16/09/14
Credit: Kyoshi Masamune, via Flickr

How the #indyref question will be decided by the ‘excluded’

Credit: Kyoshi Masamune, via Flickr

Credit: Kyoshi Masamune, via Flickr

Perhaps my memory has become hopelessly and romantically deluded but when I think back to a time in the past when I used to pay close attention to US elections, I’m sure I can recall increasing attention being given in the closing stages of a campaign to the proportion of voters who had still to make up their minds.  The undecideds, or the don’t knows.  If the number of them was greater than the margin between the top candidate and the second-placed one, then you still had a wide open race.  If you got close to polling day and there were still a lot of undecideds, that told you a lot about the relative merits of the principal candidates.

Don’t knows count. They matter. A lot. In fact, they are decisive. In Scotland, how they end up voting on Thursday will determine whether or not Scotland declares independence. The fate of the union rests with the don’t knows.

So why is every single opinion poll on the Scottish independence referendum being reported in a way that excludes them?

How significant are the don’t knows?  Remember the weekend before last when everyone suddenly woke up to the possibility that Scotland might vote ‘Yes’ because the first opinion polls were published that said so?  One of those polls, conducted by TNS-BMRB, made the headlines by suggesting Scotland was evenly divided.  Which it was, if you, like every media outlet, excluded don’t knows.  In fact, that poll showed 39% No, 38% Yes and – wait for it – 23% don’t know.

Twenty. Three. Per. Cent.  That’s nearly a quarter of respondents saying they are currently undecided and what that gets them is excluded from the headline findings as if they don’t matter and have no bearing on the outcome of this referendum.

If you assume that an opinion poll, properly conducted with a robust, representative and correctly weighted sample, is intended to provide a prediction of the behaviour of the total population (of the Scottish electorate in this case) then excluding 23% is equivalent to excluding the combined population of Glasgow, Edinburgh and Stirling.

As far as I can tell, every media outlet in the UK is reporting every referendum opinion poll in this way – with don’t knows excluded.  It is stupid and wrong and it really needs to stop.

There are three reasons why:

1. It is inaccurate. It is factually wrong. Here’s a recent tweet from ITV News:

No, it doesn’t.  It’s an ICM poll for The Scotsman and what it actually finds is 45% No, 41% Yes and 14% don’t know.  To report that the poll finds 52% of Scots planning to vote No when, actually, it found 45% of them doing so is bad journalism because journalists shouldn’t knowingly report things that are factually wrong. (Should they? I’m fairly sure of my ground here.)  14%, since you asked, is equivalent to Glasgow and Dundee combined.

2.  It presents a wholly misleading picture of the state of the electorate and of the campaign.  The decisive section of voters in Scotland are simply omitted from consideration and hidden from view.  You cannot make any sensible assessment of the dynamic of the referendum if it is presented as a zero-sum contest in which victory depends on getting people to change their minds, rather than making up their minds in the first place.  You need to know how many people remain unpersuaded to get a sense of the challenge, and opportunity, that remains for both sides.  There is no reason to assume that the don’t knows will divide evenly, or in the same ratio as those currently able to declare for Yes or for No.  The fact that as many as 14% of all Scottish voters might still, two days before voting, be open to persuasion by either side is hugely significant.  They shouldn’t be excluded from the headlines – they ARE the headline.

3.  It assumes don’t knows don’t count.  The don’t knows may not have strong opinions at this stage.  They’re not passionate about being don’t knows.  They’re not campaigning for don’t know, they’re not arguing for indecision.  They don’t hold rallies, or wave placards that say “Scotland Doesn’t Know, Thanks”, or wear badges reading “Better Off Not Deciding”.  But this is not the same as having no opinions.  And it is not the same as refusing to participate.  Today’s don’t knows will be Thursday’s referendum voters – they’ll choose one way or another.  And, if the final vote looks nothing like how today’s opinion polls are showing it, and the journalists are all there scratching their heads wondering why, you can shout at the telly with me: “BECAUSE YOU EXCLUDED THE DON’T KNOWS.”  And then we should all go to bed, because shouting at the telly is a sign you need more sleep.

5/06/14

The scandal of Tuam’s #800children

What image comes to mind when you hear or read the words “mass grave”?

Perhaps a  horrific discovery in a hot, distant war zone. Or an archaeologist’s find from a time of plague. You don’t get mass graves in modern peacetime, here in civilised western Europe, do you?

Except that you do.  In Tuam, a town of about 8,000 people in county Galway in western Ireland, a local historian, Catherine Corless, has found evidence of a mass grave. In a disused septic tank, Corless believes there lie the remains of 796 young children, aged between two days and nine years when they died. They were apparently dumped there (there really is no other word for it) between 1925 and 1961 by the nuns of the Bon Secours Sisterhood who were supposed to be caring for them in the Mother and Baby home for ‘fallen women’ that they ran. So appalled was the Irish Catholic church of the time – and, with it, seemingly much of Irish society – at the idea of children being born out of wedlock that pregnant unmarried women would go to these ‘homes’ to have their babies, which they would then leave to the ‘care’ of the church.

The Sisters of Bon Secours are a Catholic congregation founded in France in 1822 and given official recognition by Pope Pius IX in 1875. They still exist and are active in Britain, Ireland, the US and elsewhere. Their name, of course, means “good help” and their motto is “Good Help to Those in Need”. The evidence suggests that the help they gave to the children in need of it was unusually and inhumanly callous and cruel.  Writing about the Tuam home in the US Irish community website IrishCentral.com a few days ago, Cahir O’Doherty observes:

A local health board inspection report from April 1944 recorded 271 children and 61 single mothers in residence, a total of 333 in a building that had a capacity for 243.

The report described the children as “emaciated,” “pot-bellied,” “fragile” with “flesh hanging loosely on limbs.” The report noted that 31 children in the “sun room and balcony” were “poor, emaciated and not thriving.” The effects of long term neglect and malnutrition were observed repeatedly.

Children died at The Home at the rate of one a fortnight for almost 40 years, one report claims. Another appears to claim that 300 children died between 1943 and 1946, which would mean two deaths a week in the isolated institution.

Your feelings at reading this are probably the same as mine – horror, revulsion, anger, shock (if not surprise). You will find these feelings, and more, expressed on Twitter (follow the #800children hashtag) along with rage at the Irish government, police and church for the inadequacy, so far, of their response.

I don’t really understand how all this could have happened, or been allowed to happen. I’m not Irish and have never lived in Ireland. I’m not and have never been a Catholic. I can claim no knowledge of Irish history or society, of the intricacies of the relationship between church, state and people in Ireland. All I know, and can attempt to understand, is what has been reported. And what concerns me is how badly this is being reported.

The earliest report of this story that I can find is from 25 May – the Irish Mail on Sunday appears to have broken the story on its front page that day. It seems to have been picked up outside Ireland on 3 June, two days ago. But no news organisation seems to have considered it important enough to run prominently. I only found the story myself yesterday (4 June). I don’t see the Irish papers, who I understand are now giving it prominence (front page of the Times, Examiner and Independent, I learn from Twitter), but in the UK this is not a front page story for anyone. Yesterday, you would not have found the story on the front page of the BBC News website until late in the evening, and then as a one-line headline under the ‘Europe’ header, below the Sport, the ‘Also in the News’, the local news and the weather. If editors thought that it was a story that readers just weren’t interested in, there is evidence to the contrary. For much of yesterday, this powerful opinion piece by Emer O’Toole was listed as the “Most Read” article on The Guardian’s website – but neither it nor the news story appeared anywhere on The Guardian’s capacious front web page. It is still at number 4 and still absent from the front page. Similarly, I noticed Terrence McCoy’s report was top of the “top-read stories of the past four hours” on the Washington Post website for long periods yesterday even though it, too, could not then and cannot now be found anywhere on the Post’s front web page.

Why has this story not pushed everything else in the news aside? Why are the world’s media not camped out in Tuam, asking questions and demanding answers? This is a modern mass grave, of children, in a peaceful, developed, western European state. There is evidence here of a large-scale atrocity having been committed by a division of the world’s biggest, most powerful church not in medieval times but the twentieth century – as late as the 1960s. This is not some remote, inaccessible war zone (although I would hope that a mass grave of children would merit our attention wherever it was in the world). And this is not ancient history. What hope is there of the Irish government, police and church to uncover the truth of what happened at Tuam (and the other ‘Mother and Baby homes’ that existed around Ireland) and, as far as might be possible, be held accountable for their actions, if they feel no pressure from the media and public to do so?

I’m looking at the front page of the BBC News website right now and here are some of the stories given more prominence, considered more important, than the discovery of a modern mass grave of children in Ireland: people who got compensation for mis-sold PPI policies didn’t get all the money they should have got; two Cabinet ministers are having a spat; there was smoke in the basement of The Shard in London; some people have been selected for the first time for the England cricket team; someone left their phone on during a Kevin Spacey play. From the front pages of this morning’s British newspapers, you’ll also learn that a page boy fainted; Nigel Farage went to bed late; Justin Bieber is still obnoxious.

Perhaps editors feel these are events too far in the past to be considered newsworthy. Or maybe they think we’ve all become inured to stories of large-scale abuse like this. Or that, like those running The Home, we don’t really care about those children and so we’re not that interested in reading about them – like the 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls that we all weren’t interested in (no, they haven’t been found, released or rescued – the media just got bored of them). Perhaps those editors are right. I’d find that pretty depressing.

Edit: This post has been corrected to show that the Irish Mail on Sunday broke the story on 25 May on its front page, not pp12-13 as originally stated. Apologies for the error.

Edit: In recognition of the fact that many of the dead children were not babies but as old as nine, the Twitter hashtag in use is now #800children, not #800babies. This has been amended in the title and text of this blogpost.

Update: Since this blogpost was first published, BBC News has moved the headline linking to its latest report on the Tuam children to the top half of the front page of its website – hopefully suggesting a growing recognition of the significance of the story. In contrast, The Guardian appears to have stopped covering the story altogether – Emer O’Toole’s column being  its last published item on it.

 

22/05/14

Why I fear a Ukip victory

I don’t fear a Ukip victory because I’m scared that they will smash the cosy, complacent hegemony of the three major parties – it probably deserves to be smashed (I’m voting Green).  I don’t fear a Ukip victory because it will hasten our exit from the EU – I don’ t think exit is in our best interests but if it happens I’m sure we’ll get by. No, I fear a Ukip victory because of what this YouGov poll, taken just a few weeks ago, says about whose votes will deliver that victory.

Scroll to pages 15-17 for public attitudes to immigration, including a breakdown by intention to vote.

Page 16 has the finding that chills me most.  Respondents were asked if they agree or disagree with the following statement: “The Government should encourage immigrants and their families to leave Britain (including family members who were born in Britain).”  51 per cent of Ukip voters agreed with this statement.

51 per cent.  A majority.  Not some crackpot local councillor dredged up by the media.  51 per cent of all Ukip voters.

That’s a majority of Ukip voters who think that if you were born in this country, but you have an immigrant parent, you’re not British enough to stay.

I’d find that pretty scary in any circumstances but it scares me in particular because that’s me they want thrown out of the country.  I’m the son of an immigrant.  My Indonesian-born mother has been a citizen and resident of this country for about 50 years.  I was born in London and, apart from a year in the US as a student, have never lived in any other country.  I speak no Indonesian language and know shamefully little about the history or culture of my mother’s home country.  I was educated in this country, have a career here, a home and family here.  But a majority of Ukip voters want to send me ‘back’ to Indonesia – a country I have only ever even visited twice in my life.

When I call Ukip a racist party, it’s not a lazy insult because I can’t think of any better way of arguing against Ukip’s views.  It’s because, for years now, Ukip has run a campaign message that basically amounts to ‘fear the foreigner’.  Ukip posters don’t talk about immigration, they talk about immigrants – because thinking about immigration as an abstract, economic issue is less powerful, less easy than thinking about how uncomfortable the immigrants themselves make you feel.  They talk about nationality (Bulgarian, Romanian) because that taps into prejudices about national stereotypes.  You’re right to fear Romanian neighbours, is the subtext – think of the crime gangs!  They portray immigrants exclusively as a threat.  They’re crooks, idlers, scroungers, or they’re after YOUR JOB.  (Never mind that, by seeking to scrap all your employment rights, Ukip is a far bigger threat to your job than any jobseeker, immigrant or otherwise).  And then they lie about how many immigrants there are, so as to exaggerate the threat.  How many million Bulgarians and Romanians were going to flood our shores at the start of this year?  Every one a criminal, a job thief and a dodgy neighbour.

I’ve been lucky enough to receive very little racist abuse in my life, but I’ve had enough to know what it looks like.  And it looks like a Ukip poster.

You might think I’ve gone too far.  That I’m reading too much into an innocuous campaign that merely raises the legitimate issue of immigration and does so in the context of the EU’s policy of free movement of labour.  YouGov’s numbers suggest that, intentionally or not, Ukip’s message resonates with racists.  Or perhaps you don’t think that wanting to see me booted off to the country of my mother’s birth is a racist viewpoint.  Explain to me how it isn’t, please.

There are lots of completely non-racist people in Ukip – people who feel that the main parties have failed, and that Britain will somehow be massively better off if it leaves the EU.  On Thursday night and again on Sunday night, those people will be rejoicing.  The polls suggest that a Ukip ‘victory’ – in the sense of winning the largest share of the popular vote – is on the cards.  They will gloat and they will tell the likes of me that our pathetic attempts to smear their party were futile.  Gloating is the just reward for winning an election.  If the party I supported had won, I’d gloat too.

But know this: elsewhere, all around the country, thousands of triumphal racists will also be rejoicing.  They have found a party they feel welcome in and, more than that, they have delivered an electoral victory for it. They will feel that their views have been validated and vindicated by the ballot box.  They will feel bolder and this will be reinforced by having a major political party at their disposal to pursue their objectives.  They will be fortified further in the coming months as Labour and the Tories quietly decide that ‘the lesson learnt’ from this election is that they need to be more like Ukip, maybe do a bit of immigrant-bashing of their own.

Nigel Farage imagines, rather wishfully, that he will hold the balance of power after next year’s general election.  I imagine he would insist on including in any coalition agreement an immigration policy in line with the demands of the majority of his supporters.  My son will be 6 years old and, I assume, will be allowed to stay.  Perhaps, as they pack me onto a plane to Jakarta with my mother and brother, one of you non-racist Ukip voters will volunteer to explain to him why your party’s hatred of foreigners is so intense, runs so deep, that his dad, uncle and grandmother have to be taken from him.  You can tell him about the danger I so clearly pose to society as the son of an immigrant.  And then maybe you can show him the line in Ukip’s constitution that says it’s a non-racist party.  I’m sure he’ll find that very reassuring.

5/03/14
Photo credit: Michael Kappel, via Flickr

The silent thief of sight – some words about glaucoma

Photo credit: Michael Kappel, via Flickr

Photo credit: Michael Kappel, via Flickr

Next Tuesday I’m going to have eye surgery.  I have glaucoma in both eyes and every other remedy has been tried with only limited effect, so surgery it is.  It is, as surgical procedures go, a swift and low-risk one with a very high success rate.  I’ll be back home the same day.  I’m also lucky enough to have one of the best eye consultants and surgeons in the country right here in sleepy North Devon.  It will all be just fine.  If I am terrified – and I am – it’s because I’ve managed to get through nearly 42 years of life without any surgery at all and I’m squeamish and needle-phobic at the best of times.  But, like I say, this is relatively low-risk and, more importantly, it will save my eyesight.

When is the last time you had an eye test?  If it’s been more than a year, please book one soon.  If you’ve been putting it off because your eyesight seems fine so why bother to find the time and go to the expense of an eye test, please go anyway.  I don’t want to nag.  I’m sorry if I sound like your mother, or some dreary public information message, or like a convert to a cult that’s trying to drag you in for a personality assessment.  It’s just that glaucoma is one of a number of eye conditions that can be detected in a standard eye test so an eye test is more than about whether or not you can read a car number plate from 50 yards, or whatever – it’s about whether or not you might be going blind and not realise it.

Glaucoma is called the silent thief of sight because you could be losing your vision without even being aware of it.  There’s a little pocket of fluid at the front of your eye, in front of the lens. The fluid slowly flows through this chamber, keeping various components of your eye clean and clear. The fluid drains out through a mesh of microscopic channels and is reabsorbed into your bloodstream.  In the most common form of glaucoma, this mesh becomes blocked somehow (it’s not clear how) and so the fluid escapes at a slower rate than it flows in. This causes the pressure inside the whole eyeball to increase and, at the back of the eye, the optic nerve starts to get slowly squished and damaged.

If you have the most common form of glaucoma, you won’t feel a thing.  There are no clues or noticeable symptoms of any kind.  My eyes don’t feel uncomfortable or painful or high-pressure-y at all.  And, because it first affects your peripheral vision, and usually in one eye more than the other, you won’t notice any sight loss until it’s too late.  My glaucoma has given me a blind spot in my right eye, above and to the left of my centre of vision.  If I’m looking at you and I close my left eye and look at your left shoulder, I can make your nose disappear.  Otherwise, I wouldn’t know I was suffering any loss of vision at all.  But the thing about vision loss is that it can’t be reversed.  My surgery will stop any more damage being done, but that blind spot will always be there.  If you let glaucoma go undetected and untreated, you can eventually get tunnel vision and, finally, go blind.

My glaucoma was detected by Specsavers in Barnstaple – but any optician anywhere in the country would have spotted it.  My point is that all it takes is a standard eye test.  That thing they do where a machine blows a little puff of air into the front of your eye is an eye pressure test. It’s not a particularly accurate test, but it’s enough to let the optician know if there’s a potential problem, and they’ll refer you to your nearest eye clinic if they think something needs investigating.

No one really knows what causes glaucoma.  It’s not a bacterial or viral disease.  You are at greater risk if you are older but young people, even children, can have glaucoma.  Men and women are equally at risk.  If you are Asian (I am half-Indonesian) you are at slightly greater risk because our eyes are a slightly different shape to those of white Europeans.  If you are black, you are at greater risk still – I have read that glaucoma is the leading cause of blindness in African-Americans.  There appears to be a genetic component to glaucoma, so you are at greater risk if one of your parents has/had it.  But no one is ‘immune’ to it.  Seriously, you should get your eyes checked.

There is nothing scary about being diagnosed with glaucoma.  Everything that’s been done to me has been easy, quick and painless.  My life hasn’t been turned upside down by it.  There’s nothing I can’t do because of the glaucoma.  I can drive as safely as someone without glaucoma (I had to notify the DVLA of my glaucoma and they asked me to do a quick and simple test at an optician to confirm that I was safe to drive).  I can read as easily.  If I were the kind of person who did active things like sport, I would be as able to do those things as if I didn’t have glaucoma.

Every few months, I’ve had the pressure in my eyes checked.  The consultant at the eye clinic puts anaesthetic drops in my eyes – they don’t sting or hurt and they don’t affect your vision; they wear off after half an hour or so.  Then he sits me down in front of the same kind of contraption that a high street optician has to look into your eyes – that metal frame with a chin rest and a forehead rest to keep your head still.  He puts a glass rod against the front of my eye – but, because of the anaesthetic drops, I literally don’t feel a thing – and I assume there’s a little gauge on there that measures how much the rod can be pushed against the eye in order to determine the internal pressure.  You usually get a figure between 10 and 20 (I have no idea what the unit of measurement is).  Low teens is normal.  Around 17 or 18 is where it starts to be a bit worrying.  I’ve had as high as 24, and as low as 12.  Your eye pressure changes over time – it even fluctuates during the course of the day.

The other thing I have to do every few months is have a ‘field test’ to detect blind spots in my field of vision. You sit in front of what looks like the inside of a large white plastic box. It appears to be blank on the inside, apart from a little white light in the centre which is what you focus on. As you focus on this light, other little points of light will appear, one by one and of varying levels of brightness, all around your peripheral vision. They give you a button and you press this each time you see a light. It takes about five minutes for each eye. The machine then gives a printout of where in your field of vision, if anywhere, it thinks you might be losing your vision. Again, it’s quick, easy and painless.

I’ve had other tests, all of which have been a breeze. (By the way, isn’t it great that we have a National Health Service that can do all this and I haven’t had to worry about whether or not I can afford it?) I’ve had an MRI scan which didn’t bother me at all – the main thing you notice is that it’s a lot noisier than you expect. I had an OCT scan which was so uninvasive that I didn’t even realise I’d had it done – I thought they were just taking photos of my eyes. I had a fluorescein angiogram – where they inject a fluoresecent dye into your arm and take photos of your eye very rapidly to see the progression of the dye through the blood vessels in the eye. I didn’t like this because of my needle phobia but, apart from the needle in my arm, I didn’t feel a thing. (Your wee turns a really bright fluorescent orange for a couple of days afterwards which is alarming at first, but you learn to have fun with it after a while and you start to miss it when it goes back to normal.)

There is no cure for glaucoma, but treatment of it is also nothing to worry about.  For most people with glaucoma, eye drops are all you need – albeit that you have to take them for the rest of your life.  I’ve been through various eye drops, increasing in strength as I went along.  Currently, I take one type of drop twice a day, and another once a day – it’s just part of my routine getting out of bed in the morning and going to bed in the evening, so really easy. One of the drops has no side effects on me at all. The other makes my vision blurry for about thirty seconds; gives me a slightly bitter taste at the back of my tongue for a few minutes (which is a little bit freaky, if you think about it); and can make my eyes feel dry and scratchy sometimes, for which I have a third set of drops for when it gets uncomfortable.

If the drops don’t do the trick – as was the case for me – you can move on to laser treatment. This was a doddle. They put anaesthetic drops in and then held a glass lens against the front of my eye (with an aqueous gel between the lens and my eye to let them move the lens about).  The lens was used to focus and aim the laser. In short, repeated bursts, the laser was fired at different points around the edge of the iris in each eye, to stimulate that drainage mesh that I mentioned earlier into working better. It was uncomfortable, but not painful. I did feel, occasionally, what felt like little pin-pricks on my eye which I was told was because I have dark brown eyes that absorb more of the laser light than paler eyes, so the laser makes itself a bit more powerful to compensate. It was really no big deal, though. It took about twenty minutes and they check you an hour later to make sure it’s all OK before sending you home. I had it done twice, about a month apart – the top half of each iris first time, the bottom half the second time.

My eyes are clearly stubborn things, so I’m now having to go for surgery. I won’t go into the squeamish detail about the procedure – Google ‘trabeculectomy’ if you want to know what it entails. Suffice to say that I will have a general anaesthetic (it can be done under local, but I think I’d freak out if it were). It will take about an hour and I’ll go home that afternoon. I’ll have a bandage over my eye for the night. I will have to go back into hospital to be checked frequently, at first, but then less regularly as it heals and they are satisfied that it’s all gone well. I’ll be out of action for a week or so but, after that, I should be able to go back to life as normal pretty quickly. I’ll have more eye drops to take, a lot more frequently than my current ones, for a few months. In six months’ time, I’ll have the other eye done and go through it all again. But, once that eye has healed, I will effectively have a near-permanent remedy. No more eye drops or lasers. No more vision loss. I will probably have to go back in about 30-40 years to have the procedure done again, but that’s a small price to pay for keeping my sight.

This blogpost probably seems very self-indulgent – why should anyone else care about what’s happening to my eyes? My purpose is partly to reassure anyone who might have glaucoma that it’s a condition that is easy and painless to treat and to live with. A lot of the information you’ll find online about glaucoma is a bit technical and jargon-filled. You don’t get to find out what it really feels like to have glaucoma and be treated for it.  I can only share my own experience – I imagine it’s different for each person depending on the nature of their condition and the treatment they receive.  If you’re being investigated for glaucoma, or you’ve just been diagnosed, you may have a very different experience to mine.  But I think my experience is fairly typical.  I hope this blogpost will, to some extent, set your mind at ease.

More importantly, my purpose is to convey this simple message: get your eyes tested. My journey – through diagnosis, treatment and now surgery – started with an ordinary eye test from an ordinary optician. That little puff of air saved my sight. It could save yours, too.

11/02/14
Photo: nicksarebi via Flickr

Sandbags and bandwagons

Photo: nicksarebi via Flickr

Photo: nicksarebi via Flickr

There’s a lot of water around at the moment and it seems to have washed a lot of political effluent along with it.  This troubles me.

I’ve taken recently to expressing a sort of filial loyalty to my adopted home region of the West country since parts of it started to become submerged.  This is despite the fact that the inland, upland bit of North Devon where I live is largely unaffected by the bad weather, I had to look up Dawlish on a map, and my very slight knowledge of the Somerset Levels comes entirely from seeing them through the window of a train.  None of this has stopped me from tweeting heartfelt pleas for support for stricken Somerset farmers as if they were my own kin.

We should all support the West country, if only because it is gorgeous and filled will lovely people and delicious animals.  Once we’ve finished mopping up, you should come and visit – we’d love to see you.

Today, lots of the country is underwater and in need of help.  And where there’s distress, there’s blame and where there’s blame there’s bullshit.  Whole catchment areas full of it.

I have seen bullshit flowing along two primary channels – let’s call them the River Bullshit and the King’s Bullshit Drain.

Rapidly silting up the River Bullshit is the demand to help the West country by conveniently diverting funding from some other, unconnected, area of public spending such as foreign aid or HS2.

The prime culprit here is Ukip leader and human weasel, Nigel Farage.  Farage has demanded that Britain stop spending money on foreign aid and instead spend that money on helping those underwater in the Somerset Levels, where they have endured serious flooding for several weeks now.

I had a lot more time for Ukip when their paranoia was focused exclusively on the European Union.  I may not agree with them on Europe, but I can see that Euroscpeticism is a coherent viewpoint, widely held.  Now, though, Ukip has decided to move away from being a one-issue party and it has a policy platform that runs the full gamut from xenophobia to sexism, taking in homophobia and Islamophobia along the way.  Basically, all the phobias.  Perhaps they’ll incorporate arachnophobia next and promise every household a new vacuum cleaner.

Ukip describes itself as a “non-racist” party and the fact that they think that this needs spelling out tells you quite a lot about them.  Hatred of foreigners seems to be pretty central to Ukip’s core values – in a way that would seriously piss me off if I were a genuinely non-racist conservative Eurosceptic.  Ukip spent the whole of 2013 raging against the tsunami of Romanian and Bulgarian immigrants they predicted would wash up in Dover as soon as the New Year arrived, and generally setting about demonstrating that, whilst it is theoretically possible to discuss immigration without being racist, they haven’t quite worked out how.  Despite the hordes of Romanians and Bulgarians not materialising, the media continues to hang on every bit of populist, evidence-free, narrow-minded bullshit that falls out of Farage’s smug face and Ukip continue to ride high in opinion polls.  I suspect that even some racists have become attracted to Ukip’s brand of non-racism, which must be very confusing for them.

There are serious debates to be had about how the foreign aid budget is spent – whether it is going to the right people in the right places; and how the budget is set – for example, whether fixing it as a percentage of gross national income is sensible.  These debates may even be of interest to Farage.  But he’s not interested in engaging in them now.  His message is simple – the recipients of foreign aid are undeserving, particularly compared with Brits, wading through their own living rooms.  Why are they undeserving?  Because they’re foreign.  That’s it.  It really is no more nuanced than that.  You can see why Ukip have to tell you they’re non-racist.  It can be very hard to work it out on your own.

As an expression of national pride, stopping foreign aid is a curious proposal because it makes the world less safe and the UK less influential in it.  Deployed effectively, foreign aid is about helping countries avoid becoming failed states, easily overrun by extremists.  It’s about helping people find their way out of a life of extreme poverty and despair because – besides being the humanitarian, even human, thing to do – if we don’t offer hope, a fanatical lunatic will.  Foreign aid makes the UK more influential because it is a tool of foreign policy, a mechanism of ‘soft power‘.  Aid makes recipient countries better disposed towards us and helps to give us influence in subsequent international discussions on things like trade, security, human rights – stuff that perhaps Ukip hasn’t got round to thinking about, they’ve been so focused on finding novel ways to be non-racist.  Personally, I support foreign aid because I think that we should help other human beings in need of help and I don’t see why their nationality is relevant.  I always thought that helping those in need was one of Britain’s values as a nation.  Thank goodness Ukip has set me straight on that one by giving voice to all those non-racists who hate the idea of foreigners having our money.

Foreign aid isn’t the only thing that’s been proposed for culling in order to help the South West.  The other prominent target that I’ve seen has been HS2 – the plan to lay a strip of countryside to waste in order to help the nation’s biggest, best connected cities become even bigger by being even better connected.  I have rather more sympathy with the ‘kill HS2 to save the West country’ campaign, partly because there is more of an internal logic to it (mostly, people want the money spent on improving rail links in the South West), but largely because I think HS2 is a daft idea that involves spending colossal sums of money that we keep being told we don’t have in order to help fewer people, and in less helpful ways, than spending just a proportion of that same money on other things.  I also recognise that, whereas Farage is only interested in (1) winning votes and (2) hurting foreign people, some of those aboard the ‘HS2 to West country’ lifeboat actually care about the West country and genuinely want to help the people in it.  If you cancelled the foreign aid budget tomorrow but didn’t give any of the money to the South West, Farage would say ‘thank you very much’ and probably never be seen in Somerset again until election time.  Many of the currently-vocal HS2 crowd are very serious about the difficulty of travelling past Taunton without a hovercraft and will notice if nothing is done about it.

So, why do I object to both these campaigns?  In part because it sets up a false choice that has no connection with how government spending works.  Firstly, there is no evidence that the immediate help needed in flooded areas cannot be provided within existing budgets and contingency funds that will exist precisely for this kind of situation.  To put it slightly more succinctly: helping flooded areas shouldn’t come at the expense of foreign aid because we can do both.  Secondly, even if we do need to divert money from elsewhere to rebuild the West country, there isn’t necessarily any logic in taking it all from a single source, nor in draining that source completely.

Mostly, though, I object because setting up those false choices actually changes the subject, which is counter-productive to your stated aims, i.e. helping flooded areas.  When you say “help the areas in need,” you’re talking about just that, and you can make some progress.  When you say “cancel HS2 to help the areas in need,” you’re now talking about HS2.  You force whoever you’re talking to to defend HS2, rather than finding ways to help areas hit by flooding.  You go from having one objective which you can achieve, to having two and you’ve positioned one of them to obstruct the other.

So that’s Bullshit River.  Let’s splash over to the King’s Bullshit Drain and see what’s blocking the flow of water over there.  Oh, it appears that a dam has been built across the channel by that complete and utter beaver, Eric Pickles.  Pickles really is a perfect Cnut because he thinks that the government could have held back the floodwaters, and he has built his dam out of little sticks of blame which are now getting in the way of anything useful happening.

‘Government’ and ‘politics’ are not the same thing.  In an emergency, you need government.  Pickles, unexpectedly put in charge of the bucket of cobras that apparently now runs the country, decided we needed a dose of politics.  Pickles decided to make the argument that the flooding was all the fault of Chris Smith – the Chair of the Environment Agency and, conveniently, a former Labour Cabinet minister.  Specifically, Pickles responded to the demands of waterlogged Somerset residents for local rivers and channels to be dredged by agreeing with them and apologising for this not happening.

I’m sure that the effectiveness of the Environment Agency, whose budget has already been heavily cut by this government, has been greatly improved by a minister setting out to destroy public confidence in them.  Pickles’ intervention might have been worthwhile if he hadn’t been so totally, completely, utterly, 100 per cent, abjectly, comprehensively wrong about both the causes of the flooding and particularly the role of dredging.

Being pro-dredging is politically easy.  Local residents in the Somerset Levels have been demanding it for months.  The local MP, Ian Liddell-Grainger insists that dredging would have saved the Levels from flooding on the logic that dredging didn’t happen and flooding now has, and there couldn’t possibly be any other explanation for this bizarre coincidence.  I expect Nigel Farage has called for dredging too, at some point, only he probably wants immigrants used to dredge the channels, but in a non-racist way.

The cause of the flooding – in Somerset, the Thames Valley and elsewhere – is not Chris Smith.  We are flooded because an incredible amount of water has fallen – in Somerset, well over double the long-term average – and far more than either the ground or any man-made flood prevention measures can handle.  We are flooded because, for generations, we have buggered up our climate so that extreme weather conditions are more likely more often, and we have buggered up our land so that it can’t cope when humongous amounts of water are dropped all over it.  Far from apologising for not dredging, Pickles should have listened to the actual, genuine experts in and outside the Environment Agency who were trying to tell him that, in fact, dredging would have not have prevented the flooding but made it worse.  (Here’s a bunch of expert opinions for you on this, and here’s a brilliant George Monbiot column explaining why we’re all a lot wetter than we should be.)

There are people who are flooded who need help.  If they get it, I don’t imagine they’re too bothered what budget line it came from, or who they can blame for the rain falling.  Later, we’ll recover and rebuild and, if we’re clever, we’ll start to do something effective to reduce our future flood risk, like plant lots of trees.  Politics, stupidity and bullshit will not help us then, and they’re not helping us now.  If you can’t say anything useful – I’m looking at you, Farage – shut up, and get out of everyone’s way.

13/12/13
Photo: Tudor Barker via Flickr

Why IPSA is wrong

Photo: Tudor Barker via Flickr

Photo: Tudor Barker via Flickr

Yesterday, the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) published its package of measures on pay and benefits for MPs.  The headlines are:

  • a one-off salary increase to £74,000 pa, which IPSA reckons is 9.26%, but I make it 11.4% and everyone else seems to think it’s about 11% – I’ve given IPSA the benefit of the doubt here and called it a 9% increase from here on
  • new pension arrangements, bringing MPs’ pensions in line with those elsewhere in the public sector with increased member contributions, so reduced taxpayer contributions
  • scrapping the “resettlement payments” that meant MPs got a big pay-off when they left office (but keeping a smaller loss-of-office payment for MPs who stand for re-election and lose)
  • reform of MPs expenses, including the removal of the allowance for evening meals.

We (voters) need IPSA to work because otherwise the danger is that we go back to the system in which MPs set their own pay and make their own rules for claiming expenses.  This was an important opportunity for IPSA to demonstrate that independent, non-political administration of MPs’ pay and expenses can work and be credible.  They have blown it.

IPSA’s argument is that we should not focus on the pay rise but look at the package of measures as a whole.  If we look at the package as a whole, IPSA argues, we would find that it is incontrovertibly fair and sensible, and we would see that it only makes sense viewed as a package, rather than taking any element in isolation.  “This is a package, a package of reforms,” IPSA chair Sir Ian Kennedy said.  “You cannot unpick it. You can’t say that bit we like and that bit we do not.”  It’s an argument that succeeds brilliantly in being both arrogant and condescending.

Let’s look at what’s in the package, other than the pay rise.  First, there’s pension reform.  Bringing MPs’ pensions in line with other public sector pensions, and reducing the taxpayer burden, are both good ideas.  But other public sector employees have had their pensions reformed, in part to reduce the taxpayer burden – you may recall there were strikes over it – and yet I don’t recall anyone saying a 9% pay increase was a reasonable way to offset the detrimental impact of those changes.

Then there’s those “resettlement payments”.  An MP leaving office at election time – whether they were stepping down or had lost their bid for re-election – received a grant of between £50,000 and £100,000 (depending on age and length of service) with the first £30,000 being tax-free.  Of course these should be scrapped.  It’s outrageous they ever existed at all.  They’re not even being completely ditched – MPs who stand for re-election but lose will get a loss-of-office payment capped at six months’ salary.  This is a perk that most people don’t get when their contract isn’t renewed – which is the closest normal-world analogy I can think of to failing to win re-election.  I can’t think of any good reason why we should compensate for the reduction of this perk by way of a huge pay increase.

Finally, we have the reform of expenses.  It is completely right and proper that MPs are able to claim back expenses they legitimately incur in the course of doing their job.  We should expect these to be substantial as long as we expect our MPs to function in multiple workplaces (Westminster plus often more than one place within their constituency), to travel frequently between them while staying for several consecutive nights in each and working, effectively, seven days a week.  We also want MPs to maintain offices and even have some staff to help them manage what is a very demanding job.  There might well be some difficulty in determining which expenses are legitimate and which are not – particularly when it comes to accommodation – but, fundamentally, we are talking about reimbursing for expenses incurred, not topping up income.  Taking expenses away should not require balancing with adding to the salary – the two are not supposed to be connected.

IPSA insists that the pay rise is not intended as compensation for the loss of other benefits – that it does, in fact, stand on its own as a defensible decision.  I find it hard to marry that with Sir Ian’s insistence that the package cannot be unpicked.

What other arguments is IPSA using to defend its decision?  Well, there’s the one about how the IPSA package will not cost the taxpayer any more than the current arrangements.  This is both underwhelming (leaving things exactly as they are also won’t cost any more) and misses the point.  The problem with giving MPs a 9% pay rise isn’t that it will increase the cost to the taxpayer – it is that it is inherently unfair.

Then there’s the argument that IPSA’s research shows the public actually supports the pay package.  Actually, they don’t.  According to the research commissioned by IPSA, when presented with the package and told that it will be cost-neutral, 45% of respondents still said it was too generous, with 43% saying it was about right or not generous enough.  IPSA claims that this suggests that the outrage of commentators is misplaced – that the public has a more “sophisticated” and “nuanced” view than they are given credit for.  More adorable arrogance and condescension there – agreeing with IPSA is sophisticated; you should pity us dull plebs who disagree.  Of course, the problem here is that the research respondents were only shown the whole IPSA package and not given any other options.  Show them the package without the 9% pay rise – I wonder if it might get an even more sophisticated (if rather less nuanced) reaction.

And then we get to the arguments – put forward by IPSA and others – that MPs quite simply ought to be better paid.  There are a number of strands to this argument, not all of which IPSA supports.  There is a concern that, if you don’t pay MPs enough then only rich people would be able to stand for Parliament, and we’d be governed by an out-of-touch wealthy elite.  Then there is the view that MPs’ salaries need to be set high enough to encourage the high-flyers, the captains of industry, to run for office.  Why would they do so if it meant taking a huge pay cut from what they might expect to be paid in the private sector?  And there is also an argument that they should be paid more simply because the job deserves it – it’s incredibly hard, involves long, anti-social hours, and if you look at what parliamentarians in some other countries get, we are ‘falling behind’.

Those first two arguments are, of course, contradictory.  You can’t worry about only rich people becoming MPs and, at the same time, want to raise salaries so that more rich people become tempted to stand for election.

But, to really understand the weakness of these arguments, it’s worth knowing a couple of things.  The first is that the average salary for all full-time workers in the UK is £27,000.  The second is that MPs’ current salary of £66,000 puts them at the 97th percentile in terms of income for a single adult; the 85th percentile if you are in a couple and have two teenage children.  In other words, just 3% of single people in the country are paid better than MPs and 15% of people in two-older-children families.   Those numbers drop to 1% and 13%, respectively, at a salary of £74,000.  In other words, MPs are, by any reasonable standard, already very well paid.

Let’s consider first the argument that, unless MPs are generously paid, only rich people will be able to afford to be MPs.  First off, this is an argument that logically should apply to any job but is actually true for precisely none.  I think it’s wrong that only rich people should be able to afford to be primary school teachers, so it worries me that their starting salary is just £19,600 and their average salary is around £28,660 – well under half the current salary of an MP.  No wonder our primary schools are staffed almost exclusively by millionaires just killing time before taking control of the family oil company.  Wait – the teaching, nursing, social work, cleaning and maintenance industries aren’t all staffed entirely by the super-rich?  Well, that’s odd.  Maybe this argument makes no sense.  Maybe the 84-96 per cent of people for whom an MP’s salary would be a pay increase can afford to do the job after all.  Fancy that.

That said, the view that MPs should be drawn from a wider field than just the very rich is one that I have more sympathy with than the view that we should we raise their salaries in order to be able to reach up into the very rich to recruit more of them.  High pay is not a reliable proxy for the types of skills and attributes we necessarily want in an MP.  Do we really want a Parliament stuffed with insufferable type-A personalities, each convinced of the superiority of their leadership skills?  Why would we want to narrow the range of people who become MPs, when it is surely better to broaden it?  I think I’d prefer a House of Commons made up of a representative cross-section of the UK population, rather than one packed with that tiny minority of people for whom £66k is a pay cut but £74k is just about manageable.

This is not how IPSA has viewed this, clearly.  In fact, they haven’t approached this exercise in the way that an employer would at all.  “Setting MPs’ pay is not like setting pay in other jobs,” Sir Ian Kennedy explains.  He says it can’t be because the necessary data don’t exist to make it possible.  Again, this is true of lots of specialised roles – you have to make do with the  best data you can find.

If I have remembered my years-old management training on remuneration, the four things you want to consider when setting the salary for a job are recruitment, retention, incentive and reward.  Are you paying enough to attract enough of the right type and calibre of applicant for the job, or are they all hoping to work elsewhere where the pay is better?  Once you’ve hired them, are you paying them enough to keep them, or are they looking around for the same job but better paid somewhere else?  Does the salary provide adequate incentive for your employee to work effectively and to want to do well for the employer?  And is the salary fair reward for the quality and quantity of work to be done?

These questions are difficult to answer when you have a job with no written job description and for which the only qualification is electability.  But, to take those four factors in turn: recruitment doesn’t seem to be an issue for Parliament.  Not only are there multiple candidates for each Parliamentary seat but, in most of them, there are multiple candidates to be selected as a candidate.  It’s just a guess but I imagine, if you asked every one of them to list five reasons why they want to be an MP, ‘pay’ would not be mentioned by many, if any.  Would increased pay make more people want to be an MP?  Maybe, but do we want a House of Commons full of people who are in it for the money?

Retention doesn’t seem to be a problem, either.  You don’t see a lot of MPs quitting mid-term because they’ve had a better offer somewhere else.  Maybe some MPs choose not to stand for re-election because they think they’re not paid enough but I’m not too bothered by this because it’s so easy to replace them.  Oh, and here’s a good example of why the pay levels of parliamentarians in other countries is of limited relevance in this debate – because no MP can say “hey, they’re getting £114,660 over in the US House of Representatives – I should go and work there.”

As I understand it, the incentive for most MPs to do a half-decent job is the prospect that they might lose the next election.  Salary levels do not obviously come into it.

So, we reach the £74,000 question – what is a fair salary for MPs?  Yes, it’s a difficult job demanding long hours and a wide range of skills – the same is true of lots of jobs that don’t pay nearly as much.  Is it fair to expect an MP to scrape by on well over twice the national average salary, plus expenses, plus access to subsidised bars and restaurants, plus no risk of redundancy and, between elections, they can’t get fired and they don’t have to meet productivity targets or, in fact, any specific objectives at all and no one gives them performance reviews or tells them to stop arriving late or to start looking smarter…?  I think so.

The problem with Sir Ian saying that you can’t find data to decide on MPs’ pay is that what IPSA actually did do was find data to help them decide on MPs’ pay.  He explains it in his blogpost – they were really quite thorough and rigorous about it.  I don’t like the outcome, but I have no issue with the process.  There are some strong arguments in there about how, if MPs’ salaries had kept pace with public sector earnings growth since 2008, they would be on even more than the £74,000 now being proposed.  If I were Sir Ian, that’s the one argument I would want to make above all the others, not the nonsense about not unpicking packages or the public supporting him when we clearly don’t.  But I think this would have been a tremendously good argument to make in 2008.  In 2013, the third year of a public sector pay freeze and with the rate of earnings growth applying, of course, only to those who have managed to avoid losing their jobs altogether, I find myself unimpressed.

If you were determining MPs’ salaries for the first time today, would it be reasonable to pay them £74,000?  Probably.  So what’s my problem?

My problem is with MPs getting more, now.  At a time when everyone else whose salary comes from the taxpayer is not getting more; when many haven’t seen a pay increase in several years; when we are told that austerity and cutbacks are essential; when public sector workers have lost pension rights and other benefits with no compensatory pay rise – and many have lost their jobs; when those same workers have never had ‘resettlement grants’ or evening meal allowances to lose – when all these things are true, the idea that MPs deserve an extra 9% above what is already a pretty generous salary is hard to comprehend.  Most MPs seem already to know this.  Sir Ian, in his arrogance, argues that it is important for the sake of preserving an independent adjudicator that MPs have this pay rise forced on them.  In fact, it is important for the sake of preserving an independent adjudicator that IPSA finds a better solution – one that doesn’t, on its own, discredit the whole independent adjudicator framework in the eyes of the general public (even us unsophisticated types).

IPSA needs to work.  There needs to be a strong, credible body holding MPs transparently to account for their cost to the taxpayer.  It will be difficult for Parliament to hold its own regulator to account.  Which is a shame because we’re paying a lot for this standard of decision-making.  According to IPSA’s published figures, its three senior managers each earn somewhere between £85,000 and £105,000 per annum.  IPSA’s chair, Sir Ian Kennedy receives £60,000-£65,000 per annum for two days per week of work – that’s a full-time equivalent of £150,000-£162,5000.  He probably wouldn’t do it for less.  He probably thinks it’s a fair price for such sophisticated thinking.  Perhaps none of them would do the job if it paid less.  We should really find out.

27/11/13
Photo: Tim Green via Flickr

In which I uncharacteristically defend Christianity from (some of) its own followers

Photo: Tim Green via Flickr

Photo: Tim Green via Flickr

A lot of complete nonsense is about to be uttered by Christian commentators, church leaders and (mostly) Conservative politicians about how Christianity in Britain is under attack.  The forces of secular oppression, they will claim, have conspired to ensure that an elderly couple who merely wish to run their little guesthouse in accordance with their Christian beliefs are prosecuted and penalised for doing so.  Britain, I expect someone will say, is no longer tolerant of Christians.

This is, of course, utterly false.  Moreover, the people making these comments will be doing far more damage to British Christianity than the courts or the forces of secular oppression ever could.

The decision today by the UK Supreme Court against Hazelmary and Peter Bull will be characterised as being about modern society’s attitude to faith but it is nothing of the sort.  It is actually about modern society’s attitude to discrimination.  I’m delighted that the Bulls lost – not because I’m an atheist and think everyone else should be like me (I am, but I don’t); but because I don’t think you should have the right to discriminate against gay people, whatever the philosophical origin of that discrimination may be.  If a gay couple were to turn away customers from their B&B for being Christian, I would equally expect them to meet the same fate as the Bulls.  (In fact, Lady Hale, deputy president of the Supreme Court, has said exactly this.)

If I were a church leader, the one thing that would make me madder than everything else, the one thing that would scare me more than anything else, and the one thing I would work hardest to change would be this: every headline and every news report on this case will refer to the Bulls as “Christian guesthouse owners.”  Actually, that’s not strictly true.  ‘Guesthouse’ will be substituted with ‘B&B’ or ‘hotel’ in many cases.  But “Christian” – that’s going to be in all of them.

Will church leaders be upset by this?  Nope.  They will love it.  They will think it’s brilliant because it makes them seem like an oppressed minority.  In the process, they will further entrench in the national consciousness this simple equation: Christian=homophobic.  It’s an incredible own-goal.  For those who hope for the total dominance of secularism, Christmas has come early.  Again.

It is a false equation.  There are plenty of gay and gay-friendly Christians.  There are entire Christian sects that reject discrimination and give divine inspiration as their reason for doing so; it’s just that “Quaker guesthouse owners welcome everyone” isn’t considered a very interesting newspaper headline.  It should also be noted that there’s no great shortage of atheist homophobes.

If a different elderly couple running a B&B cited religious belief as their reason for turning away some guests because the guests were black, we wouldn’t be having this debate.  There would be no religious groups lining up to defend the B&B owners and pay their legal costs.  No one would be talking about religious freedom then.  And they wouldn’t be “Christian B&B owners” in the headlines; the church would make an almighty fuss about it if they were described that way.  (By the way, if you think this is an absurd hypothetical because there is no scriptural rationale for racial discrimination, try Googling “Biblical justification for segregation” and see how it worked in the American South for a century or more).

Perpetuating the myth that Christianity is axiomatically intolerant is the most self-destructive act a church leader can perform.  If you’re an Anglican trying to hold fast against female bishops or defending your right to treat gay people with contempt, you are accelerating the demise of your church so much more effectively than atheists like me.  You’re appeasing an increasingly aged section of the narrow-minded faithful, but you’re repelling everyone else.  You’re promoting the interpretation of Christian philosophy that is least relevant to modern Britain and, therefore, least valuable to modern Britons.

“All are welcome” is the message outside all my local Anglican churches.  The idea that, in fact, a great many are unwelcome ought to be treated by the church as a grotesque slander, not a noble cause to rally round.  Personally, I would not welcome the death of the Church of England – in part because I’m not that keen on what, religious or secular, might take its place.  I know plenty of other atheists, though, who will find great enjoyment in just sitting around watching Christians set their own house on fire.

21/06/13
"Do I look like I want to be disturbed?"

The #BountyMutiny sails on

"Do I look like I want to be disturbed?"

“Do I look like I want to be disturbed?”

With (not very sincere) apologies to those of my friends and followers who might find my Bounty fixation a little tedious, I thought an update on my recent blogpost on Mumsnet’s campaign to shut Bounty sales reps out of maternity wards was in order.

First of all, my thanks to everyone who tweeted and shared my last blogpost – particularly those at the forefront of the campaign, including Mumsnet, its founder and CEO Justine Roberts, healthcare writer and blogger Margaret McCartney, Professor Alice Roberts, Ben Goldacre, and Telegraph journalist Amy Willis (more on Amy in a moment).  If you don’t follow these people on Twitter, I recommend that you do.  I also suggest following the #BountyMutiny hashtag if you want a flavour of some mums’ experiences with Bounty.

Since I wrote that blogpost, more information has come to light that is worth an extra mention.  Primarily this is due to the determined investigative work of Amy Willis at the Daily Telegraph who has pursued this issue when other media organisations who initially covered it (notably the BBC, the Guardian and the Daily Mail) lost interest.  Among other things, Amy found instances where Bounty reps were alleged to have posed as medical staff, offered medical advice and been aggressive or rude to mothers or where they targeted weak mothers, invaded privacy and ignored ‘do not disturb’ requests; she has reported on the concerns of the charity Safe Child UK that Bounty’s access to maternity wards might be in breach of the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 1996; and today she has published the account of a former Bounty rep who quit because she says she was encouraged to steal patients’ details from their medical notes and harass mothers into having their photo taken.

Bounty’s strategy appears to be to portray itself as a beloved institution.  ‘Everybody loves to see the Bounty Lady,’ they (and several NHS hospitals I’ve seen quoted) argue.  ‘The only complaints we get are from mums who have missed the Bounty Lady,’ goes the claim.  They’re like freebie angels, distributing happiness.  You would, by this argument, no more ban Bounty reps from maternity wards than you would shut Father Christmas out of children’s wards in December.  So embedded in hospital life have Bounty reps  become that Mumsnet has found a reference to Bounty in official Maternity Certificate documents for claiming statutory maternity pay or maternity allowance.  Mumsnet has also found that HMRC pays Bounty £90,000 to distribute Child Benefit claim forms.  Margaret McCartney has been railing against Darent Valley Hospital for listing the Bounty rep alongside medical staff as “people who you may meet” in their maternity wards.

So successful have Bounty been at depicting themselves as benign bearers of gifts that I have seen some people take to Twitter or the comments threads beneath Amy’s reports to come to Bounty’s defence.  I wasn’t expecting this.  It strikes me as almost beyond debate that hospital wards should be safe, secure, private places where patients should be able to receive treatment, recuperate and rest without being approached by sales reps with cameras.  If we think this is acceptable, why restrict it to just maternity wards?  Perhaps we should (for a fee, of course) allow ambulance-chasing lawyers to skulk around A&E, or funeral directors to wander opportunistically around cancer wards.  What better time to hand a parent a Disneyland brochure than when they are sitting next to their sick child’s bedside, desperately promising him everything he asks for if it will help him get better?  Why are these ideas in any poorer taste than handing out promotional goody bags to new mums?

These are the arguments I’ve seen in defence of Bounty, and why I think they make no sense:

New mums welcome the Bounty lady – they like to receive their Bounty packs.  It’s a pretty sad reflection on society that a sample pack of nappies and a discount on a box-set of Beatrix Potter books is all it takes for us to willingly compromise the privacy of a maternity ward.  I don’t doubt that many mums – perhaps even most of them – like to receive their Bounty pack.  It’s free (to them) and they may find something of use in it.  But that’s not an argument for letting sales reps into a ward.  I don’t want Bounty packs abolished, or Bounty shut down – I want new mums (some of whom will be vulnerable) and their babies protected from intrusion and exploitation.  Offer the Bounty pack to mums on their way out of the hospital, if you must.  A hospital bedside – where they can’t easily get away – is no place for even the kindest, most considerate sales rep.

Let’s also not forget that, while Bounty may have exclusive access to wards, there is nothing they peddle that you can’t easily get elsewhere.  If you’re about to become a parent for the first time, you’ll probably already have found (and maybe even signed up for) numerous online parenting clubs (including, quite possibly, Bounty’s) where you’ll have discovered how eager are retailers and manufacturers of baby products to offer you freebies to win your custom.  You can also, of course, take your own photo of mum and baby – you’re as qualified to do so as the Bounty lady is.  Instead of feeling like you’ve ‘missed’ the Bounty lady, go online and get the free stuff and special offers that you want and you choose.

Hardly anyone complains and we deal “robustly” with reps that break our Code of Conduct.  Most people don’t complain about things – particularly days after the fact when you’ve got better things to worry about and you know nothing will actually be done about it.  But, yes, I’m sure most people’s experiences of the Bounty rep are positive – see my counter-argument above.  That doesn’t excuse or permit the negative experiences.  How, exactly, Bounty deals “robustly” with errant reps is unclear to me.  Perhaps they fire them.  And then they replace them with someone else, equally desperate to maximise her sales because the commission is the only pay she’s getting.  That’s not fixing the problem, it’s perpetuating it.

Cash-strapped hospitals need the money Bounty pays them.  Amy Willis’ research has found that around 150 hospitals make, cumulatively, roughly £2.3 million a year from their deals with Bounty.  To put that into perspective, the total budget for the NHS in England is £108.9 billion, so that £2.3 million accounts for 0.0021 per cent of the overall funding of the health service.  I don’t doubt that the hospitals with Bounty deals welcome the additional revenue – and I might argue that we should be funding maternity services better from the public purse so they don’t feel the necessity of commercial deals such as this.  But really it’s about what you consider to be an acceptable way to make money.  Hospitals could equally boost revenues by having someone come round wards selling cigarettes, by putting wine bars and gaming machines in waiting areas and by covering all available wall space with poster advertising.  They don’t do these things because they are not good for patients and they would undermine public confidence in the healthcare being provided – the same, in my view, is true of Bounty.

This is a trivial issue – we should be focused on NHS reform/funding.  I think we can do both.  I also think it’s only trivial if you perceive it to be an issue of what Bounty should be allowed to do, rather than what new mums should be able to expect.  Protecting the security, safety and privacy of new mums and their babies strikes me as a pretty important issue.

The online petition has reached over 17,760 signatures – please sign it, and write to your MP and local hospital if you agree with me that it’s time to shut the Bounty lady out of the ward.

12/06/13
Photo credit: Elana's Pantry, via Flickr

School governors out to lunch

Photo credit: Elana's Pantry, via Flickr

Photo credit: Elana’s Pantry, via Flickr

This BBC Devon news story – which has been the most shared and most read story on the BBC News website for much of today – has been bothering me.  Hayes Primary School in Paignton has reportedly refused to serve lunch to an 11-year old pupil because his dad had failed to pay sufficient funds in advance for lunches and was in debt to the school to the tune of £1.75.  The boy, stunned at being refused food, burst into tears and was given an apple by a mealtime assistant who felt sorry for him.

In attempting to defend itself, the school said that it had had “significant numbers of previous occurrences of late payments and bad debts on school meals” (not, as far as I can tell, from this parent, but generally) and so had instituted a “rule” that children should not receive lunches if their parents owed money.  This particular child’s parents “were notified on three occasions prior to the mealtime of interest that their debt was due and that their son would not receive a meal if the debt remained unpaid.”  As far as the school was concerned, the parents, and therefore the child, didn’t have a leg to stand on and it was wrong of the father to suggest that the school was “fully responsible for withholding a meal from him.”

What troubles me about the school’s reaction is that it is stated by the BBC that it came from the school’s governing body (of which the child’s father was a member until he resigned in reaction to the treatment of his child).

I’ve been, albeit only briefly, a governor of a state primary school in Devon.  (Although, geographically, Paignton is in Devon, it falls within the Torbay unitary authority and not, as with my school, Devon County Council).  One thing this county is very good at is offering training to school governors and one of the key things that is emphasised in this training is the paramount (legal) duty of the governing body to focus on the children – to promote high quality education and look after their welfare.  This is what you would expect – any school has a duty of care to its children while they are in attendance there.  Ensuring that the children are fed would seem to be an obvious and fundamental aspect of meeting their educational and welfare needs.

It’s clearly not right to expect a school to provide lunches for free.  Late payment and accumulation of debts for lunches is a legitimate concern for a school.  But it’s a matter that needs to be pursued with the parents, not taken out on the children.  As difficult as it might make things for the school financially (and even then only temporarily) you feed the child and sort out the payment with the parents separately.  If a child who normally has packed lunches forgets to bring it one day, your duty is to look after him – feed him and sort out the payment with the parents separately.  (I don’t know if this is what actually happens at any school – perhaps I’m expecting an unreasonable level of generosity here.)  That’s what a duty of care means.  Your first, overriding obligation is to take care of the children.

I think the governors of Hayes Primary School have lost sight of their primary responsibility.  I can imagine how this might have happened.  I can see how problems of late payment for lunches might have cropped up regularly in headteacher’s reports to the governors, or as a recurring agenda item at governing body meetings.  At some point, the governors will have resolved to take concerted action to deal with the problem and, at that point, their main focus shifted onto fixing the lunch issue and away from properly looking after the children.  Surely no governing body, properly focused on its primary duty, would create a rule that would leave a child hungry in the middle of the school day, let alone enforce and then defend it.

If I were a parent of a child at this school, I would be seriously concerned about its management and governance.  If I were a governor there, I would be looking to get this reckless policy reversed by the week’s end.

12/06/13
"Perhaps now's not the best time to sell me fabric softener?"

Bounty’s end #bountymutiny

"Perhaps now's not the best time to sell me fabric softener?"

“Perhaps now’s not the best time to sell me fabric softener?”

[Update:  I have published a follow-up post to this one here.]

If you’ve never had a baby in a British NHS hospital, you may never have encountered Bounty.  They are a marketing company that make their money by promising advertisers exclusive and privileged access to the lucrative market sector of parents of newborn babies.  They can make this promise because of a series of commercial deals, some first struck decades ago, with assorted NHS hospitals that allow Bounty reps access to maternity wards and ante-natal clinics, where they distribute their wares.  The Bounty pack is principally a bundle of waste paper.  It contains dozens of promotional leaflets for nappies, clothing, baby gadgets, books and toys, baby food, laundry detergent and the like, along with a few samples of some products.  Ours went straight  into the recycling; the samples went in the bin.  There is nothing in it that cannot be obtained via conventional marketing channels – like a website – but you have to go and look for them there, whereas Bounty place them, literally, in your lap.

I was pretty outraged about Bounty when I first encountered them five years ago.  You get your first Bounty pack weeks before your baby is born.  My wife was handed hers when she went for a routine check-up at hospital.  Presumably there was usually a Bounty rep skulking about, handing out their little bags of litter but perhaps, on this occasion, she was taking  a break.  In her absence, my wife was handed her Bounty pack by the midwife at the end of their appointment.  I was appalled at the abuse of trust involved in having a state-employed medical professional act as a vehicle for advertising.  (When I complained to the hospital about it – a large London hospital, not our local one in Devon where we now live – they flatly denied that their staff ever did this.)

When your baby is born and mum and child are recuperating in the maternity ward, the Bounty rep is there, ready to pounce.  They approach you outside visiting hours, when you don’t have the reassuring support of family and friends.  They offer to take (and then, of course, sell you) a photo of you with your newborn baby.  They now, apparently, also take your personal details to pass onto their commercial clients.  My wife had the presence of mind to tell the Bounty rep who approached her to get lost and, in fairness, the rep did so without protest.  Not all new mums would seem to have had this experience with Bounty.

According to Mumsnet, who are campaigning to end Bounty’s access to maternity wards, 56% of the parents they surveyed felt their privacy had been invaded by Bounty.  48% said they were not told that giving their details was voluntary and 60% said they were not told their details would be passed on to other companies.  29% felt pressurised into having their photo taken.  Most worringly of all, 17% claimed that they were told that they would not be able to claim Child Benefit if they didn’t give their details to Bounty.  An investigative piece by Amy Willis of The Daily Telegraph suggests that some Bounty reps have resorted to fairly deceptive and aggressive tactics when dealing with new mums.  The fact that Bounty reps work on a commission-only basis suggests to me that the company may, by incentivising reps only to make as many sales as possible, also be encouraging them to pay little heed to Bounty’s own Code of Conduct.

Even if Bounty succeeds in stamping out the dishonest practices of some of their reps, a maternity ward is not an appropriate  place for intrusive marketing.  New mums are vulnerable and it is precisely this vulnerability that Bounty exploit.  I’m not arguing that all new mums are fragile, delicate things incapable of thinking straight or defending themselves – that clearly isn’t true.  But, for a lot of mums, even the easiest labour is likely to find you physically and emotionally weakened.  If you are a parent for the first time, both during pregnancy and then after birth, you will naturally feel some anxiety about whether or not you are doing all the right things.  A new first-time mum, probably exhausted from labour, is likely to feel uncertain about her situation and surroundings.  She is, for hopefully only a short period, reliant on the guidance, support and assistance of others.  She will also feel highly protective, first and foremost of her baby, who will appear incredibly vulnerable to her, and also of herself.  She is forced into placing a colossal amount of trust in everyone around her: hospital staff, visitors and the others mums and their visitors, too.  She has to know that this trust is not misplaced.  All these things contribute to a sense of vulnerability.  In this intensely personal time, she needs privacy.

Hospitals know this.  Maternity units in NHS hospitals are secure places.  You can’t just walk in.  When I visited my wife and baby in hospital, I had to be buzzed in through a heavy, securely locked door only once I had identified myself and they had visually confirmed that I was who I said I was.  Newborn babies are immediately fitted with an electronic ankle bracelet that sets off an alarm if it is carried out of the ward.  The NHS understands the vital importance of new mums being able to feel safe and secure and being able to trust everyone around them – yet they allow Bounty reps in to abuse that trust.

There should be no doubt that the vulnerability of new mums is a key selling point for Bounty, and a fundamental aspect of its product offering to advertising clients.  I’m sure they don’t say as much to potential commercial clients, and they may not even be consciously aware of it themselves.  They’ll talk about their exclusivity of access and the ability of advertisers to reach their target audience in an environment otherwise uncluttered with competing marketing messages.  They will talk about the lack of wastage – the fact that only new mums see a Bounty rep, so companies are not spending money reaching people outside their target market.  But they and their clients are also reaping the commercial benefit of reaching people who are likely to be too vulnerable to resist them.  Having access to maternity wards – right up to your bedside – automatically makes a Bounty rep a ‘trusted person’.  No wonder so many mums let their guard down and believe that buying a photo or giving up their personal details is the right thing to do.  The hospital has let the rep in, so she must be trustworthy, right?  But it is trust misplaced.  It is trust to be exploited, not respected.  The Bounty rep has no interest in you or your child beyond your potential to be parted with your money.  She is not recommending products that she thinks would benefit you or your baby, she’s touting the ones she’s been paid to promote.  Taking advantage of your vulnerability is an essential aspect of Bounty’s service.

We have laws and regulations against advertising that targets vulnerable people.  This is because advertising is supposed to be about encouraging you to make informed, considered purchasing decisions.  When you are vulnerable, you may be more trusting, and so more credulous, than usual.  You may be less able to identify misleading information.  You may be less able to resist high pressure selling techniques (like being approached when you are in a hospital bed).  You may also be less able to make informed, considered choices.  You are more vulnerable to scams (in fairness to Bounty, nothing they do or advertise constitutes a scam) but also to buying products that are not right for you or that you don’t want and wouldn’t buy if you were not vulnerable.  If you are vulnerable, you may feel less able to say “no”.

We were lucky.  Aside from a minor complication that did cause us enormous worry for the first few days (that’s him in the picture, three days old), our baby was healthy, born at full-term, with a strong and savvy mother.  But even we valued enormously the safety, security and privacy of the maternity ward in the few days that my wife and child spent there.  Imagine the value you would place on those things if you were not so lucky and you were alone, upset, worried, exhausted or ill.  You would be truly vulnerable, and a pushy sales rep with a camera is the last person you should have to deal with.

Even if you had a scrupulously honest and decent Bounty rep (as I’m sure most of them are) there is no place for them in a hospital maternity ward where privacy and trust should be of paramount importance.

Four-and-a-half years after my son was born, I’m delighted that Mumsnet has launched its campaign to shut Bounty out of maternity wards.  Though normally scathingly dismissive of online petitions and ‘slacktivism’, I might even sign I have signed this one.  I hope it succeeds.

Correction:  The original version of this blogpost said that Bounty’s access to maternity wards was due to a deal done with the NHS.  In fact, the payment-for-access arrangements are negotiated with each hospital individually.  This has now been corrected.

Amendment:  Since first writing this blogpost, I became aware of Amy Willis’ article in the Telegraph and references to this article have subsequently been included.