Thursday, 14 July 2016

Out with the New. In with the Old.

I can’t pretend that today is a good day. It is quite literally the end of an era in UK Politics.

It was eleven or twelve years ago, 2004 or 2005, when I first read about the group of politicians who were known at the time as the ‘Notting Hill Set’. David Cameron, George Osborne, Steve Hilton and Michael Gove were at the centre of a group who were plotting their rise to power at the Centre of the Conservative party.

I had absolutely no doubt they would achieve it because, at the time, the Conservative party was in a fairly dire state and seemed to lack almost any other talent. 

Since being wiped out at the 1997 election, after 18 years of Conservative government, the Conservative party was floundering. In 2002 Theresa May, as party chairman, had attempted to confront the problem by announcing at the Conservative Conference of that year that the Conservatives were thought of as ‘The Nasty Party’.

It was a spectacular own-goal. Rather than forcing the Conservative party to confront it’s limitations and somehow reinvent itself as a result of her utterly un-amazing insight, instead her words just served to ‘brand’ the party with a particularly damaging sound-bite. Frankly her words were little more than a grasp of the obvious and served no positive purpose.

The problem with Theresa May’s analysis at the time, and the analysis of many of her generation in the Conservative party then was that they were convinced that the Conservatives simply had a presentation problem. They felt they had the substance but, through no fault of their own, were branded incorrectly. There was evidence to support this analysis. Lord Saatchi did blind tests with focus groups on policies and found that people liked the policies he described right up until the moment they realised that they were Conservative policies.

Whilst Theresa May was navel gazing, telling the nation how terrible the Conservative party was and doing absolutely nothing recognisable to rebuild the Conservative party at grassroots level (her job as party chairman), another group were quietly working on the problem. 

I think it was either the 2003 or 2004 Conservative conference when David Cameron and George Osborne did a Question and Answer session on various policy areas with an audience of Conservative members. They were a breath of fresh-air. They looked and sounded young, sharp, thoughtful and very different from the grey-haired old fogeys of the Conservative party that we were all used to at the time. 

I was watching the Conference on TV while doing some decorating. But by the end of the session I had discarded the paint-brush and was absorbed watching what I knew was the future of the Conservative party. By the end of it I was convinced I had seen the next Conservative prime minister - the only question was which of them it would be but I correctly guessed that the older David Cameron was the most likely candidate.

The Leadership election campaign of 2005, with David Cameron up against David Davies, was the moment at which the leadership of the Conservative party skipped a generation. Instead of Davis becoming leader, the membership saw a fresh new approach and chose Cameron.

Which for me, makes the events of the last couple of days seem very strange. Instead of David Cameron and George Osborne, born in the 1960s and early 1970s, being replaced by the next generation as you might expect, in fact the reverse of the events of 2005 has occurred. 

The Conservative leadership are instead today those born in the 1950’s.. Theresa May is 59 years old and Philip Hammond (Chancellor) is 60. David Davis, has finally made it to Secretary of State at retirement age - he is 67!

UK Politics today is in a bit of a mess. The Labour party has over a hundred MPs in Parliament who don’t support their leader but who aren’t supported by their membership. The Liberal Democrats are practically invisible and UKIP are now a party without a cause or a leader. And the Conservatives have replaced their leadership with an older generation. It seems to me there is a political vacuum - I wonder now how it will be filled?

David Cameron’s final words in Parliament were that he ‘was the future once’… Ironically it now seems that the future for the Conservative party is the past.. strange times.

Sunday, 6 March 2016

Pink and Fluffy Politics - My Hairdresser's Contribution to the Great Brexit Debate

A Gentleman should have a very special relationship with his hairdresser - particularly if spending time with her is thought to be preferable to spending time with the PM or even Her Majesty. See the video clip below.

And so it was that I found myself in Ashleigh Martin’s chair this morning as she examined my hair critically and assembled the tools of her trade.

‘What are you doing for your holidays then?’ she asked in full-on hairdresser tradition.

‘Nothing. I am doing nothing until June 23rd’, I responded a little grumpily, ‘and anyway I don’t want to talk about that. Hairdressers always talk about that. Do you know whats happening on June 23rd I asked?’

‘Is it the Queens birthday?’ asked Ashleigh smiling happily at me.

‘No its the EU Referendum!’, I retorted.

‘Oh yes’, Ashleigh replied, ‘I knew something was going on then..’ I am sure she was taking the mickey.

‘Have you decided how you are going to vote?’ I asked.

‘No. Not yet. You?’.

‘I am out. No doubt about it.’

‘Really’ Ashleigh said, surprised at my certainty. ‘But aren’t the French going to do something horrible if we leave?’

‘No that’s a load of old nonsense…’ I started to say but Ashleigh cut in.

‘But if we leave.. will we still be called Britain?’

I wasn’t sure if she was serious, ’Yes of course we will still be Britain and the United Kingdom’ I replied earnestly and then looked up to see Ashleigh’s impish grin staring at me in the mirror.

‘Oh that’s a shame’, she said, ‘Can’t we be called Candyfloss?’ Another impish smile.

I grinned back at her - my morning grumpiness finally broken. ‘What you mean with everything all pink and fluffy?’, I asked.

‘Yes’, she responded smiling happily expanding on her thoughts, ‘And you know.. where everyone is happy and hugs each other and is loving all the time.’ The joke had a slightly serious yearning to it now.

‘Well if more than 50% of people want that once we are out of the EU then yes I suppose we could change our country’s name to Candyfloss. That’s kind of the point really. It’s called Democracy and we need it back.’

‘Oh ok. You mean that right now we can’t make our own decisions on everything cos of Europe?’

‘Yes. We are just one of 28 countries who make the decisions..’

‘Yes I see what you mean’, Ashleigh said serious now, ‘I just don’t think people know enough to decide at the moment - what’s a Trade Barrier for god’s sake?’.

I preceded to explain the concept of trade tariffs using a bottle of shampoo from the counter in front of me. ‘Imagine you sell this for a £1 but when you sell it to another country the customer has to pay the equivalent of £1.50 because there is a tariff on it of 50p. Are you going to sell as many as if it were sold for £1 or are people in that country going to buy an alternative made in their country?..’. 

She followed me intently as I explained why, given that the EU sell more stuff (probably including shampoo) to us than we do to them, they were unlikely to want to impose crippling tariffs on UK goods and services because we would simply do the same to them. So overall they would lose out more. 

I was waiting for her eyes to glaze over and worried that she had scissors in her hands. So I went on quickly and explained that being outside the EU would mean that Britain would be able to trade freely without trade barriers with the vast markets across the world without EU tariffs making our goods and services uncompetitive in many instances. 

So even if the EU did go crazy and cease all trade with Britain we would have two years to adjust before they could do that and around £350 million pounds a week to pay for the problem as that is roughly what we pay to the EU, and we would have much bigger, growing markets to sell to instead.

‘Blimey’, she said (I was surprisingly still unharmed), ‘this is the sort of stuff people need to understand.’

‘Well I am going to be producing a series of videos to explain some of this stuff’, I explained.

‘Oh really!’, she responded with surprising interest, ‘can you send them to me?’ she enthused.

‘Of course they will be on Facebook but actually Ash. I was thinking I might send some stuff to you before I make them so you can have a look and see if it makes sense.’ She regarded me in the mirror with slightly narrowed eyes and her hand went to her hip.

‘So you think if someone like me can understand them then they’ll be ok??’, she admonished.

‘No Ashleigh’, I said thinking furiously, ‘I mean that you own a small business and you are local Councillor but perhaps you can help me work out how to make it all make sense to the Goggleboxers’. I was feeling relieved that I had dug myself out of a hole of my own digging without injury and having grasped an important point in the process.

‘Ok. I would be happy to help’, she said smiling sweetly, ‘but I know what you are like with your big words Robin. Just make it simple…’ she brushed the hair off my shoulders finishing her work.

Thanks Ashleigh. As usual you brightened up my day with your smiles, your humour and your sparky intelligence. You make politics sexy Councillor. And you helped show me the way forward to making a contribution to the great Brexit debate. You showed me that none of these EU issues are rocket science - its all just simple concepts that need to be explained in straightforward language.

See you very soon darling.

Sunday, 28 February 2016

EXCLUSIVE!!! - Gove to Quit Politics! and Work for Local Council in Junior Waste Management Role

Member of Parliament and Secretary of State for Injustice, Michael Gove has stunned the nation this morning with the revelation that he is to quit Politics and apply for a job with the local Council picking up litter and possibly, if things go to plan longer term, sweeping the streets.

Gove explained this shocking turn of events by saying, ‘I liked Politics and really tried to do well when my friend David gave me a nice job running the schools. But most of the teachers hated me. Some of them produced a video calling me a complete Jeremy Hunt which at the time I thought was a compliment but I recently discovered was some kind of clever word-play to do with part of a lady’s body. It made me sad.’

One of Gove’s most loyal supporters in his Surrey Heath constituency, Mrs Shmallerie Right said, ‘We all believed in Michael. From the very earliest days we all thought he was destined for great things. When the EU referendum was called last week we thought he could be the nation’s champion. But it seems he has just lost his self-belief. I am going out shopping later as we have had a whip-round and I am going to buy him a pointy stick which I am having engraved with the words ‘With Thanks from the People of Surrey Heath’. He will love it I am sure. And it will remind him of all of us as he clears up the mess that everyone else makes.’

The Guardian newspaper broke the story yesterday with a shock article and with photographic evidence of Gove and London Mayor Boris Johnson out in a park somewhere picking up litter. Johnson explained, “We Oxford Etonian boys aren’t quite the brutal Bullingdon boys that we are sometimes made out to be. We do use the plebs for our own purposes but we also makes sure they have something to do after we have used them up. Thats why I am out with Michael helping him adjust to his new life. He thinks he is working for the Queen but actually I just told him that to make him feel better and if it keeps me away from campaigning for this dreadful EU thingy then all to the good. Off to play Wiff-Waff later with some chums!'

Gove went on to plead his case by explaining, ‘When I was at University I met lots of posh boys and they were all really nice to me - made me feel special. But really I am just a wee boy from the Highlands. I should never have been doing the things I have been doing for the last few years. They are better than me. I will just do my bit clearing up the mess. I used to pick up their champagne bottles after their parties so it will be just like that again.’

Another of Gove’s most loyal supporters a Mr Ken Bunn, who spent many years in prison following a horrific childhood incident, said, ‘I am devastated that Michael is leaving Politics. We thought that perhaps finally with Michael’s job at the Ministry of Justice there was a chance that offenders leaving prison would have a chance of a worthwhile life. But instead us ex-offenders will probably see him out on the streets with us sweeping. That is until one of our number loses the plot and bashes a granny with a broom n nicks her handbag - then we will be back to the home comforts of HMP in no time’.

Gove’s wife the celebrated Daily Mail columnist Sarah Vine is similarly stunned. She has spent the last few years valiantly and increasingly successfully attempting to let the nation into her home and her life to see the true Michael Gove. As she puts it, ‘If a nerdy looking fella like Chris Evans can achieve mass popularity then why shouldn’t Michael. He is not even ginger!’

Sarah Vine went on to reveal, ‘I do love Michael. But this morning he brought me a cup of Cocoa in bed with a little present. When I opened it I saw it was my very own high-vis jacket. He smiled at me so sweetly and suggested we go out shopping for a shawl and knitting needles for me and a pipe and slippers for him later. He also bought me a house plant and said he would try my quiche this evening - I nearly cried. I don’t know how to tell him I just don’t want this life.’

Saturday, 21 November 2015

The Great Prison Escape

Since becoming Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice for in May 2015, Michael Gove’s efforts to reform the justice and prison system have continued at pace. Over the last six months there has been a constant flow of media reports illustrating a very thorough and thoughtful approach to reforming the system.

It is particularly encouraging to see many media reports in which Michael talks not just about solutions but focusses first on the problems. Too often politicians make policy announcements without having done the necessary ‘ground-work’ to explain and illustrate the problem which the policy change is designed to cure. The result is that either the policy doesn’t work to deliver the intended result - those dreaded unintended consequences as a consequence of a limited research and solid policy development or an opposition group is able to kill off a reform by galvanising an ill-informed public and media. 

However. I do have one concern related to reform of the prison system which I feel could upset the reform process and even potentially render it a complete failure.

With prison re-offending rates running at close to 50%, it’s clear that the prison system is failing. Criminals are simply being warehoused. Rehabilitation and prisoner reform is way, way below the levels it needs to be at for the system to be described as successful or working. 

But the first question is this. Do those who work in the prison service see it as their role to achieve this rehabilitation and reform?

Imagine you did a single question survey across the prison estate of say 500 members of prison staff across all levels of seniority. The survey would be confidential and answers posted anonymously but each paper would be coded so that the management level or non-management level of the respondent could be ascertained.

The question would ask:

What is the Role of the Prison Service and Your Role Within it?

Please put a number next to each of the five answers below to indicate order of priority. i.e. put a 1 next to the answer which you feel best answers the question, a 2 next to the second best and so on.

  1. To punish criminals.
  2. To protect the public.
  3. To prevent criminals from committing more crime.
  4. To reform prisoners.
  5. To educate and empower criminals.

I think you would get some interesting answers and possibly also prompt some interesting and overdue thought processes.

So what am I really getting at here?

Let me tell you a couple of stories.

Around 25 years ago I was on a skiing holiday in the French Alps with my then girlfriend, now wife. We met a really nice bunch of prison officers, I guess 7 or 8 of them, and spent a lot of the week with them. One evening late in the holiday after an excellent adrenaline filled day of skiing we found ourselves in a bar with them and I started asking about what it was like to work in the prison system. At first I got some basic inoffensive answers. Then as the evening progressed and the alcohol flowed the inhibitions started to recede. 

I introduced the subject of violence in prison. I was expecting to prompt a conversation about prisoners becoming violent and how they dealt with the issue. ‘How do you deal with violence in prison?’ was my question.

One of the prisoner officers was steaming drunk by this stage. His inhibitions were gone, we had spent a week together - a combination of trust and a loosened tongue were prevalent. Imagine him swinging his pint glass around as he speaks.

‘Do you know how we deal with prisoners to keep them in line?’ he asked me with unexpected anger and passion in his voice. I had no idea.

‘We take them into a cell and a group of us beat the crap out of them’ 

‘So if a prisoner is violent you respond in kind?’, I asked.

‘No mate. We smash open the door of someone’s cell, pile in and beat the shit out of him so everyone knows who is in charge’.

I looked around at his colleagues. A couple smiled back nodding and a few others went quiet - varying levels of self awareness, perhaps even conscience.

‘So even if a prisoner hasn’t been violent you do this randomly? Are you allowed to do this?’ I asked naively. 

‘That’s how the system works. They are scum.’ he said flatly turning away to the bar to continue his drink.

Hmm. So - a brutal control system. 

Now fast forward to 2010. I found myself involved in a radio phone in on prison reform with Crispin Blunt MP who was prison minister at the time. After i had said my piece the next caller was a prison officer. He was bemoaning the difficulties of his job and rounded off his remarks by describing prisoners as ‘the lowest form of life’. He made it clear that his role was containment of a problem and thought rehabilitation was pointless.

It was fairly shocking to hear a prison officer who had identified himself by name speaking so blatantly and openly. It was very clear that he simply viewed his attitude and approach as normal, logical and rational - nothing to hide.

Crispin, to my surprise, congratulated the officer on doing a good job.. No attempt to question his approach or even gently persuade him towards another way of looking at things. But then MPs have to be ‘nice to everyone’ I suppose..

In 2009 I started reading a blog by a long term prisoner, Ben Gunn, which provided a fascinating insight into the inner workings of the prison system. The prison system tried very hard to shut it down but being a highly intelligent character and someone who subsequently, and this was really the point, told me that ‘there are more important things than me getting out of prison’, Ben kept it going. I read it avidly. A subject that was always prevalent in Ben’s musings was abuse of power and the ‘control systems’ used in prisons.

Ben’s blog is still up and can be read all the way back from 2009 at:

So. Am I suggesting that the prison system today is not controlled by policy and management direction but instead by a barbaric under-the-radar system of control involving systematic violence against ‘innocent’ prisoners to maintain order?

No. Not exactly.

Ben assures me that things have improved since the dark days of his early imprisonment and times when the horrors of prisons such as Dartmoor were legend and people apparently, quite literally disappeared. I will leave others to explore exactly where the current real state of play surrounding prison violence sits. ‘Suicide’ rates are alarming I gather.

What I am more concerned with is culture and it’s ability to upset real efforts at reform.

A short time after I started reading Ben Gunn’s blog I met him for the first time and then spent the next two years researching the prison system, talking to prison officers and prisoners, legal people, psychologists and reading extensively. I was focussed on helping him get out of prison whilst at the same time dealing with his need to continue publishing his thoughts and criticisms of the system - tricky to say the least but he was finally released in 2012 after 32 years (his original sentence tariff was 10 years). He was never a violent prisoner.

During this period, one particularly illuminating encounter was with a man called ‘Razor Smith’ - a repeat violent offender who had spent the overwhelming majority of his life inside. He had just been released from prison. So I took him out for dinner one dark night - like you do with complete strangers called ‘Razor’ with a proven history of violence. I had a mixed grill and he had something else with chips. Razor doesn’t like ketchup and physically blanched when i tore the top off my sachet and the red liquid oozed out. You don’t need to be a psychologist to work that one out do you?

Razor had lived his life from his teenage years in and out of almost every prison institution on offer but had finally managed to get to Grendon (a group therapy rehabilitation prison) and as the tragic consequence of the death of his beloved son had put himself through the deep contemplation and personal demon-facing process necessary to stay the course and finally get himself out of prison on life-license.

Razor wrote a book called ‘A Rusty Gun’. If you are involved in prisons or justice in any way you absolutely have to read it - in fact it should be law that anyone involved does so - it really is that good.

Avoiding the temptation to share the many brilliant anecdotes from Razor’s book (just buy it please..) the relevant point of this encounter was Razor’s insight into the attitude of prisoners towards prison officers and other prisoners.

While I was happily chomping through my mixed grill, liberally spread with ketchup, Razor’s eyes were constantly darting around the crowded pub. The second anyone moved or entered the room his eyes would flicker towards them. Having watched this for a while I realised that what I was witnessing and had witnessed since picking him up, driving along, parking and walking to the riverside pub were literally hundreds of ‘threat assessments’. 

Eventually I asked him about this very unusual behaviour - it really was extraordinary. He explained that in prison you have to be constantly super-aware of everything around you and having only been recently released it was a habit that hadn’t worn off. It emerged that the threat assessments in prison were not simply directed at other unknown or ‘untrusted’ prisoners but at prison officers. I explored this further. Razor explained that there is a very firmly embedded and re-inforced ‘them and us’ culture in prisons. This was no surprise to me. I firmly understood that there was a very prevalent attitude amongst prison officers about how they viewed prisoners.

But. What Razor was explaining was that it works both ways and was very heavily reinforced by prisoners with a system of ‘respect’. The behaviour of a prisoner is expected, by his fellow prisoners, to be ‘respectful’. But this isn’t ‘respect’ as you might understand it. 

‘Respect’ means that prisoners have to behave in a particular way. There is a very clear and rigorously and sometimes brutally enforced ‘respect’ self governed system in place. Imagine hundreds of eyes each making hundreds of 'threat assessments' every day. If prisoners step outside the system by for example consorting with or being friendly with prison officers extreme measures are the possible consequence. Cell burn outs (prison cells being set fire to) or the famous sugar in boiling water skin treatment, almost always without consequence for the perpetrators, are examples of extreme measures.

So. Am I suggesting that the prison system today is not controlled by policy and management direction but instead by a barbaric under-the-radar system of control involving systematic violence against ‘innocent’ prisoners to maintain order?

Again No. Not exactly. 

But what I am suggesting is that the deeply and firmly embedded culture of prisoners on one hand and the prevalent culture amongst prison officers on the other hand and the ‘them and us’ divide between needs to be thoroughly grasped and understood to achieve effective reform.

The most famous example, of which I am aware, of unintended consequences from prison policy change is drug testing. At some point it was realised that smoking weed in prison was a problem. So random drug testing was brought in. Urine samples retain traces for a a long period so it was easy to work out who had been smoking weed. So was the problem cured? No. Prisoners switched to heroin and other hard drugs for escape as they didn't show up in the drug tests to the same degree. The problem was immeasurably increased.

So am I suggesting caution?

No way! 

If re-offending rates are to be dramatically reduced then prisoners need to be rehabilitated. The entire attitude to the purpose of prison needs to be re-defined and completely embedded against a culture which unless it is tackled simultaneously will result at best in a sense of ‘unattached levers’ being pulled and at worst perhaps even in worse outcomes - as has been seen before.

In other words, simply offering carrots to prison management and officers and prisoners will not do the job unless everyone buys into the process. There is a huge legacy of failed ‘rehabilitation revolutions’ over decades that leads prisoners and officers alike to pay nothing more than lip-service to current and future attempts. And the culture, albeit in all probability a dilute version of the extremes I have described in some institutions, is against working together.

But. If their attitudes and beliefs are really challenged, if change can be demonstrated and its benefits illustrated and conveyed then it can work. 

If prisoners continue to be warehoused in very expensive residential criminality schools with hundreds of others and have at least 23 hours a day spare to discuss criminality whilst their ‘role models’ for authority and the societal system treat them with varying levels of contempt then nothing substantial will change.

But if prisoners leave with a proper ‘respect’ for others, for difference, have dealt with their demons (Again please get on Amazon and order Razor’s book if you haven’t done it already!), comprehend and buy into the concept of society, have some skills with which to earn a decent living and with the possibility of becoming wealthy even! and have cast aside their attitude that society is working against them and so they are ‘allowed’ to work against it… then change is likely.

The nub of this is the attitude of prison management and officers towards prisoners and vice-versa. Without working out how to change this, change will be full of false starts, failed initiatives and ultimately nothing worthy of the excellent minds employed to solve this problem. The are a hundred spanners available to be thrown into the works for every excellent policy decision delivered without buy-in.

In the two years I spent researching the prison system I met exceptions. People like Ben Gunn and Razor who threw so much of his life away but who finally came to the realisation. And prison officers such as John Podmore (he really is quite extraordinary) author of ‘Out of Sight Out of Mind who have spent a career in the system for the right reason. 

Sadly there will be those who can’t be reformed - they will have to be sacked (wink). 

People such as Ben, Razor and John have the grasp of the detail. I don’t. But I would argue that I see the problem from the perspective of the prisoner, the prison officer, the policy maker, the public and the media. The key is to define the solutions with full account and buy-in from every one of those perspectives.

It’s a clash of culture problem. A public who, thanks to the media, believe that prisons are holiday camps and that punishment is the answer to crime prevention (ok you made inroads there already), prison management who work around the system to maintain control and who often maintain contempt for their guests, and prisoners who rarely learn anything than from other prisoners.

Back to the survey. 

The real test for culture change will be when every one of the groups identified above put the education and rehabilitation of prisoners as priorities. Then the sticking wheels will come unstuck and the wagon will roll, the revolving door will slowly stop spinning and the escape from the prison problem will be truly underway.

Monday, 20 July 2015

Breaking the Cycle of Crime with a Carrot

On Friday, after approximately two and a half months as Secretary of State for Justice, Michael Gove made a well received speech about prisons.

In brief summary, he talked about the horrendous re-offending rates:

45% of adult prisoners re-offend within one year of release.

58% of adult prisoners serving less than 12 months re-offend within 12 months.

More than 67% of under 18 prisoners re-offend within 12 months.

Clearly prison does not work if it results in these outcomes and Michael didn’t shirk from telling it how it is and identifying the extent of the problem and persistent failure. He went on to propose that education was a key way in which re-offending rates could be reduced and how increasing the responsibility and autonomy of Prison Governors could help it happen.

I read through the text of the speech, agreeing with every sentiment, but it was one particular sentence which gave me real pause for thought. It said:

‘There is a drive to change things, an urgent need to improve how we care for offenders, which will shape my response.’

The words that leapt out at me were ‘how we care for offenders’. Really? A Conservative justice secretary talking about ‘caring’ for offenders - what an extraordinary event. Conservatives are known for their tough on crime, big stick approach to criminal justice which historically has caused rapturous applause at Conservative Party Conferences from the party faithful.

But look at the results. Has the approach of a long succession of Conservative and Labour Home Secretaries and Justice Secretaries delivered results? 

Clearly not.

So perhaps this significantly different ‘tone’ betrays a significantly different approach which gives  cause for hope that a real change may flow from this.

In the past Home Secretaries and Justice Secretaries seem too often to have developed policy to provide a response to what they think the public wants - a big stick, tough on crime approach based on the presumption that ‘toughness’ will provide the deterrent required to reduce crime - ‘prison works’. ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’. Lots of nice sound bites and lots of applause - no results..Wrong approach.

Instead of reaching for the habitual stick, Gove is clearly thinking about the motives of offenders, and circumstances which offenders find themselves in and is looking for solutions from a far more logical and productive perspective.

I am convinced that this approach is the key to unlocking this conundrum. 

I don’t suppose that the Secretary of State thinks that access to academic education in itself will cause a revolution. But it can make a difference for those who don’t have basic literacy and numeracy skills and for those for whom imprisonment could offer a chance to move beyond basic education to further education. And it could make a difference to prison culture, if prisoners genuinely start to see a period of imprisonment as a time to change the course of their life.

If education leads to employment it can be THE crucial element in preventing re-offending alongside social support (ideally family and friends), and having a place to live. In many cases education that delivers practical skills is likely to be a very effective way of reducing re-offending - particularly when the sort skills they learn are not limited to skills that require a job (its difficult to get a job as an ex-offender) but can enable them to work on a self-employed basis. 

I spent some time working with a repeat offender who had finally managed to break his own cycle of repeated criminality when he learnt basic construction skills in prison. He left prison able to earn a modest living working for himself doing minor building work. For the first time in his life he had a practical alternative to crime without having to do mundane, very low paid work that was so dull it was just a matter of time before he cracked and returned to crime.

I suspect that some may miss what Michael Gove is up to here. They may dismiss this speech as yet another repackaged ‘rehabilitation revolution’ - strong on rhetoric but short on consideration, research or intent. Or they may just think that having spent most of the last 7 or 8 years working in education that he sees education as the answer to all the world’s ills.

But I think BBC correspondent Nick Robinson in his recent ‘The Inside Story of the Battle Over Britain’s Future’ got Michael Gove about right when he describes him by saying:

‘He is a softly spoken revolutionary, a genuine radical’. 

I spent a couple of years learning all I could about the prison system and saw how the big stick attitude to offenders habitually displayed by politicians (except perhaps Ken Clarke) was matched by the attitude of many prison officers working in the prison system. 

The general approach that I encountered, with some notable exceptions, was of prison officers who saw it as being their job to punish prisoners, even persecute them in some extreme cases. The result is a highly developed ‘them and us’ culture in prisons and therefore the only people who could help prisoners make life changing actions and decisions alienate themselves from the entire group -unsurprising then that the cycle of crime perpetuates.

I am convinced that prisons and the cycle of crime problem need a revolutionary approach - A complete rethink and reworking and a lot more use of the carrot rather than the stick.

(To be continued..)

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Is Russell Brand or David Cameron a Joke?

I am now really quite worried. I have just watched Russell Brand’s latest edition of The Trews (The True News) in which he interviews Ed Miliband for 15 minutes. 
A few minutes before, my 18 year old daughter had been asking if there was a Youtube video she could watch that could help her decide which of the political parties to vote for. With no realisation of the ironic situation I was creating I then, just a couple of minutes later, checked Russell Brand’s site to see if the much awaited interview had been posted. 

It had, just a little while previously. So I got it up on our TV in the kitchen and my wife and I and my daughter watched it. Ed came across as a bit ‘politiciany’ with the usual weird hand gestures that all MPs seem to be afflicted with the moment after they enter Parliament, but other than that, he came across well. 

In fact, he came across very well. He countered all of Brand’s questions about vested interests and managed to clearly position himself as the solution to unfairness and the rich taking advantage of common people - he brilliantly positioned himself as the solution to the problem to which Brand and his followers subscribe.

Russell Brand currently has around 1.1 million subscribers. I would expect that the majority are voters in the 18-30 age bracket. People who are interested in politics but who were, up until tonight, disillusioned with all mainstream political parties. These people are the thought leaders of the future and for their generation today. These are the people who, up and down the land, will have spent many months regaling their friends with the insights about injustice that Brand has fed them in his last couple of hundred daily Youtube videos. 

Over time these insights will have built a clear picture of a problem demanding an answer. And tonight, Miliband has positioned himself as the solution.

Tomorrow, Brand plans to interview Caroline Lucas from the Green Party and no doubt will then interview others from other parties. He will continue to build his subscriber base into many millions as a result of the surrounding publicity and became ever more influential and able to define the political agenda.

And what has Dave done?

David Cameron has today managed to get himself on all the mainstream media not announcing that he too will be meeting with Brand, but instead that he thinks Russell Brand is ‘a joke’.

If he had spent an infinite number of hours racking his brains to come up with a way to completely shoot himself in the foot then he could not have come up with a better way of doing it. What a plonker. This election’s equivalent to Gordon Browns ‘bigot’ comment in 2010.

But not only has Cameron harmed the Conservatives election chances, he has also blighted future generations of Conservative battles by confirming in the minds of millions that the Conservatives are arrogant, thoughtless and condescending people. 

And it’s not the first time. It wasn’t long ago that he was insulting UKIP supporters - the most likely people to vote tactically for him at a General Election.

This is quite staggering. When will he wake up and realise he needs to do what he failed to do last time and win this election. Not just by repeating the same old nonsensical sound bytes but by sounding and seeming in touch, down-to-earth and comprehending of the realities of life.

Instead he just insults someone who has built a following by being these things..
Cameron needs to go. It’s the end of the line. The posh boy thing is not just a Labour label. It’s a reality. Boris is not the answer - another posh boy - although at least he can tell a joke instead of accusing others of being one. I don't have anything against the posh, just so long as they don't sound like the sort of privelaged, out-of-touch, people that the electorate despise.

Unless Cameron can turn this round fast, the Conservatives are heading for oblivion. And even if they do wind up as the largest party in the House of Commons loyal Conservatives must turn on him after the election and turf him out. 

The staggering lack of awareness and incompetence displayed today, and previously, simply cannot be tolerated any further.

I speak as a Conservative supporter - no joke.

Friday, 19 September 2014

Why Paul Deach is a Real Local Hero

I am not someone who tends to lavish praise on people without good reason to. In fact I think most people who know me would view me as a critic rather than someone who regularly doles out praise - perhaps I am too critical sometimes..

But casting aside my own reputation for a moment, frankly I think Paul Deach’s efforts and the consequent reputation that he has built over the last few years deserve some real recognition. I will explain as follows.

Paul, who originally comes from Manchester, lives in Deepcut near Camberley with his wife and daughter and works part time for the NHS. He is also a local Councillor.

A few years ago Paul setup something called the Surrey Heath Residents Network which is essentially an Internet based news and information resource for local people, organisations and businesses. Now that probably doesn’t sound too exciting so far. There are a lot of websites and organisations that attempt to do the same thing. The difference is that Paul’s works brilliantly and the approach and ethics that motive him really set it apart.

Paul envisaged, setup and runs the Surrey Heath Residents Network entirely on his own and provides a steady of torrent of news and information about local events, activities and important information on a very localised basis.

At the centre of the network is the Surrey Heath Residents Blog - a regularly updated website, supported by a Facebook page, Twitter Account, YouTube Channel and Email mailing list. Whatever local people’s social media preference may be, they can receive regular updates on all the local news and current events. As well as delivering a steady torrent of written articles, Paul also produces well produced and edited videos, high quality photography and audio pod-casts.

But most importantly it provides a really high quality service. If a local event is coming up you will hear about it via the network before it happens, if you can’t make it to the event, you will be able to see Paul’s pictures and videos about it anyway. If a local emergency occurs Paul will let you know about it, and if, god-forbid someone local’s child goes missing Paul will spread the news in hours and hundreds of eyes will be on the lookout.

Paul jokingly describes his religious views on his Facebook profile as ‘Jedi’ and describes himself as a ‘Jedi Master of Community Spirit’. They, whoever they are, do say self-praise is no recommendation. But in this case it stands because that is exactly what Paul is. Equipped with his iPhone, MP3 recorder and laptop, if not his light-sabre, Paul provides an extraordinarily comprehensive and pervasive service to his local community. Despite his roots being in the North of England, Paul has put down his own and is deeply committed to his local community and to helping and informing local people.

But there is also a broader perspective to this.

Having worked in the IT and media industry for some years I have watched with dismay and surprise the steady collapse of local media over the last 10-20 years – i.e. local and regional newspapers.

Rather than grasping the opportunity that the Internet and associated technologies provided, the local news organisations just carried on doing the same old thing in the same old way seemingly unaware that the advertising model that supported them was changing. One by one, they have fallen away leaving very few in operation and those that remain with greatly diminished resources and subsequently reduced quality – making them ever less appealing.

As a result, news delivery is now predominantly national or special interest. In other words you get your news from your national newspapers or their website or social media outlet, national TV companies or from special interest publications or sites.

So how do you stay connected with your local community, it’s issues and events? How do you get that sense of belonging and involvement that being informed and participating provides?

You don’t.

So when you need help, or advice or ideas or support locally where do you turn?

But then perhaps you haven’t needed these things and you don’t care. Perhaps in this commuter-belt area you don’t need to care. So long as you catch the 7.15am to Waterloo and watch News at Ten before bed you feel happy and informed.

I would contend that you should care. Because the place in which you live, is the community for your family, even if you only spend weekends in it. And the more people that are involved and informed about local issues, the more impetus there is behind efforts and initiatives to deal with problems and improve local quality of life.

But without that flow of information how are you ever going to know what’s going on, what’s important, what needs doing and where you can get a real sense of glowing satisfaction from having helped make your little part of the world a better place..?

And that is why what Paul is doing is so important.

He has not following a template that others have determined. He has ploughed his own furrough. Worked out his own business model, overcome the obstacles and just got on and done it – brilliantly.

Paul has funded the entire operation himself and supports the running costs of the site by enabling local businesses to promote themselves on his site – again a really valuable service for businesses with a local customer base.

That’s why I think Paul is a trail-blazing hero who deserves some recognition, not just for his community minded spirit, but for actually getting on and doing it rather than sitting around and thinking about it.

But I am also deeply enthused by what Paul has done because it is a great demonstration of how to provide the missing link for active local democracy and local accountability. It's striking to note how little interest there is in the Local Police and Crime Commissioners we had the opportunity to elect in 2012 or how disinterested the electorate was in having elected Regional Assemblies back in 2004 - only around 20 odd percent of people voted to have them - a complete failure.

Now consider the Scottish Referendum and the changes that have occurred in Scotland culminating in a seismic political event yesterday - albeit with a less dramatic outcome than was possible. As was pointed out by some sharp-eyed commentator during the campaign, this could never have happened before the large Scottish media outlets (newspapers etc) started producing Scottish editions. The flow of 'localised news' created a notion of self-interest and awareness that people responded to in large numbers. Be you a Yes or No supporter, you surely have to applaud a successful democratic process in which a majority of people decide on something which will critically affect their lives..

All the best Paul. I know you will find this blog-post a bit of a surprise but I genuinely admire what you have achieved so far and what I think is the further limitless scope for what you are doing.