Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Big Brother - My part in its rise

Channel 4 have announced that next year's series of Big Brother will be the last. "It has reached its natural conclusion" in the words of the Director of Programming.

Back when the programme first started, I was working for the Electoral Reform Society and I got a call from Endemol (the producers of the programme) who wanted a respected body to oversee the voting so that viewers had confidence that the evictions and winners were actually those who the public voted for rather than those who producers wanted for programming reasons.

(The subsequent BBC dodgy competition scandal perhaps showed how wise they were).

ERS had a subsidiary which handled external ballots and I passed the inquiry on to them. Later I got a call from ballot services asking what I thought of the request as they were dubious about taking part. "Go for it," I said. "The programme will probably never reach the airwaves, but if it does there may be some good publicity."

Whatever some might think of BB now, there's no denying that it has been a phenomenon and I am glad I played a totally insignificant part right at the beginning.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

I'm a top 30 blogger


I've been voted as one of the top 30 councillor bloggers in the poll conducted by Total Politics. (I staggered into the top 30 at number 29).

Huge thanks to all who voted for me.

Council decides to exclude North Cornwall youngsters over play park decision

Cornwall Council has apparently decided to site a new £700,000 play park in Redruth. The decision will come as a huge blow to the young people of North Cornwall. It had been expected that Bodmin or St Austell would be the favoured site for the park.

According to one council officer, the reason that Redruth was chosen is because the site is near to the town's rail station.

Forgive me if I am wrong, but I would have thought that the best place for a facility serving the whole of the county would be somewhere in the middle. Redruth, for all its delights, is near the far west. Bodmin and St Austell both sit in the middle of the county and both would have been better locations.

And as for the rail station point, this is ridiculous. North Cornwall has no rail stations. For a youngster in Launceston who wants to take advantage of what I hope will be a great facility on their own - or if their family has no car - they will have to:

- catch a bus at 8.35am to Liskeard rail station, getting there at 9.20am
- catch the 9.49am train to Redruth, getting there at 10.53am

They can then enjoy the facilities of the park for a whole one hour and nineteen minutes (assuming the train is on time)

before turning around and:

- catching the 12.12pm train from Redruth back to Liskeard, arriving at 13.13pm
- and catching the last bus of the day at 14.10pm from Liskeard to Launceston arriving at 14.53pm

I will be taking this apparent decision up with the Council.

Why the Afghan elections will be deemed 'free and fair'

It is a foregone conclusion that the elections in Afghanistan will be declared to be 'free and fair'. But the fact that they will be declared as such bears little resemblance to whether the elections meet any sort of reasonable standard.

How come?

Well to start with, the term 'free and fair' is meaningless. There is no single benchmark that decides these things. Free is meant to indicate that the people are able to vote for their preferred candidate without hindrance and with the full understanding of what that candidate stands for. Fair is meant to indicate that the polling process worked properly, that the electoral law is just and robust, that the media is unbiased and that the results declared accurately reflect the votes that went into the ballot boxes.

If you think that any election in the world meets all these standards at 100%, then think again.

And so we are talking about degrees of freedom and fairness.

International election observers understand this and so they compose their reports without resorting to shoddy terms like free and fair. I have been an international election observer on behalf of the UK on many occasions and I led the UK mission to several elections. Here is a brief idea of how it works.

Election monitoring is split into two streams. There are the long term observers (LTOs) and there are the short term observers (STOs). The LTOs look at the electoral law and whether it is just and equal; they look at the media coverage and see whether all candidates and parties have equal access and whether reports are biased in favour of one party or another; they look at the voter registration process to see if that is comprehensive and equal and they look at the plans for polling day to see that access to voting is sufficient.

(Incidentally, do you remember the pictures of the first South African elections post-apartheid and all the queues of voters waiting to cast their ballot. Western politicians hailed this as an embrace for democracy after years of oppression. It was certainly a magnificent step to freedom, but the queues were caused by bad planning rather than a sudden love of democracy).

For STOs the job is simpler. You go in a few days in advance and receive comprehensive training in the laws and processes of the country. You are being trained in what SHOULD be happening. A number of former colleagues (curiously, all American) seem to struggle to accept this and think that if is not being done the American way then it is wrong. But our job is to accept the law as it exists in the country we are in.

You are then allocated a partner (almost always from a different country), a driver and an interpreter. The latter is vital. Relying on your bad spoken Russian if you are observing in Ukraine does not win you many friends.

Each team is sent to a particular patch. There might be as many as 100 polling stations in the patch and your job is to visit as many as possible - starting from when they open and finishing when they close. It is a long day and you need to keep your wits about you the whole time, because your job is to observe everything that is going on. Specifically, your job is not to intervene - ever. If you see something happening wrongly, then you need to note that on your form. You can ask questions, but you cannot make suggestions. Each polling station visit will last between 30 and 40 minutes. Anything less and you might miss something. Longer, and you will not reach as many stations as you need to.

Depending on the distances involved and polling hours, you will visit between 15 and 30 polling stations in a day and at each you will consider many questions and talk to many officials.

And at the end of the day, you will reach a station as it closes and observe the count (almost all countries except the UK count the vote in the polling station). This can be very long and drawn out as there are always forms to be filled in in triplicate and someone always goes missing at the wrong time. But you cannot leave until all is done as someone wanting to corrupt the process will know they cannot do so as long as you are there.

When the count is finished, you follow the result form and ballot papers being taken to a regional centre. You may need to follow them further than this. At any time, the transposition of a few figures can disrupt the whole process.

A final rule is that you should never tell anyone how you think the process is going. Your words can ruin the whole mission. I recall one visiting VIP telling a camera crew at 11am that he thought there were no problems at all - despite having no clue about local laws and procedures and only having visited one specially selected polling station for 5 minutes. For the rest of the day, state media broadcast that this person had declared the whole electoral process free and fair. We might as well have given up and gone home straightaway.

The observation mission HQ will analyse all the individual reports (many thousands of them) and compile statistics based on the number of occasions on which certain problems are encountered. They will then issue a report which details the successes and failings of the system overall before coming to a conclusion. An interim report might be delivered within a few days, but the final report will take weeks.

(On one occasion the election had gone so badly that the report was delivered in a news conference at the airport with the engines running).

So if the news reports tomorrow carry UK or US spokespeople declaring that all has gone well and that the elections were free and fair, ask yourself this. How can they possibly know? Have they analysed the reports of independent observers at a significant number of polling stations? Have they had a sound and evidence based analysis of the emdia campaign, registration and electoral law procedures?

Or are they just spinning like crazy on behalf of their Government's self-interest?

Time to be unpopular with Mr Dale

Iain Dale, in an otherwise quite valid post about the Times attacks on a junior Tory Health Spokesman, says:
"Contrary to popular rumour, peers to do not get paid. They get an attendance allowance of £174 per sitting day. Last year, that would have trousered them £27,840. So unless you have private means, you have to have outside work."
Hmm - I would hope that this is not actually what Iain meant to say. If a person is used to having an income over £100k and has outgoings that reflect this, then they could not cope with seeing that drop to £27k per year unless they were allowed to have an outside income. But that is not what Iain said. What he said is that someone earning £27k per year cannot afford to live.

So in the interests of fairness, can Iain clarify that every single employee of Total Politics is paid more than £27,840 per year?

A frustrating scrutiny meeting

Yesterday there was a meeting of the Communities Overview and Scrutiny Committee. Scrutiny Committees are the bodies that are meant to analyse in close detail what the Cabinet and council are doing and to hold them to account. In a way they are like Select Committees in Parliament - they don't wield power, but they should have significant influence.

At the first meeting of the Committee, a number of us complained that there was too long a delay until the next meeting and so this one was added. The subjects for scrutiny were the fire service - in view of their 'poor' rating in a recent inspection; the plans by the council to bid for PFI funding for council house building and the decision by the Executive to delay the implementation of the localism scheme as I have described previously.

It was a hugely frustrating meeting. But first the good news:

The first subject was the fire service. The Chief Fire Officer - who is new in post since the report - gave a good, if slightly over-long, presentation and then answered questions. I think he acquitted himself very well and gave us some confidence that he understood the challenges in front of him, even if he does not yet have all the answers. I would have been a bit suspicious if he claimed he had!

Then we moved onto PFI for council housing. Again, the presentation was overlong, but this one fairly horrified me. According to the officers, the PFI scheme is just too complex to be explained to us. But what figures were given showed that PFI scheme houses would be more expensive (at least 25% more) and would not be controlled or ultimately owned by the Council.

I have a basic objection to PFI in that I think that if the Council is paying a vast amount for assets then they should be owned and controlled by the Council. However, I recognise that we are in an imperfect world and, if PFI is the only way of getting things done, then I will hold my nose and vote for it.

But I worry that this is not a scheme I could ever support.

For one thing, the complexity of the scheme seems unnecessary. With a relatively straighforward issue you can see the pitfalls and the challenges and work to sort out and problems in advance. Where you throw unknown factors into the mix and then wrap the whole lot up in a breath-takingly complex contract (and throw in a dose of 'commercial confidentiality' for good measure) then you have a recipe for disaster. Think of the banking crisis. Some bright spark thought it would be a good idea to wrap up sub-prime mortgages and toxic debts in a complex package and then sell it on to you and me through our banks. Could a PFI housing scheme be the same?

It was also suggested that, so long as the contract covers every eventuality, then the Council will be protected. I have yet to hear about a PFI contract which thinks of everything. And even if it does, what will the Council do if, three quarters of the way through the contract, the private sector partner demands a change to the terms? Can a new private sector partner be found at that stage? And if the original partner simply walks away, what can be done. Stagecoach did that with the North East rail franchise and the Government was powerless to hold them to the contract they had signed.

I was concerned that the Director seemed to think that the go ahead would be automatic for the Council to carry on with such a scheme. I suggested that the scrutiny committee needed to look both at the principle of the scheme and, if approved by Cabinet, at the details of the bid. Regrettably, the Chair did not allow us to ask detailed questions of the officers and it was finally decided that there should be a whole day seminar with all councillors present - at a date to be decided. I trust that this will be advetised well in advance and that officers come along with all the details and the willingness to answer every question - there will be many.

On localism the committee again decided to hold a mass debate at some unknown point in the future.

Could these future meetings work? Yes they could. But they are not the proper function of a scrutiny committee which should be presented with all the facts and allowed to debate within meetings.

Monday, 17 August 2009

So much for the safety of Formula One

Renault have won their appeal against their one race ban for allowing Fernando Alonso to leave the pits with a loose wheel nut. The team knew the wheel nut was not properly attached and failed even to tell Alonso when he thought he had a puncture.

About the most dangerous thing that can happen in motor racing is when bits fly off a car. Just ask Felipe Massa.

But wheels are arguably more dangerous than springs or bits of the engine. Why? Because they bounce along until they hit something, and they retain much of their impetus along the way. There have been many incidents of tyres going over the wall and killing spectators. And recently Henry Surtees, son of John, died when a fellow competitors wheel detached and hit him on the head.

So it is patent nonsence for the FIA to decide to reduce the one race ban to a mere £30,000 fine - a pittance for Renault and a disgrace in a case where someone could so easily have been killed. I don't care that the ban would have meant Alonso would have missed his home Grand Prix - although he was the least to blame of the entire team. For safety rules to mean anything, Renault needed siginificant punishment. They have been let off.

Friday, 14 August 2009

COULD YOU SATISFY TWENTY WOMEN AT A SINGLE STROKE?

A little later than planned, here is the news that you have been waiting for - your chance to satisfy twenty women at a single stroke. It's all to do with Launceston Rugby Club's Ladies team who are auctioning themselves on ebay in a bid to find a sponsor for the coming season.

It's a chance of pleasing more than 20 women at the same time without risking divorce or arrest?

The women - who range in age from 15 upwards - are seeking a sponsor for the coming season to enable them to buy new kit and equipment and to help them play more competitive fixtures.

"We're damsels in distress," said Lorna Carter, Player-Coach of the Launceston Ladies and the woman behind the auction idea. "We desperately need a sponsor for the coming season and we thought that this would be a great way to find one. The bidding starts at just £49.99 although we hope to raise a lot more than that."

"The winning bidder will make more than 20 women very happy - and it's usually difficult just to do that with one! In return, we offer eternal gratitude, signed photos and presents from the girls and the chance to use us for advertising. Just about anything goes. We'll also buy you a drink if you make it down for our games."

The ebay auction can be found here and closes at 21.52 on August 19th. Anyone wanting to view the Launceston Ladies in action before the auction closes can see them playing in a pre-season tag tournament at Polson Bridge, Launceston on Saturday 15th from Noon.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

How to please women

How would you like the chance to please more than 20 women at the same time without risking divorce or arrest?

The answer will appear here tomorrow

Just what are Cornwall Cabinet Members doing for their £16k?

Strange scenes at Cabinet as Graham Hicks, Independent councillor and cabinet member for planning, transport and regeneration, had to publicly ask for a detailed breakdown of his department's budget.

In the six weeks since the cabinet members were chosen, surely they should have been getting a full breakdown of all the services that fall within their portfolio including the budgets for each.

Cabinet members receive an allowance of about £16,000 in addition to their basic councillors' allowance of £12,000. Just what have they been doing for this money if they haven't been getting to grips with every aspect of their work? I could understand if they didn't have absolute command of every detail - they are still learning after all. But surely something as fundamental as the budget should have been their first request.

Conservative double standards (part 94, as Iain Dale might say)

Another snippet from the Cabinet.

The Conservatives lambasted the Lib Dems after the new Council was elected for refusing to join a rainbow coalition. We made clear that our opposition would be principled and not automatic. Where we could help we would do so and where the Conservatives proposed ideas we could agree with then we would support them.

And yet...

The Cabinet today voted to add new names to the board of the local Building Schools for the Future programme. Lib Dem Schools Spokesperson Graham Walker asked to join the board as well. A cross party grouping would carry more weight and Graham is massively experienced in these areas - he would be no token appointment.

Strangely, all places for councillors on the board will be reserved for Conservative members.

Tories vote to kick localism into the long grass

As expected, the Tory led cabinet today voted to hold a review of the plans for community network areas. The network areas were a key part of the move towards unitary status as they form the link between Cornwall Council and the parish and town councils.

Tory Leader Alec Robertson refused to allow any discussion on the networks themselves saying that today was about 'holding a debate about a debate'.

The paper put before cabinet said that there could be no 'one size fits all' way for network areas to work. That is quite right. But in deciding to hold a review under the terms we were told today, it appears that the Tories want to have all decisions about the structure of the networks decided centrally. They refused an option which I asked for of allowing the network areas to grow organically within outer boundaries.

And so there will be yet more discussion and consultation with parish and town councils and yet more delay before anything is up and running. In the meantime, all decisions will continue to be made centrally. We were told that there would be no decision made until October or November at the earliest.

I am told that there is no champion within the cabinet for the localism agenda. Lance Kennedy is nominally in charge and we would hope that he has the desire for strong local decision making powers at his heart given his involvement with Bodmin Town Council and CALC. However, if no member of Cabinet is actively arguing for community decision making then I worry that this review will just be a pre-cursor to the abandonment of any pretence of localism.

Friday, 7 August 2009

Why Tory primaries are a good idea and Labour's are not

David Miliband has jumped on the bandwagon and declared that Labour should adopt the US style of primary. In doing so he is subtly altering the ground set by the Conservatives with their Totnes selection.

In Totnes, the selectorate was the entire electoral register. All well and good (if you can afford it). Future selections that follow this pattern won't get quite the same media attention, but if the parties (any of them) want to do the same thing then bully for them. It is, as others have noted, a great campaigning tool.

What Mr Miliband wants is something different. He wants to allow registered Labour supporters to play their part in selections. I have no doubt that the unions - currently a significant part of any Labour selection - will object to this. But my real problem is that, by limiting participation to registered Labour supporters, he is asking the taxpayer to foot the bill.

Thursday, 6 August 2009

'Whingeing' Chief Constable warns of 300 officer cuts

Devon and Cornwall Police Chief Constable Stephen Otter has warned that the force may have to lose 300 officers in budget cuts. He is asking that the Force's funding be improved so that the cuts are not needed.

In response, local Tory MP Gary Streeter has accused Mr Otter of whingeing.

If there really are to be such sever cuts then it will undoubtedly have a huge impact on local policing. True, Cornwall may not have the crime problems of some of the rest of the country, but we still have our problems.

Order in local towns can sometimes be stretched to breaking point. Just look at what has happene in Newquay and you can see that there is a need for more officers rather than fewer. We all want to see more Police on our streets rather than whizzing around in patrol cars, but this is only possible if we have more officers.

Of course, there cannot be a blank cheque for Police forces and management has to try to use officers' time as effectively as possible, but to lose 300 officers would be a significant problem.

I know that not all Conservative MPs will agree with Mr Streeter but given his comments, I think we deserve to get a categoric statement from David Cameron as to what would happen if his Party wins the next election.

Are free bus passes for over 60s under threat?

According to the independent Conservative website Conservative Home, the Tory Party should seriously consider scrapping free bus travel for the over 60s. They suggest that the subsidy is too costly.

Shadow Transport Secretary Theresa Villiers is quite right to say that many councils are not receiving the funding from Government that they need to pay for the scheme. Some authorities are having to pay over a third of their total budgets for this because the Government money (which is supposed to fund the entire cost) is simply not enough. And some councils (not always the same ones) are running a deficit of more than £1 million a year on this.

But will Ms Villiers commit to the long term funding of the programme and for a future Tory Government to subsidise it fully? No she will not.

I know that Conservative Home is not responsible for the comments of those who frequent the site, but there are lots of people who are suggesting that the scheme ought to be scrapped completely. One such commenter - Pink Tory - says that it is simply a subsidy for rich pensioners and should go. Marjorioe Baylis says it is a perk and that most younger pensioners are well off - with final salary schemes and owning their own homes outright. She suggests limiting the scheme to the genuinely poor.

That's just a flavour of the comments.

I know that there are very many older people in Cornwall who are incredibly hard up and rely on this sort of scheme in order to be able to to get to see their families. With bus companies scrapping routes (those which have mainly free bus pass users seem to be targetted) more and more pensioners are being trapped in their homes or villages.

The idea of restricting the scheme to the poorest may have merit in theory, but we know from other such restrictions that they are very bureaucratic and that many people - especially older people - are either too embarrassed or unwilling to fill in the forms. My guess is that most pensioners who are better off do not use the bus scheme or at least use it so little as to make targetting the help not worthwhile.

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Tories to abandon localism before it even starts?

I've just received the genda for next week's meeting of the Tory/Independent Cabinet. One item is on the new community network areas. These were designed to ensure that the new unitary council has localism at its centre. It appears that somebody wants them scrapped.

As I've blogged before, the danger of the new Cornwall Council is that it would centralise everything in Truro. For those of us in Launceston, it may as well be London. So the community network areas and the panels that will form their hub are vital.

But the Cabinet's plan appears to be to put these on hold before they even start. The paper going to Cabinet says that there has been concern from some councillors and from some parish councils and that there is concern about a one size fits all approach. I have no doubt that there will be problems to be ironed out and I'm delighted that they have realised that there cannot be a uniform approach to this issue. But that doesn't mean that everything should grind to a halt until some mythical perfect solution is found.

So I'll be arguing at the Cabinet meeting next week that consultation is the right approach, but that this should happen alongside the organic development of the community networks.

Airbrushing - a photographer writes

Jo Swinson was on the TV this morning saying that the airbrushing of photos aimed at children should be banned and that other images which have been altered should carry some form of warning to indicate what has been done to them.

Is this a ridiculous suggestion as Tom Papworth and Paul Walters seem to think? On balance I think it is. And here's why.

Jo's campaign splits into two sections:

- that images aimed at adults should carry a strapline to say what alterations have been made to the original image.

This is just impossible. You could carry a bland 'this image has been digitally enhanced' strapline on it, but every single image you see in advertising or glossy magazine editorial will have to carry that line and so it will mean nothing. It's the equivalent of a packet of peanuts with the warning 'Contains nuts' - well duh!

At the other extreme, you could require a list of precisely what has been done. With most advertising images would will be running into hundreds of alterations. Some will be relatively minor - such as altering the lighting levels. Others will be slightly more advanced - rebalancing the colour levels because of the 'colour temparature' of the lighting used. And then you come to the more extreme alterations - changing the shape of the body outline, changing the colour of the eyes or hair or airbrushing out skin imperfections. I have no doubt that Jo would suggest that there is a line to be drawn part way along this scale. But if you are seeking to make something subject to legal regulation then you should be pretty sure that you can accurately define what is and what is not allowed or you will have created a worthless law.

And where do you stop? Was Jo wearing make-up on the TV this morning? And was this because she wanted to enhance her own looks or because the TV company demanded it due to the lighting used? Should we be told that in a running strapline along the bottom of every show or should we take it for granted that some people wear make up and in TV studio shows everybody does?

- that images aimed at children should have no alteration at all.

Here I have some sympathy with Jo's aims, if not with her demands. It is true that many young people grow up believing that their bodies are imperfect and that they should aspire to be like the people they see on TV and in the magazines - images which are, all too often, false. If there were a simple way (and parenting is not the only answer) of getting around this, then fine. But banning airbrushing is not the way forward.

As discussed above, there is a massive scale of what counts as airbrushing and it is impossible to firmly draw a line part way along it. According to Jo's campaign, absolutely no light balancing would be permitted. Even the best photographer needs artificial help. Nowadays we do it on the computer. In the old days it was done in the developing tank or when making the print.

I think Jo wants to ban the sort of body re-shaping and skin blemish removing that often occurs, but you try defining that in law.

So much for the theory, but what about the practice. I've done a lot of photography of different types and here are the general rules that I would work to...

In editorial photography - that is, news photography for newspapers and magazines - then you cannot alter what is actually in the image. So you cannot add James Prunell to a photo he wasn't in or remove the trainee from behind Gordon Brown at Budget time. You cannot alter body shape. What you can do is alter lighting levels and colour balance and you can crop images along straight lines. If I submit images to stock websites, I have to declare any changes that I have made to the original image and these are the requirements that they work to.

At the other end of the scale is wedding photography. For the special day, brides and grooms are allowed to want to look perfect. If the bride wants to have her body altered then I'll give it my best shot on the computer. On one occasion, a bride brushed against a vintage Rolls Royce (you can see her - and it - in the photo on the blog strapline above) and got an oil stain on her dress. Was it legitimate to airbrush this out before the photos were printed? I think it was.

But what about images that fall somewhere in the middle? The sort of images that a party will use in its election literature for example. These are advertising shots to all extents and purposes. So have I altered any of the shots I have taken of Nick Clegg? Yes. How much? Pretty much only along the lines that I would for editorial images. I may have gone slightly further and removed the odd stray hair on a close up head-shot, but that's it.

In other times we might choose to go a lot further and I don't think that this should be banned. But I think that most of the alterations could be obviated by the skill of the photographer. Getting a great shot of your candidate is a matter of skill and time. Put the effort in and you will be rewarded with a photo that makes your candidate look great on paper but recognisably the same person when they walk down the street. If, on the other hand, you put all the effort in on the computer then your result will look much more false and nothing like the candidate.