Sunday, 31 October 2010

The 'Shock Doctrine' in action? Tory plan to use cuts as fig leaf to hand control of Sussex police stations to Tesco

Like most public sector organisations, Sussex Police is in the throes of a cash crisis. Latest estimates, based on last week's Government Comprehensive Spending Review, suggest that it faces a shortfall of over £50million pounds over the next four years (that's on top of the millions lopped of its budget by the previous Labour Government), and the Chief Constable has warned that over 1,000 jobs (around a qauarter of the workfiorce) could be lost as a result.

Of course this is hardly a surprise : for months now senior officers and members of Sussex Police Authority have been working out how on earth they'll manage to keep crime (and, crucially, the fear of crime) falling, and keep safe neighbourhoods, in the face of all this.

And last Thursday, a meeting of Sussex Police Authority considered a round-up of their efforts.

Dubbed 'Serving Sussex 2015', the force has proposed a veritable smorgasbord of measures to cut costs. Some of them are just common sesnse - and perhaps should have been done years ago: making better use of technology, for example, and using police cars a little more efficiently.

Some of the ideas sound good in principle, but raise as many questions as they answer: offering officers more unpaid leave, for example. Sounds great in theory, but I really can't see how senior officers will be able to manage their staff rotas without recourse to paying officers overtime, something else that bosses hope to cut to save cash.

But some of them really fill me with dread: top of the list a review of the way police stations are run. Obviously there's little point in maintaining a front desk at a police station hardly anyone uses, and as long as there is proper public consultation on what's going on, it may well make sense to close some police stations and offer shared front desk facilities with, say, councils. Perhaps Hove Police station could close, for example, and the police could make themselves available at Hove Town Hall a few minutes walk away. It certainly can't hurt to ask people what they think, anyway.

But East Sussex Council leader Peter Jones suggested during Thursday's meeting that police stations could in future be offered at supermarket check-outs: looking out over the Tesco superstore that dominates the Lewes retail scene, the front-runner to be Tory candidate to run Sussex Police after the introduction of US-style sheriffs in 2012 said he hoped the chain could play host to Sussex Police front desk services soon in the future.

In the Argus, a spokesman for the firm seemed to positively salivate at the idea: after all, they offer pharmacy services, post office counters, opticians - so why not the police stations that would mean another public service would be offered under their roof rather than on the high street - after all, every little helps when it comes to a plan for retail domination.

To be honest, I can hardly think of a worse idea. Tesco has shown itself, time and time again, to have little or no regard for either the law of the land (especially when it comes to serving alcohol to children) - or the commnuities it supposedly serves.

Hardly attributes likely to help Sussex Police deliver effective neighbourhood policing.

But I don't see much evidence that delivering effective policing has got anything to do with this one: it's about achieving two things, as far as I can tell: cutting costs and shifting control of the public sector into private hands, regardless of whether doing so will actually work.

And this latest round of Government cuts is providing the perfect opportunity for proposing the idea: it's the classic 'shock doctrine' approach: enact controversial policy after the naysayers have been metaphorically kicked in the nuts.

No wonder people are so angry that almost 1,000 of them marched through the streets of Brighton in protest yesterday (pictured). If Sussex Police wants to avoid that anger being directed towards its review of police stations it had better drop this scheme. People might be able to cope with Hove or Hollingbury Police Stations moving, but not if they re-open in Tesco supermarkets.

Saturday, 30 October 2010

Is it time for electronic voting in the House of Commons?

Brighton MP and Green Party leader Caroline Lucas has certainly made a splash since her historic victory in the Genral Election back in May - diving into constituency casework, parliamentary business - and trying to fulfil her pledge to be the conscience of parliament with gusto.

But her latest campaign is hardly one I'd have expected before her election: to introduce electronic voting to the House of Commons.

In a recent BBC interview, she lamented the fact that a dozen or so votes in the Mother of Parliaments can take more than an hour and a half - hardly a good use of MPs' time, she argues.

It makes a lot of sense. I hope the other party leaders, and the Speaker of the House, who (weirdly) is the MP who traditionally gives the thumbs up (or not, as the case may be) to parliamentary reform, agree with her.

I suspect they won't though. When it comes down to it, they quite like these quaint traditions taking up so much time: it gives their party members less time to make mischief by putting their constituents' interests above their party leaders' interests (Peter Mandelson's 'this must be supressed' approach would be harder to sustain if MPs' had more freedom to get things done or, God forbid, speak their mind more often).

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Tory cuts in Brighton bound to hit those who can least afford it hardest

I am really worried about the Government's Comprehensive Spending Review on Wednesday.

Not just because the scale of the cuts in Government spending it will herald will be devastating, but because they are almost bound to hit those who can least afford it hardest, causing enormous divisions - and real hardship - in society.

The cuts in Government spending (which, better economists than I have dubbed counter-productive and set to plunge the UK economy back into a unemployment-led recession a la 1980s) will mean benefits are cut and public services dwindle. Meanwhile thousands of public sector workers will be forced to join the unemployment queues.

Already, the richest in society, who use fewer public services, are entitled to fewest benefits, and are much less likely to work in the public sector - are let off the hook.

As equality campaign group Fawcett has argued, cuts in the public sector will hit women hardest - and proposed cuts like the abolition of the Children's Commissioner, the Equalities and Human Rights Commission and other quangos charged with look after the rights of the vulnerable will mean they will be joined by children, ethnic and sexual minoroties too.

Early announcements of where the axe will fall at Brighton Council suggest it is children who will bear the brunt locally - much of the details about the cuts the local Tories are already making to children's services in the city will be discussed at a full meeting of the council this Thursday.

But not so, it seems, Sussex Police.

At a recent meeting of the Sussex Police Authority Resources Scrutiny Committee, and under Green Party questioning, Deputy Chief Constable Giles York agreed that the force will be shedding jobs (1,050 is the latest estimate) 'equally'.

During a discussion about how the force was unlikely to meet locally-set targets for improving the numbers on women employed by Sussex Police, Mr York pledge that all cuts would be 'equalities impact assessed' to ensure neither women, ethnic minoroty, or LGBT staff unfairly bore the brunt of the cuts.

With recruitment at a near-standstill, and widespread unemployment almost bound to lead to an increase in crime on our streets, it’s more important than ever that we build public confidence in the police.
I am delighted the force has agreed to assess the impact of the coming job losses on women and minority groups, not just because the law may require it and because it’s the right thing to do, but because doing so will likely result in better policing and safer neighbourhoods and communities too.

Now the trick will be to hold Sussex Police to Mr York's committment.

PS There's a special prize for readers who correctly identify the morphed cut-miesters in the picture above: answers on a postcard please...

Friday, 15 October 2010

£200,000 cost of policing peace protest: an outrageous waste of money in face of Tory cuts

Blink and you might have missed it, but on Wednesday, it seems there was something of a peace protest in Brighton. According to The Argus, some 250 police, from across the region, were waiting for about 200 protesters.

There were around 20 arrests - mainly of people not doing what they were told - but everyone had been released without charge by this morning.

The whole policing operation, it has been reported, cost about £200,000 - an outrageous waste of time and money in the face of massive Government cuts, and in the face of warnings that over 1,000 jobs are for the chop.

The decision to spend so much money was one taken by the police themselves. But, as ever, it's the protesters who are singled out for blame, for not telling the police of their plans in advance.
This logic is not only naive and a little simplistic, it's vastly counterproductive.

If the police want to reduce costs for future demonstrations, they must take the lead in building trust with the protest movement. Blaming it for the cost of police operations does exactly the opposite.

The reality is peace protesters come in all shapes and sizes - from Christian grannies to balaclava-clad teens: there simply isn't an single individual or even group of people who has the authority or knowledge to tell the police what everyone's going to do.

Even if there was such a group to negotiate with they probably wouldn't do so anyway, yet: there simply isn't the trust there. For too long many peace protesters have viewed the police as likely to arrest them without warning, hold them accountable for the actions of others, and act as a private security outfit for the arms industry.

If we want to reduce costs in future, the police simply must concebntrate on rebuilding trust with the peace movment.

Here's two things they could do right away:

(i) Investigate whether crimes are being, or have been, committed at the factory itself: do the weapons components made there have the correct export licenses? Is enough done to ensure they don't end up in the wrong hands, and aren't ultimately used to commit unlawful violence, or against civilians?

(ii) Stop blaming the protesters! The cost of policing protests and demonstration is a necessary cost of living in a democracy, and if it's costing too much we must decide, as a society, whether to restrict our democtatic rights to take non-violent direct action, or whether to make the police to spend less money on them.

I agree with many of the commentators who have opined that £200,000 is too much money to spend on policing a peace protest. But I blame the police for deciding to spend it in the first place, not those who feel so strongly about the role a Brighton factory seems to be playing in conflict and war that they are prepared to take to the streets.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

'Parliament is Curtailing Democracy', warns Lucas

As the nights draw in and autumn tightens its grip, I'm drawn to thinking about Guy Fawkes' infamous plot to blow up the House of Commons.

He didn't pull if off, alas, so we're stuck with good old fashioned British Demorcacy - the big choice between elected dictators we indulge in once every four or five years.

Of course, our imperfect democracy remains the only one we've got so, while we  must never stop trying to overthrow and reform it, we have to work within it if we want to get anything done. That's why I'm a councillor not a cherry-bomb thrower.

But I've never been able to completely relinquish my hidden anarchist: especially when I read an MP suggesting that parliament itselt is 'curtainling democracy'.

This place is essentially curtailing democracy,’ Green Party leader Caroline Lucas tells the New Internationalist this month, referring to the House of Commons which looms just out of sight of her office.

‘Once you get here, the processes almost beggar belief, with a chamber that can’t even seat every MP, archaic voting procedures and a Speaker who can decide which amendments get discussed and which don’t.’

New 'tardis' comes to St James's Street - a fig leaf for cuts or a great plan?

A new Brighton Council inititative will see a Doctor Who-style police box taking up residence in a car park below St James's House in a bid to deter drug-taking, and provide a local point of contact for people unable to make the journey to Brighton's Main Police station at the end of the road.

It sounds great - and I hope it does what is expected of it: serves to cut both crime and the fear of crime as well as embedding the police in the community.

But the cynic in me doubts that it will have that effect for long - such initiatives usually merely push criminal activity elsewhere rather than actually preventing it, and the new initiative comes just as Sussex Police is planning on shedding 1,050 jobs and reviewing the way it delivers neighbourhood policing.

It reminds me of those schemes where cardboard cut-out coppers were stood by the side of motorways to deter speeding: a great idea, but no substitute for a real human police presence. I suspect total crime levels will be unaffected, and the new 'tardis' will be devoid of PCSOs and officers soon.

I hope I'm wrong, of course, but I'm not holding my breath.

Monday, 11 October 2010

Tory plans to abolish grants for poorer pupils will knock life-chances, and social mobility for all

What with all the fuss about Tory plans to abandon the idea of universal Child Benefit, a far more worrying change to the way the Government administers benefits to under-19s could be around the corner: the abolition of Education Maintenance Allowance (EMAs).

EMAs, which are worth up to £30 a week, are means-tested benefits payable to 16-19 year olds to help them meet the costs of staying in education - and they work.

The evidence seems to show that EMAs increase participation in further education by about six per cent a year. By definition, those six per cent of learners are the least-well-off in society, and often the most vulnerable in other ways too. In some cases dropping out of education or training will mean dropping out of the formal economy altogether and be devastating for their longer-term life chances and the whole idea of social mobility.

EMAs are restricted to low-income households, and predominantly taken up by those with low achievement levels at school, those from ethnic minorities and those from single-parent families, so are a vital tool for increasing social mobility. EMA is also conditional on the young person turning up to college (or school) so if they don’t turn up, they don’t get their EMA.

And yet the Government looks set to abolish them entirely, at the behest of 'free-market ideology' - and the bidding of a number of right-wing think-tanks and pressure groups, including the Policy Exchange, the Institute of Directors and the Tax Payers Alliance.

More EMA recipients find themselves in Further Education (about 69%) than any other type of school or college: so cutting them is likely to lead to more drop-outs and course closures in the vocational and training sector than any other.

Here in Brighton and Hove, for example, more than half of all 16-19-year-old students at City College are in receipt of EMA: 47 per cent of all students in the age range receiving the maximum £30 per week award.

The impact on EMAs' withdrawal could be enormous for the college and anyone in our city concerned at the range of non-academic training routes available locally.

The net result will be, of course, more children from poorer backgrounds dropping out of education and employment entirely. Fewer vocational courses being offered to anyone at all, and lower social mobility - er, exactly the vision of a Tory society, I suppose.

Coming ahead of massive cuts to the Further Education budget, the careers and benefit services provided by Connexions, the closure of nurseries like Bright Start - and the downgrading of teachers' pensions announced last week - it seems like Tory Brighton is becoming a pretty nasty place to grow up, one way and another.

Help St James's Street get some Christmas Lights this year

At a meeting of the St James's Area Action Group last week, it was revelead that the group needs to raise about £6,000 to pay for Christmas Lights in the area this year - £3,000 for new 'tree lights' and £3,000 to make good the shonky infrasructure from lastr year.

Of course the big multiples have shied away from putting their hands in their deep corporate profits: even Starbucks, who found £3,000 last year in a desperate bid to stave off the bad publicity it attracted by opening a branch on the street without planing permission, have backed away this year: the PR job's done, after all.

So, it's left up to local businesses and the community to do it. So, hat's off to the new Poison Ivy bar for hosting a fundraiser. Let's hope it's a busy one and it raises all the cash required for a cracking Christmas in Kemp Town.

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Sussex Police to save cash - and the environment - by getting officers out of their cars and into communities

It seeems  Sussex Police are going to be driving their vans and cars around a little less in coming years.

On Thursday Sussex Police Authority's Resources Scrutiny Committee will consider a proposal to stop replacing police cars - and reduce the total size of the fleet by several hundred vehicles - and its journeys by about 1.5 million miles a year.

This review of the way Sussex Police uses its fleet of vehicles is welcome – and long overdue.

It will save over £2m - cash that can be used to protect jobs in the face of enormous Government cuts, massively reduce the police's fuel bills and exhaust fumes, which will both improve air quality and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and force officers to get out of their cars and into communities a little more.

It's a classic win-win-win, good for policing, good for the environment, and good for saving jobs in the face of Government police cuts.

Some might worry that with fewer cars the police will be less able to respond quickly to crime - but I think that logic needs to be turned on its head: if fewer cars mean there's more money for saving officers and PCSO jobs from cuts, and they're spending more time out of their cars and in the communities they patrol, there should be less crime in the first place.

Friday, 1 October 2010

10:10 Campaign pulls film warning of looming climate change deaths

This video made me laugh - so I thought it'd only be fair to share it here.

It was made for the 10:10 campaign  - which aims to get individuals and organisations to cut their climate change-fuelling carbon emissions by ten per cent this year - by slushy millionaire campaigning comedian Richard Curtis.

He's had his moments (Blackadder, for example) but generally, Curtis has had a wonderful knack for producing  the worst of British soggy, soppy comedies - shows like the Vicar of Dibley, films like Notting Hill - and got very rich on the back of them.

That background makes this punchy little number even more effective, I reckon: it seeks (well, sought) to do one thing: attract some attention to the campaign, which, as 2010 enters October, is running out of time to sign up new supporters.

So it contains a few gory images to boost the shock factor - it even features England striker Peter Crouch and a chance to see former Spurs superhero David Ginola blown to pieces.

But just a few hours after putting it online, the 10:10 campaign withdrew it, citing complaints about the video being in bad taste.

Well, the cynic in me would say the whole saga seems a little contrived to me, and I imagine taking it down was always part of the plan to stir up some controversy in the hope of boosting the film's reach.

But good on 'em: climate change is already killing hundreds of thousands of people a year, and its set to get a lot worse.

I'm glad I've been able to play my part in getting Sussex Police to sign up to the 10:10 campaign and agree to cut its emissions by ten per cent, and that, collectively, Green Party councillors have been able to get Brighton and Hove City Council to do the same.

And I'm equally glad I've got a 'blog to post this film too, and that doing so helps it 'go viral' in some small way, which I'm sure is what thy are trying to do by taking the film down and pretending that anyone was genuinely offended by it.

Whatever happens to this film, our efforts to tackle runaway climate change just better 'go viral'.