Quite a few things have accumulated, but to start with the most serious:
- The Rotherham report
Everyone is being careful what they say about this for obvious reasons (not least so as not to prejudice prosecutions), but we should be clear that it is an absolutely grade A scandal; as many as 1500 children have been sexually abused and in some cases raped with extreme threats of violence, and Rotherham authorities were informed about it and for some years largely shut a blind eye. I understand that the scathing report that has now appeared was commissioned by the current council and that the situation has now improved, so some credit is due for that, but we need to understand and learn from what happened, as well as prosecuting wherever the evidence justifies it.
I think there are at least two important lessons to be learned. First, it appears that a reason that the reports were largely ignored is that they were being pushed by extreme right-wingers. They hated the rapists not because they were rapists but because they were of a different ethnic group. But the hard fact is that it is both racist to discriminate against people because of their ethnic group but also racist to protect criminals because they happen to be in that group.
We should all be treated in exactly the same way. If we commit crimes, we should be prosecuted. If we don’t, we should be left alone to pursue our lives in peace. It’s not rocket science.
Second, we need to look at why the authorities disregarded so much evidence. What appears to have happened is that they accepted as a fact of life that under-16 sex is common in many areas and they then took it upon themselves to reinterpret the law, so that a child as young as 11 was considered able to give consent to prostitution.
There is a reason for the law on consent – it’s not that we believe that nobody under 16 has sexual thoughts, but we think that it is usually best to have some more years to make balanced and informed decisions. The tragic fact that some girls felt that the modest amount of friendliness and gifts given them by their assailants made it an acceptable deal just illustrates why the law is needed.
And there’s a class element too. Do we suppose that if the victims had come from the families or doctors and lawyers, the authorities would have shrugged off the reports? Of course not. If you’re a kid from a chaotic home with poor education and a lack of grammatical verbal fluency, you just don’t always get listened to in the same way. And that’s wrong.
Does that mean that realistically we can expect every child under 16 to report issues with the fluency of a lawyer’s daughter? No. But at the very least we should expect that complaints are actually listened to and acted on when they are made, however working-class or poor the complainant might be. It’s a matter of simple equality before the law.
Each of us hopes to be treated fairly. This case shows there is such a long way to go.
- Major university and training proposals
The media don’t bother much with complex policy proposals – which is one reason that many people think that the parties don’t have policies. This one caught my eye:
In some ways, the proposed technical universities resemble the old polytechnics, but with the difference that they are intended to be much more flexible and suit a large variety of lifestyles.
I took an interest in a related idea when I was in Parliament, exploring the idea of having some courses whose content was strongly influenced by employers. The deal would be:
1. An employer X who consistently finds it hard to get the right sort of British graduates would explain what they needed to university Y.
2. Y would develop a course designed to meet X’s needs while retaining sufficient breadth to avoid the student being tied to X (e.g. if it was Microsoft, the course couldn’t be just tied to MS software).
3. X would pay some of the fees and offer a 1-year contract to any graduate with a 2-1 result or better.
What would be in it for the student is reduced fees and a guaranteed job offer – no compulsion to take it, but nice to know it’s there. X would pay some money but solve his recruitment problem. And the university would attract more students, while retaining academic freedom to design and run the courses without outsourcing them to the employers.
The companies I talked to were very interested, as were students. And it’s been done here and there – some nursing courses, some computer game courses, and so on. But so far we’re missing out on a coherent national approach, and if I do get back next year it’s something I’ll hope to pursue.
- Kimberley Town Council
A dispute on Kimberley Town Council has flared up. The council co-opted two Green members a while back, but they recently resigned, one of them (Katharina Boettge) saying “Staying would mean colluding with a corrupt system”. Some town councillors (who are unpaid) were incensed by that, and Andy Cooper, who is a Kimberley councillor, wrote what he thought was a private email referring to Ms Boettge as “Eva Braun”. This found its way to the public domain, and Ms Boettge (who is German-born) was understandably infuriated.
Andy Cooper has apologised unreservedly to her; she in turn has clarified that she only meant by “corrupt” a lack of transparency and sharing essential information. I think this relates to whether town council decisions should be taken by the executive or discussed with all members – for instance, there was criticism that they decided to replace the bulletin board as an executive decision, and more substantively there are different views on the level of reserves that the council should hold. The council has limited powers but impressive ambitions for Kimberley. Whether they are discussed enough in full council meetings is something I can’t judge and will no doubt be discussed in future town council elections.
I do think Andy Cooper’s remark was inappropriate and councillors shouldn’t be giving each other unpleasant nicknames: I’m glad he’s apologised without reservations. I don’t personally think it’s a resigning matter, especially as everyone on both town and borough councils will be up for re-election in 8 months – let’s let the voters decide what they think of it all, together with the other issues affecting Kimberley more widely.
Ms Soubry is pursuing the issue with numerous partisan interviews and emails demanding a resignation. One of Andy’s critics was a Labour councillor, Jan Pearce, and Ms Soubry mischievously quotes her approvingly. Jan Pearce responds: “I’ve just received a new edition of Anna’s newsletter in which she quotes me and makes comparisons between myself and Andy. I’d like to categorically state that was done without my knowledge or permission.”
- The NHS in decline
Finally, what is actually a political press release. I don’t generally pass on these, since I prefer to give my own views. But this one does sum up succinctly the way in which the NHS is being allowed to slide by the current government. I don’t think it’s what even most Conservative and LibDem voters wanted.