UK politics. World events. Bureaucrat released.

Monday, 21 November 2011

The unfinished revolution

Over the weekend, the situation in Egypt has become ever more critical. The most sustained protests since President Mubarak was ousted in February. 13 people died and hundreds were injured in clashes between security forces and protesters, back in Tahrir Square.

The protesters are concerned that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, Egypt's interim government, is dragging its feet on elections and trying to cement its own position. This weekend's deaths seem certain to prolong the protests and lead to another occupation of Tahrir Square.

Before this, the military has put nearly 12,000 Egyptians in front of military tribunals, has been making policy on the hoof and is sticking to a plan to hold presidential elections a whole year from now. The military already stands accused of the deaths of 27 protesters in clashes with mostly Coptic Christians last month. Most prominently, bloggers and activists who the military have tried to silence through their tribunals have gone on hunger strikes. There are appalling stories of prisoner abuse in Egyptian jails, with one prisoner killed - allegedly tortured - after trying to smuggle a SIM card in.

Elections are due to take place next week. But the military hasn't yet confirmed any date for the transfer of power to civilians. Until they do, the elections will be unempowered. There is a political vaccum, and some analysts suggest the only choice is between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Army.

Inevitably, the UK's Arab Spring focus has been on Libya. It's a hard balance for Western countries to encourage indigenous revolution rather than be seen to dictate ourselves. But we should surely be making it clear to Egypt's military rulers that they need to reassure Egyptians that they are there only on an interim basis, that civilian rule will follow swiftly, and to reject autocratic military tribunals that are bringing Egyptians onto the streets again. Perhaps the best hope is for Egypt's neighbour Tunisia to keep influencing change in Egypt. Tunisia's elections were swift, peaceful and effective. Egyptians deserve the same.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Targets... good or bad?

There was a quiet U-turn of sorts this week when Andrew Lansley decided to reintroduce targets to control hospital waiting times.  Why?  Because it turns out that more NHS patients are waiting longer than 18 weeks for treatment since the government scrapped targets in May last year.

Of the patients treated in September 2011, almost 18,000 more had to wait longer for treatment than in May last year.  In neurosurgery, there was an increase of 66% in patients who had to wait more than 18 weeks.

This raises interesting questions for a liberal blog, whose default position should be less central control, give power and responsibility to the doctors and nurses closest to the patients. 

In fact, Andrew Lansley has had to say that the Department for Health will now begin monitoring the numbers of patients waiting longer than 18 weeks.

You might draw the conclusion, as Labour is doing, that if you scrap the central targets then the quality of service goes down.  That their "top-down" approach, vilified by Tories and Lib Dems at the last election, does actually work.

For me, it sums up that you need to look beyond the rhetoric of "top-down versus bottom-up".  You can have a health service which delegates authority, responsibility and innovation to the lowest tier and still maintain central targets of an acceptable service.

Any business (public or private) delivering a service needs to measure itself against certain standards.  Setting those targets isn't a straitjacket that hinders innovation, since hospitals can always exceed the target or be named and shamed if they miss the target, just as a private business would be if it performed less well compared with its competitors.

I began reading Sir Michael Barber's book (he was Head of Tony Blair's "Delivery Unit") on what he calls "deliverology", what others call "top down targets".  It was hardgoing, but it convinced me that its central approach was a sensible one.  It's based firmly on the idea of reducing the layers of bureaucracy or chain of delivery between politicians saying what the service should look like and hospitals or schools delivering that service.

The coalition like Sir Michael's ideas enough to have exported him to try and sort out Pakistan's education system, something we're pumping tons of DFID money into.

And it seems to be wholly possible to have central targets, as long as there is freedom for service providers to have control of their own budgets and ideas to deliver that service as they see fit.  That's the important part of the "bottom-up" approach that we really need to get cracking with.

Monday, 7 November 2011

Direct democracy meets whips' clunking fist

Again, I'm coming to events pretty late after a long time out of blogging whilst I completed my notice from the civil service. I hope to begin blogging under my real name (and perhaps to a real audience, not just to myself) in the next few weeks in a re-launched format.

I'm just reflecting again how the Government might have handled the EU referendum issue better at the Commons vote a few weeks ago. There's no doubt that the timing was pretty odd, held as the eurozone was crumbling. But, I also feel strongly that the Lib Dems in particular were in entirely the wrong place on the issue and were sending out some pretty confusing signals.

First, this was a non-binding vote. So if MPs had voted to have a referendum on the UK's membership of the EU, there wouldn't necessarily have been a referendum. It would have signalled what MPs thought, so it was heavy handed and unnecessary for the Coalition to force MPs to vote against it.

Second, this vote happened because more than 100,000 members of the public signed a petition for Parliament to debate the issue. The first time this has happened under a wheeze ostensibly designed to bring citizen and state together, and petitions - we're told -  are "a good thing". They will "make a difference".  They will chip away at the "old, discredited politics".  The petitions system is a form of direct democracy, beyond the 5 year lock-in a party's manifesto, where the public can (supposedly) shape and refine the Government's programme.

Let's be frank, the Lib Dems were nowhere in this argument. Yes, because the media turned the clock back to 1992 and enjoyed a Tory "rebellion" over Europe. But for a party which tore itself up over the Lisbon Treaty vote, where - back in 2007 - Nick Clegg ordered his MPs to abstain because they wanted not a referendum on Lisbon but on "in or out"... to be voting against an "in or out" referendum this time seemed bizarre to anyone who bothers to track how a party feels about an issue like Europe.

On Europe, the Lib Dems are looking illiberal and undemocratic, afraid of putting the positive case for Europe that they surely believe in to the public. You can't argue the toss over AV or PR on the grounds of fairness, if you want to deny a vote on Europe because you don't trust the public to make the right decision. Or is it that they, we, don't have the confidence to put the arguments across.

The excuse this time for ducking a referendum was that the Lib Dem manifesto promised a referendum only in the event of future treaty changes. I guess that's what the small print says, and it's what will happen if there are future treaty changes (both parties support it).   . 

But on a non-binding motion responding to a free public petition, it's a shame that the Government responded by whipping MPs to the party line.   And we don't just elect Members of Parliament to solidly defend their parties' manifesto.  Yes, the winning candidate for the winning party is elected to gather sufficient MPs in Parliament to win a mandate to deliver the most popular manifesto.  But we also elect our MPs on the basis of other things they say, who they are, what they stand for and because we put trust in their judgement to act on our behalf.  And now, so we thought, through petitioning we have a direct way of influencing their judgement beyond the electoral cycle.

What the Government (one we are told is "liberal" Conservative and "Liberal" Democrat) was effectively saying was, "thanks for your views submitted to our new grand, democratic scheme; but, actually, we don't care what you think... it's what our 2010 manifestos said ,that you may or may not have voted on, that counts". And, they said, it's more important for our MPs to be loyal to the whips, not think for themselves.

After this, why bother petitioning?  Reasonable or unreasonable (there's plenty of Clarkson for PM petitions out there) - if we continue this way, the most likely outcome is to be ignored.