Saturday, 17 July 2010

Zac Goldsmith vs Jon Snow - in a parallel universe

How the Channel 4 News interview with Zac Goldsmith could have gone...

Zac: Thanks for allowing me to come on the programme. I know I've got some difficult questions to answer, but I first want to just say that the fact that you've brought this to the public's attention is important. What I've done looks odd - and that's because it's a broken system, in which a certain amount of bending of the rules is 'how it's done'.

Jon: Really? And this bending of the rules is acceptable? That doesn't sound like Cameron's 'new politics' to me ...

Zac: No - it most certainly isn't. It's very much old politics - but it's old politics that was in place before we were elected. We only have the opportunity to change things going forward - and no doubt a part of the review that Nick Clegg is undertaking of our whole political process will include a good look at spending during election campaigns, and how we keep a level playing field but get rid of the very complex and blurry guidelines.

Jon: So you don't deny that you were blurring the lines - fiddling the figures to come in under the limit?

Zac: Of course I don't - the notion that you could run an election campaign in a borough like Richmond and only spend eleven thousand pounds in the short period is insane. Susan Kramer will have employed many of the same formulas to get extra value into her campaign while still technically staying within the regulations. I checked everything, at every stage, with Conservative central office.

Jon: And they directly approved the transfer of £700 of boards - bearing your face and your name - onto the local election budget? You can prove that?

Zac: They did and I can. And just as importantly - the Lib Dems and Labour will have approved the same for many of their candidates. Why do you think Labour MPs weren't out this morning baying for my blood? It's because they know that all over the country the same formulas and techniques are used for calculating the short period spend. If the electoral commission find against me then they'll also be finding against hundreds of other MPs across the country - possibly all 650.

Jon: There's no doubt that others are also playing the system - we've looked at the expenses of 30 MPs that we feel have questions to answer - but yours were materially different from the others.

Zac: If that's the case - and I'm not convinced it is, but I haven't looked at the returns of every MP - then the electoral commission will no doubt carry out an investigation. This was my first election and I sought advice every step of the way - especially on spending. If we've got it wrong then the people of Richmond can expect my apology and a by-election - and I will be happy to run, and win, against Susan Kramer again, under new, clearer spending guidelines.

Jon: You'd resign your position?

Zac: I'd have no choice. But this practice is widespread, so if I'm forced to resign then it won't be just me - it will be MPs up and down the country, and at a time of difficulty that kind of uncertainty - not to mention the expense to the public purse - is not in the national interest, so I would hope that the outcome would be more balanced - probably a completely overhaul of the system under Nick Clegg's review of the whole electoral process that is happening anyway.

But these would be the defences of a sensible, mature, intelligent person.

Instead, Zac Goldsmith entered into the most staggeringly self-centered and short sighted display of arrogance I have ever seen on television. If you haven't watched it (and you should, unless you're a friend of Zac's, in which case I'd advise that you do everything possible to avoid it), here's the video.

A democracy can be judged by its ability to tolerate criticism and inquiry. Withstanding - and even encouraging - the challenge of the democratic process itself is vital for refreshing democracy, preventing it from falling out of step with the electorate's felt-truths.

For Zac Goldsmith to believe that his injured pride, and the ins and outs of an email exchange with C4 News that he only entered into after six days of refusing to give a statement, is worthy of nine minutes of prime time news is staggering. He clearly believes that the electorate have no valid interest in the workings of the electoral process. He doesn't understand democracy, and whether or not he went over the line in the massaging of his electoral spend figures, he's shown himself not fit to be an MP.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

The Graduate Tax is the thin end of a wedge

Usually I am of the mind that single issue politics are somewhat bankrupt, but you do have to have a few red lines, and I've decided that this is one of mine.

So I just sent this message (via twitlonger) to the Labour party leadership candidates - @Ed_Miliband @edballsmp @DMiliband @andyburnhammp and @dianeforleader

Why I cannot vote for a labour leader who backs the Graduate Tax:

Education of any member of our society has benefits for the collective.

The benefits may be very direct - nurses, social workers, doctors, teachers.

Or they may be less obvious but just as important - the ability to think critically to challenge faulty thinking by our leaders, a skill with communicating complex ideas so that many may take part in debates otherwise restricted to the few.

I have no doubt that there are a handful of courses that would make satisfying Daily Mail headlines, but for the vast, vast majority, those 3 or 4 years spent at university do result in a more developed mind.

We do not all start from the same place at birth, at 5, at 11, at 16, or at whatever age we realise we'd like to embark on a university course. Clearly not every degree course churns out latin-verb-declining, equation solving, book writing poly-maths. Does this mean that those courses don't add value? Not in my view. And that's what education is about. Yes - for individuals it can be life changing, but it's society changing too.

If there's a conversation to be had about what we teach on our university courses then that's a different debate. But as to how we pay for education - my view is clear:

Education is the silver bullet.

There is no problem in society which is not best tackled through increased levels of education. We are fools to exile it from the state.

Whether our problems are practical or social, increased education of our population is our best bet for anything from solving water shortages and energy deficits to tackling bigotry and personal responsibility for health.

Education helps us live longer, and contribute more to society in numerous immeasurable ways.

For some people, the confluence of education and other life choices and opportunities will result in an increase in personal wealth. As we have done for many years, we should ask these people to contribute more to the collective pot, through a combination of income tax and capital gains tax.

A separate tax on graduates corrodes our sense of collective benefit from education, and collective responsibility for paying for it. It is the thin end of a very fat wedge. What about taxing people who went to one of the schools at the top of the league tables? School education is more closely linked to the quality of state-funded input than university education, where personal responsibility (using skills you acquired before arriving) is dominant.

The argument for individual-payment for individual-benefit is one I'd expect to hear from people who put the individual at the centre of their politics. People who are blind to the randomness of the circumstances of their childhood, and equally blind to the miracles of mindful collective endeavour.

But to hear it from prospective Labour leaders? I'm shocked.

Education is the social-mobility lever. The level of education required to give a member of society a good start has shifted - as a symptom of success - from just being able to read and write, to needing to acquire a broad set of skills and then further specialise through education post-18. We should be celebrating and enabling this progress, embracing it as an emblem that proves that left-wing principles are about building a better society, not just propping up 'the poor'.

I cannot vote for any prospective Labour leader candidate who backs the Graduate Tax. Your views on education are - in my mind - the most revealing of your perspective on what social progress truly looks like.


I'm attending a labour party event where I hope to discuss this with them and other Labour members at the end of this month. I joined up after Nick shocked me by snuggling up with Dave, apparently not worried about the implications of a decision as long as he gets to make it. I was always a Labour supporter, but I kind of thought the Lib Dems were lefties too and in my constituency a cheese sandwich would have more chance of getting elected than a Labour candidate. Now I realise I need to be in the fight more actively.

As an aside, if you haven't seen this video, check it out for a would-be-funny-if-it-wasnt-screwing-real-people revelation of the extent of Nick's affinity with Groucho Marx*:

* "These are my principles, if you don't like them I have others." Thanks to blaugustine for that fantastic quote.

Monday, 31 May 2010

Warning: may contain Politics

The sight of Danny Alexander and his defenders pointing to the fact that he hasn't, technically, done anything illegal seems to make a mockery of the core liberal value (as I understand it):

A healthy society is one with less, and not more, explicit legislation, because people can be trusted to do the right thing and not just the legal thing.

The three year exemption from CGT which Danny Alexander took advantage of was intended to avoid paralysing the housing market by wrongly taxing, as second-home-owners, people who found themselves caught in a sluggish housing market. Without it, there was the danger that buyer-sellers would have been completely unable to commit to a new home until they'd sold their old home, resulting in a total freeze of sales.

We could, of course, have doubled the detail of the legislation to specify many included and excluded situations, which would seemingly have excluded Danny Alexander from exemption, but isn't that exactly the kind of over-interfering legislation that Lib Dems are against?

I can just about forgive the average citizen for failing to make the connection between their taxes and the schools and hospitals they pay for. But MPs? Surely our MPs should be beyond reproach when it comes to tax avoidance. When the expenses scandal broke, the main defence was that 'everybody was doing it'. Except the Lib Dems of course, who won many people's votes (we have friends among them) on the grounds that they were not implicated in the great MP benefit fraud.

When Nick Clegg used his public platform to hammer home the 'fact' that his MPs had not taken advantage of the second-homes system, was he deliberately missing a key sentence: " ... as far as I know, but we haven't really bothered to look into it." ?

Even if we don't feel directly conned, it's all starting to look a little ridiculous.

How a chief secretary can convincingly implement a tightening of the loop holes he just used to his own advantage is beyond me. How a government can come down harshly on the tiny fraction of people who play the system for tiny sums of money which they may not be entitled to, while turning a blind eye to the blatant fraud carried out by their own colleagues, is also beyond me.

Integrity is, in my mind, defined by how we behave in the loop holes.

David Laws, 'a man of great integrity', appeals to us on the grounds of a pathological desire for privacy combined with an uncharacteristic attack of confusion: apparently he didn't understand that the definition of partner applied in his circumstances

I don't believe that claiming that you couldn't quite make sense of the commons rules about partnership, when you're simultaneously asking us to trust you to take a financial scalpel to society, is coherent. Either you're a very bright and clever person who can make sense of very complicated things, or you're not. If you got that wrong, and you really thought you'd got it right, how can you be so confident that axing the Future Jobs Fund is the right thing to do? How can you be confident that a brake on public spending isn't going to tip us into another recession? You didn't even realise that the lover you've lived with for a decade was your partner!

He cited the lack of joint bank accounts and separate social lives as the reasons why they weren't partners. Fantastic - hundreds of thousands of unmarried couples around the country can presumably start declaring themselves single parent families for the calculation of their family tax credit, because they don't have a joint account and she never goes with him to darts on a Thursday night?

Or... was he suggesting that there are different rules for gay people?

The burden of internalised homophobia is no doubt heavy for David Laws, but I don't really want my leaders dragging that kind of luggage around with them. Ignoring the possible influence it might have on their actual decision making, and the message it sends about his willingness to demand a society in which everybody is free to be themselves, it's a headfuck.

I don't want my leaders keeping huge personal secrets. The drain emotional and psychological energy. And if they don't then the keeper is barely human, and just as unsuitable for public office.

Apparently Alexander will be protected because it's just too embarrassing to go through 2 chief secretaries in a weekend. And Laws will be back, because greed and fraud and deception are forgivable in bright posh people, just not the estate-dwelling scum who play the system so that their kids don't miss out on school trips.

A final thought: I do not believe that David Cameron didn't know about David Laws. On the day he became PM, his security advisers will have asked him if he'd like to share the names of the people he's intending to appoint. If certain names came up, the advisers will have invited him to read a pertinent excerpt from the individual's file. I just can't believe that the fact that Laws is a closeted gay man didn't come up. If they couldn't put that together with his expenses record to make 4 then we should all be worried about what other skeletons are rattling in our cabinet's cupboards.

A Conservative might well give Alexander a pat on the back for his clever tax avoidance, but Laws? Knowing the public mood, Cameron must have realised that if it came to light it would destroy him - at least temporarily - and do irreparable damage to the reputation of the Lib Dems as the 'good guys'.

In Spain, we keep a jar of fish heads and tails to attract the wasps and flies away from where we're eating. It works rather well.

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Like Bees To Honey - Chapter 1

We are very pleased to be hosting the first chapter of Like Bees To Honey on our blog by the wonderful Caroline Smailes.

You can go on a blog journey reading different chapters from the book, to see the previous chapter head over to Caroline's blog.

To move on and read the second chapter go visit Helen Redfern's blog.

And if you would like to buy a copy then you can whizz over to Amazon.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

The triangle book is here!

It's a real, proper, shiny book about triangles... as created by Badger and I, with help from the Head First team and my co-author Dawn Griffiths.

Very, very exciting:

And then you too will know about triangles (other shapes also available) and I will earn about seven pence.

It is a very good feeling :)

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Painting by numbers...

We're not here much these days. The triangle book is now 3 triangle books, the first of which is published next month. Hectic is a good catch-all.

But mostly we've been battling the system.

In a nut shell, Master Melancholy is a lovely, bright, thoughtful boy who has great capacity for learning languages and seeing the big picture and still can't tie his shoelaces at 14.

Or use a tin opener.
Or a cheese grater.
Or catch a ball.
Or write on the shopping list legibly.
Or write more than 2 paragraphs of handwriting in half an hour.
Or consistently remember, between putting food on his fork and it reaching his mouth, that he is engaged in the task of eating.
Or appropriately choose his own wardrobe if we're going on a walk.
Or tolerate more than a few minutes in a supermarket without becoming visibly distressed (though he shuts down rather than making a fuss).

As ridiculous as it may sound, until the beginning of this year, Ms M and I didn't really know what dyspraxia was. These days it's known as Developmental Co-ordination Disorder/Difficulty.

Master M received an instant diagnosis of dyspraxia (it's obvious once you know...) from the incredibly helpful and lovely paediatrician and was duly referred to Occupational Therapist (OT) for assessment / therapy.

We arrived at the OT and were greeted with the statement that the OT prefers to call it 'Developmental Co-ordination Difference'.

We're all for positive labelling and not projecting negative stereotypes onto people who are different. And if Master M was being home educated, or we had the money to send him to the gorgeous, forward thinking private school down the road, and pay for private occupational therapy to help him gain independence, his neurological set up would genuinely amount to difference... but in the context of being a pupil at an old fashioned grammar school, and only having access to the NHS, it's a difficulty at best and a genuine disability at exam times.

The OT put Master M through his paces with a battery of tests and found that his fine motor skills are in the 2nd Centile. Only one child in 100 has more trouble than him with fiddly things and pencil control. He also struggled with aiming / catching, but managed to fluke a hit which he later described as 'missing in the same direction as the target'. Then on to gross motor skills, which Master M has worked hard on over the years. He did some excellent hopping. It lacked style but he hit all the markers.

Then, amazingly, she averaged the scores, and the hopping-skills lifted Master M's two 'red zone' scores into the 'amber zone'.

'See!' she exclaimed cheerfully 'You're not that bad really! We see other children who are much worse than you!'

She seemed puzzled by our lack of relief.

Incredibly, because he can hop, and despite the fact that his fine motor control is non-existant, he is not eligible for a service from the NHS. He's in the amber zone you see. Officially this places him 'at risk of a movement difficulty' and not actually suffering from one.

So - that sorts it out. We'll just write to the exam boards and ask if they can allow him to demonstrate his hopping in lieu of being able to produce an essay of the required length. I'm sure they'll jump at the suggestion!

Since then, we've done something we never thought we'd find ourselves doing, and gone private. We found an amazing place called Therapy in Praxis in York, who hear stories like ours all the time. We sat in the waiting room and heard parents talking about the school accepting that their child had serious problems (the kids we saw were gorgeous but clearly affected by something) but that the waiting list for therapy was 2 years. For a five year old. Who will be seven before he receives any help... *sigh*

Anyway - at Therapy in Praxis, Master M had a full day integrated assessment, including working with an Ed Psych and a speech and language specialist. It cost a fortune, but it was completely worth it. He felt understood. He felt validated. He is not crazy, or lazy (and I'm ashamed to say that at times I have wondered whether he could try harder) - he is disabled and the things he finds hard really are hard for him. Some are actually impossible using conventional tools.

We've since seen the paediatrician again, who praised our decision to go private, lamenting the lack of multi-disciplinary childrens medicine today. She is fantastic, and has confirmed that everything the private assessment turned up is real and significant and consistent with her observations of Master M. We'd been anxious that she might be sceptical, but she was quite the opposite.

It turns out that Master M doesn't 'just' have dyspraxia, he also has:
  • Clinically low muscle tone (caused in his brain so exercise doesn't fix it - basically he's floppy)
  • Hypermobility of his hands (he can't form a stable grip at all)
  • An impaired auditory loop (the 'talking to ourselves' that we use for short-term memory)
  • Sensory integration disorder (he can't make use of the information from his senses properly)
  • Auditory problems (he doesn't filter to favour voice frequencies, has super-human hearing!)
  • Vestibular problems (if he closes his eyes he has no balance - no wonder he hates the dark)

on top of all this he's also still dealing with the cleft palate he's had since birth, and consequent speech difficulties. Most importantly for his GCSEs, with his 2nd centile fine motor skills, any motor output requires complete concentration: he can write or think but not at the same time.

Together with his cleft palate, the difficulties he has can all be caused by a chromosomal partial deletion which he has now been tested for. We won't know the results for 3 months. Had he been born in the last 10 years he would have been tested at birth for it - one in 10 children with cleft palate have it, actually more like 1 in 5 or 6 once you discount causes such as drug use during pregnancy and other, more serious syndromes which Master M definitely doesn't have. This '22q11.2 deletion' syndrome can also include heart, kidney and immune problems, which may not be apparent until you look for them. Who would know if he only had one kidney?

Amazingly, the NHS don't appear to be retrospectively testing children with cleft palate who were born before we had the test available. "You were born before 1999 - so you can't have that, because we didn't know about it then... " seems to be the logic.

Ultimately we're lucky to have a paediatrician who is pulling out the stops to work the system for Master M. She sees the gap between his verbal IQ (top 5%) and his motor performance (bottom 2%) as a more sensible measure of his difficulty than simply averaging his scores across the board!

She's working out a way for him to have therapy from the autistic spectrum team - Sensory integration problems overlap with aspergers. She's also ensuring that at school he can use a laptop (doesn't require fine motor skills oddly!) and that they understand that they have a disabled child in their care who just happens to have been bright and hard working enough not to have received a diagnosis previously.

I had been under the illusion that we had great child health care in the UK. Gawd love the NHS and all that. I think I did a lot of filming of the glamourous end - open heart surgery and pioneering treatments - when I worked in TV.

I appreciate that health care will always be about numbers to an extent - cost-benefit analysis and so on. But we need to put a lot more thought into the way numbers are used to make decisions in health care, particularly in child health care, where the decisions are so life changing. There is no meaningful average of hopping and handwriting, and the fact that other kids, with parents less able to fight for them, are also not getting a service because of this kind of misuse of mathematics is depressing.

Excel spreadsheets are not professionally trained and haven't taken the hippocratic oath.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Badger obssessed?? me??

Well, it has sure been quiet on Chasing Sheep this summer, but today I have a special something to share. On turning the house upside down in search for my mother's sock camera. I came across something I wrote many moons ago when I was just a Badger cub. Aged 8.

I was most impressed that my choice of paper features a Badger, clearly this love of Badgers runs deep. If you want to read the note below you can click on it for a bigger view. Oh and incase you were interested, no boy with purple hair, nor even brown hair appeared outside when I smiled. I wonder why I had such an issue with his hair colour? Anyhow I can now confirm to you that Fairies are not real. Unless they were especially busy in the 80's perhaps.

oh, and I found my mums camera too! phew!