excellent MySociety team, achieved what I suspect the developers had expected all along. It exposed the fact that the many thousands of petitions presented in cardboard boxes over the years at the door of Number 10, as well as all the online signatures, had minimal impact on policy-making.

So I was pleased that the Coalition backed the plan to set up a proper system for petitions to Parliament itself. It has a further proviso, that if a petition attracts over 100,000 signatures then it ‘will be eligible for debate in the House of Commons’. The Backbench Business Committee will decide whether a petition will be debated in the House. Petitions will have to be filtered at some point, otherwise we would have endless debates on hanging, flogging and banning immigration; a backbench committee is probably the best body to do this and certainly preferable to the Government, or worse still, civil servants.

It is important to remind ourselves that a petition is not a referendum. Instead a petition is a way of expressing support or opposition to a proposed policy, or a way of drawing attention to a new issue. It can be a trigger for political action, but it should never be taken as a definitive statement of the views of the public at large.

Also, petitions often oversimplify, and do not take into account all the factors that can affect a policy decision, such as financial constraints or consequential impact.

But a petition can, very valuably, be used to kick off a public debate about a previously unrecognised concern. Further research can then follow, together with a full assessment of the impact of any actions, before any firm proposals can be put together.

So – it’s a case of watch this space.

Olympics come to Kingston early

The events in Kingston in three weeks time may take some people by surprise.

Next summer the Olympic cycle road race will pass through the Borough. So on Sunday August 14th (this year) they are staging the London Surrey Classic Race over the Olympic route as a test event.

Whilst this is all rather exciting, it will also be very disruptive. The entire route will be closed from 6am to 2pm and many of the roads that feed into the route will also be closed.

The cyclists will enter Kingston over Kingston Bridge, then go the wrong way round the one way system to get to London Road. They will then peel off to Richmond Park via Queens Road.

The rest of the route, which begins and ends in The Mall, goes through Surrey, around Dorking, Guildford and Woking, so roads through Surrey will be heavily affected as well. See the map below.

There's more information on the Council website on http://www.kingston.gov.uk/news.htm?id=117509

I don't think I'll try to go shopping in Kingston on 14th August - in fact, I'll probably just stay at home.


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