Tag Archives: real world effects

Spot The Difference (Again)

David Blackburn, in the Spectator:

So far so good and the latest morsel of progress is Andrew Lansley’s pledge to hold hospitals accountable for outpatients’ health for one month after discharge.

The plan is designed to prevent the early discharge of patients in order to meet waiting list targets. NHS trusts will be fined if a patient is re-admitted with related symptoms.

Just so we’re clear, then, we are asked to believe the following two things simultaneously:

  • Hospitals are so desperate to meet targets that they are apparently sending sick people home before they are fit to leave hospital, but
  • Hospitals being fined if they admit sick people who were recently patients will have no distorting effect on decisions about patient care at all.

Maybe it’s just me.

The Councillor won’t see you now – a Whodunnit

Wandsworth Councillor James Cousins (whose blog I am allowed to recommend because he’s opted out of the Total Politics poll) is hosting an interesting little debate on surgeries. Broadly, he thinks nobody is coming to them and they’re therefore not much use. He sets out this case here, and provides an update based on both the discussion and e-mails he’s received here.

I used to work quite closely with a Conservative Councillor who was very forthright about not holding surgeries (in fairness he was very forthright about everything) and whose line was “I don’t need to hold a surgery, my constituents know which pub I drink in, and they can come and see me there if they need to”. I guess that’s one of the advantages of representing a large rural village. I know plenty of urban Labour Councillors who have given up holding surgeries too, and use that time to knock on doors in the area, asking if people have any problems they wish to raise, or deliver a leaflet the night before saying “Please put this in your window if you would like to talk to your Councillor tomorrow”.

So let’s assume for now that traditional surgeries are on the way out. What killed them, and is it an adequate replacement for them? My initial list of suspects runs as follows;

  • E-mail. Going and seeing your Councillor can be a good way of outlining a problem with which you need help, particularly if the alternative is writing a letter, waiting for a reply, then explaining in more detail, and so on. On the other hand dropping an e-mail to someone is quicker, both in delivery and the likely speed of reply, than a letter, and (I think) less intimidating than a phone call. As people lead busy lives and may not be able to make it to a surgery at a fixed time, e-mail is likely to prove an attractive alternative. The growing social trend towards instant gratification means that with a problem arising on a Tuesday, many people may not be willing to wait until Saturday to talk it over.
  • The internet more generally. Increasingly Councils are moving towards electronic systems which put individuals in direct contact with officers working on an issue – this can be seen particularly in the case of potholes, broken road signs, faulty street lights, and so on. Systems like Clarence, or websites like FixMyStreet, mean there is no need for Councillors to be involved. This may be less true of problems with, say, meals on wheels, but even there the drive towards choice and personalisation may mean negotiation is more frequently done with Council officers directly, rather than via an intermediary. The reformation coming to local government, 500 years after Martin Luther? Sorry, I just compared myself with God there didn’t I, must be more careful.
  • Councillor Disempowerment. In line with the above, there is perhaps less to be gained now from seeing your Councillor for many problems. Certainly the day when befriending your local Councillor was a good way to move yourself up the council house waiting list are (rightly, I would suggest) gone – although Councillors increasingly have devolved budgets to spend on small projects in their local area, so a surgery may be a good way to raise the profile of your proposed project in advance of that decision.
  • Social Working MPs. The late Tony Banks complained that the job of an MP was often to act as “a high-powered social worker”, and while many MPs might sympathise with his view that “It’s 22 years of the same cases, but just the faces and the people changing. I found it intellectually numbing, tedious in the extreme”, they will continue to do the work, as it’s a good way of gaining favour with their constituents who are helped. While it may be tedious, it’s also a good way of keeping MPs in touch with the problems faced by ordinary people. It would still be good, though, if Councillors were able to solve more problems, and MPs able to devote more time to debating and amending laws, and holding the Government to account. As matters stand (and I have been on both sides of this) Councils are undoubtedly more ‘scared’ of MPs, and a letter on behalf of a constituent from an MP will almost always carry more weight than one from a Councillor. I have no recent evidence, but I bet most MPs get people at their surgeries.

You can probably add reasons of your own, but I think the more important question is “Does this new scenario deliver the level of support in dealing with the authorities that people feel they need?”. I suspect there may be an excluded middle going on, and that problems are either simple enough that people feel they don’t need a Councillor’s help (broken street lights) or so complicated that even a very experienced Councillor may not be able to help very much – child protection may often be in this class.

Over to you.

Not just another drop in the ocean

Duncan criticises the economics of the proposed public sector pay freeze. Nigel criticises the equity. I’m inclined to criticise the politics.

MPs got a 2.3% pay rise this year. Local Government workers have been offered 0.5%. Already, that doesn’t look terribly good given the headlines of recent months. I appreciate many private sector workers are suffering badly from the recession and high public sector pay increases would anger them. At the same time, public sector pay is obviously less likely to be cyclical, and indeed so it should be. When inflation was roaring up towards 5% at the end of the boom, we were told to accept 2.8% and shut up about it, to help the economy control inflation. I did wonder at the time whether if deflation materialised we would get a huge pay boost to help crank it back up. I rather assumed not and have been proved right – you have to be a banker for the Government to accept that logic.

Steve Bundred at the Audit Commission, who was the first to float the pay freeze as a ‘pain-free’ way of tackling the deficit, is 67th on the Taxpayers’ Alliance list of public sector fat cats, with a salary of £245,000. If you want to freeze my salary at £245,000, Steve, I’m more than happy for you to do that. You would have to double it and then triple it and then add a bit more first, though. Even so, a pay freeze might annoy me at a time when everything I buy is getting more expensive, but it wouldn’t cause me any real hardship – I’m fairly well paid and very frugal. But it makes you look a bit silly, I think, when you are proposing a real terms cut in the income of people earning about 5% of your wedge. Less, in fact, than it costs to live. That’s why it’s often called a ‘cost of living’ increase, Steve.

Alistair Darling, who says that “Public sector pay has obviously got to reflect prevailing conditions and in particular inflation has come way down“, seems not to have noticed that inflation has been above target for 20 months in a row, and indeed for those of us who don’t have mortgages it is still around 3% (slightly more or less depending whether you think the VAT cut is a real fall – I bet wages aren’t increased to compensate when it goes back up!). Alistair Darling earns around £150,000, plus expenses and a small income from a flat he owns in London and rents out since he has a free house in Downing Street. Claiming inflation is low makes you look like a bit of an idiot, Alistair, like when MPs are asked the price of things like a loaf of bread or a pint of milk and turn out not to have the faintest idea. £250 a week, isn’t it?

Of course none of them really mean any of this. Alistair means “Look at me, I’m independent from Gordon and I can prove it. You should vote for me because I’ll be tough on public spending without cutting services”, and Steve means “I know you want to abolish my organisation Mr Cameron, and I know most of your party thinks I’m a Labour stooge, but look at all these helpful things I’m saying, I’m sure we can come to some arrangement”.

The Local Pachyderm

Local Government’s decisions often affect ordinary people’s lives on a very fundamental level. Sometimes, if you spend your time in the office, your house, or travelling between the two in a car or train shaped bubble, it might be possible to lose sight of that.

It’s one of the reasons I am strongly supportive of Councillors who live in the area they represent. I don’t think it’s the be all and end all of being a representative, or that it should be compulsory, but it would certainly be one factor for me as a voter.

At least Councillors, even those who live in a different part of the authority, have to get out and knock on doors and deliver leaflets, at election time even if not all year round. What sort of mechanisms do we use to link the experiences of residents into the knowledge and work of those council officers whose jobs don’t involve regularly getting out of the Town or County Hall?

Is it enough that they hear from Councillors and frontline staff, that they read the local paper, or that they are dragged out to some sort of local committee once an issue in their department has reached crisis point, or do we need something more? Suggestions welcome!