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Archives for September 2010

The Irrationality League

Mark Easton | 12:38 UK time, Thursday, 30 September 2010

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The Irrationality League is a charity pledged to support those who wish to act unreasonably, foolishly, rashly and illogically. It is the standard-bearer for impulsives everywhere.

Charity wrist bands

 

Since the Enlightenment, dreary realism has come to dominate our thinking: ideas must make sense; policy must be evidence-based; sound reasoning must guide our actions.

But what, says the Irrationality League, of the spontaneous, the madcap, the impetuous? We need to fight for the right to be reckless.

I came up with the idea of a charity called the Irrationality League at an event at the RSA last night.

Martin Brookes, chief executive of New Philanthropy Capital, gave a provocative speech [168KB PDF] in which he argued that donors to "good causes" are often "fickle, casual and lazy". They give money to organisations without rationale or proper thought.

"Some charitable causes are just 'better', and more deserving, than others", he argued. "But donors in the main don't behave rationally or morally. Donors give to feel good, rather than to have an impact."

He said that donors need help to "give well" and proposed a system of worthiness ratings so givers can see instantly how 'good' or 'moral' the cause really is.

"Something like Maslow's hierarchy of needs could be useful," Mr Brookes suggested. "This begins with physiological needs such as food and water; rising through to safety, belonging, esteem, and ending with self-actualisation (such as creativity)."

To make his point he compared a charity which saves human lives with one which saves rare Stradivarius violins.

I wondered what this hierarchy of charitable needs might look like and asked Mr Brookes to rank this range of causes:

1. Learning
2. Planet Earth
3. Human suffering
4. The arts
5. Endangered donkeys

You and I may have an instinctive view on what is the most moral cause in this list. But these are subjective ideas. How does one compare a campaign to save a beautiful object with another to save a donkey? Both have public benefit.

Sometimes, as Mr Brookes pointed out, charities can have contradictory purposes. The British Humanist Association and the Catholic Trust took very different views on the Pope's recent visit to Britain. Was one more 'moral' than the other?

"Despite their apparent conflicts, each organisation could sit comfortably within the higher echelons of Maslow's hierarchy without us having to choose between them, so long as they addressed the same level of needs. Donors could simply make their choices subject to which charitable approach or mission they preferred."

The challenge in the speech is to the simplistic notion that "charidee", as Smashie and Nicey used to say, is a homogenous good. One of the earliest examples of a charity in England, Mr Brookes reminded his audience last night, raised funds to purchase wood with which to burn witches. Another, only last century, distributed cigarettes to wounded soldiers.

Is there a difference between a donation to a charity which gives certain benefits in return for the money - special access to an art gallery, say - against a donation for which there is no reward except a warm glow?

Should we draw a moral distinction between dropping coins into a collecting tin and investing in Social Impact Bonds with the possibility of a profit if a public benefit is achieved?

I am a believer in logic and reasoning in the choices we make and I doubt somehow that my Irrationality League would be granted charitable status, but there is an issue around the freedom of people to give money impulsively without criticism for being "fickle, casual and lazy". Isn't there?

Putting police in harm's way

Mark Easton | 09:01 UK time, Thursday, 23 September 2010

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Perhaps the most radical idea in today's report on police and anti-social behaviour is the call for a "refocusing on what causes harm in communities, rather than what is or is not a 'crime'".

Instead of police resources being driven by what the criminal justice system regards as serious, we should put the effort into what does most damage to society and our quality of life. So where would that lead us?

Sir Denis O'Connor

 

The Chief Inspector of Constabulary, Sir Denis O'Connor believes that, too often, "we sanctify anything that happens to be badged by some legislation as a crime" and dismiss incidents and activities which are "a blight on the lives of millions" but are not defined as criminal offences.

"It may not quite qualify in the rules we have. It certainly may not qualify for the experts. But it qualifies every time for them."

Government already claims to operate a "harm reduction" principle when it comes to its strategy on illegal drugs. The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs has devised a "harm matrix" to assess the relative risks from different substances. In advising ministers on drug classification in England and Wales, the experts consider potential harms to health, families, communities and wider society. (See my previous post on this.)

The Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) describes itself as "an intelligence-led law enforcement agency with harm reduction responsibilities". Its job is to cut not crime, but harm.

This table from an agency report last year shows the complexity of defining the concept when it comes to organised criminal activity. Once again, the multi-faceted nature of harm is considered.

Table of types of harm

Source: Extending Our Reach: A Comprehensive Approach to Tackling Serious Organised Crime: 2009

So the idea of harm reduction in a crime context is not entirely new but suggesting it be used to decide the focus of police activity is still, I think, a radical notion.

The Home Office has dabbled in this area with its attempts to compare the 'costs' of different crimes [337KB PDF].

In 2005 they produced research which tried to put a financial value on the consequences from a range of violent offences, although academics recognised that "current estimates of the intangible costs of violent crime, such as pain, grief or suffering experienced by victims are weak".

Comparison of the consequential costs of violent crime

Nevertheless, the Home Office's table puts a monetary cost on the "physical and emotional impact" of different crimes. The pain and suffering from a common assault, you might notice, is roughly a thirtieth of that from a sexual offence.

Today's report from the HMIC invites us to accept that the physical and emotional effect of ASB is so significant it justifies a far greater police response than some notifiable criminal offences.

In order to free up resources for the "feet on the street" that Sir Denis says are needed to tackle ASB, he has suggested officers be moved from specialist units dealing with hate crime or domestic violence.

This is where the need for a sophisticated crime harm matrix becomes obvious. There is good evidence to suggest that victims of domestic violence, for example, endure enormous psychological trauma in addition to any physical injury. They may never fully recover.

How do we compare that with the harm from kids hanging around the shops drinking cheap cider and swearing at pensioners on their way to the Post Office?

Harm, as SOCA's table and the drugs matrix demonstrate, comes in different forms: direct harm to the victim; harm to the community; harm to the perpetrator from the criminal justice response; harm to the economy - and on and on.

Anti-social behaviour has traditionally been given a low priority because it has been judged that the harm to the individual victim is not acute. Having met many such victims, I would argue this is often incorrect. But it is the harm to wider society that underpins Sir Denis's argument.

"Managing ASB is crucial to sustaining the vitality and confidence of communities. Untreated ASB acts like a magnet for other crime and disorder problems and areas can quite easily tip into a spiral of economic and social decline."

How might we measure this "social harm"? A paper published by the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies in 2005 and entitled Criminal obsessions: why harm matters more than crime [1.5MB PDF] suggested the concept of crime was a "myth" and that "the undue attention given to events which are defined as crimes distracts attention from more serious harm".

This echoes the view of Sir Denis, although I wonder whether his definition of social harm would encompass "notions of autonomy, development and growth, and access to cultural, intellectual and information resources generally available in any given society".

Exploring the idea of "social harm" can quickly become a debate about politics. For instance, is it anti-social behaviour which is the cause of social harm in many deprived areas or a policy of corralling the most challenging and vulnerable individuals and families in poor-quality social housing on isolated estates with few facilities?

The criminal justice system finds the concept of harm too slippery.

Section 143 of the Criminal Justice Act states that "in considering the seriousness of any offence, the court must consider... any harm which the offence caused, was intended to cause or might forseeably have caused". However, when I asked a judge what he thought "harm" meant in that context, he replied, candidly, "No idea".

He told me that the word "harm" is rarely used in court - lawyers prefer to talk about injury or loss. The judiciary is required to consider the social as well of the individual impact of crimes in deciding on sentence, but it is a matter of subjective judgement (that is what judges are paid for, after all) rather than objective science.

And that seems to me to be the weakness in Sir Denis's argument for a "harm reduction" crime strategy. We might agree that ASB has a very significant effect on the quality of life of individuals and communities. But without good evidence of how that harm compares with, say, child abuse or rape or street robbery, how do we know we are putting the feet on the right street?

Who are the public servants?

Mark Easton | 13:15 UK time, Tuesday, 21 September 2010

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Is Bruce Forsyth a public-sector worker? What about the chief executive of Group 4? The Prince of Wales? The head of Save the Children?

Bruce Forsyth and a nurse

 

If the definition of a public-sector employee is someone who is rewarded in significant part from the public purse, then all the above could be categorised as such. The boundaries between private, public and charitable sectors are already blurred and will become more so. The arguments about public-sector pay are likely to get correspondingly difficult.

It is straightforward to classify a nurse working directly and exclusively for the NHS as a public-sector worker. But what if that nurse, doing precisely the same job, is employed by a charity, a social enterprise or a private health company?

The coalition government is currently looking at every aspect of state service provision to see whether it might be better delivered by a non-state provider or citizens themselves. Ministers are excited about the potential of Social Impact Bonds which allow private investors to profit from the effective delivery of public services. The voluntary and charitable sector is hoping the "Big Society" might mean many more big contracts.

The debate about how public workers are rewarded is framed in terms of a distinct group of citizens who have chosen to work for the state. Taxpayers, understandably, want their contributions spent wisely and effectively and last night's Panorama demonstrated some of the anger at "telephone-number salaries" being handed out to public servants. But the programme also demonstrated how people sometimes accept that individuals are entitled to be handsomely paid when they get results.

So, if financial speculators trouser a tidy wad in return for saving the government pots of money, will the public be that bothered? If a charity, competing with a profit-making company for the contract to deliver government services, chooses to pay private-sector pay rates to attract the best CEO, will taxpayers care? If the managing director of a company working exclusively in the delivery of street-cleaning services for local councils gets a fat bonus, will voters be up in arms?

I remember interviewing a group of 13-year-olds for Newsnight in 1992. They had all been born after Margaret Thatcher had become prime minister and had subsequently privatised many functions previously run by the state. When I told them that car producers used to be public-sector workers, they were astounded. The idea seemed quite absurd.

I wonder whether our children will find the current debate about public-sector pay equally absurd.

Just thinking

Mark Easton | 09:07 UK time, Monday, 20 September 2010

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"This is a unique time for putting things on the table that have previously been unpalatable": the words of a Whitehall mandarin involved in shaping government policy on sentencing and prisons.

The rotunda of HMP Manchester

The rotunda of HMP Manchester

It is clear that Ken Clarke has been emboldened by the fact that the sky didn't fall in when he suggested that "just banging up more and more people for longer" was too often "a costly and ineffectual approach".

While his calls for "intelligent sentencing, seeking to give better value for money" have alarmed some on the right of his party, I understand that the department has taken heart from polling data which suggests the general public response has been broadly relaxed.

The phrase "prison doesn't work", certainly in terms of short-term sentences, is tacitly accepted inside the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) as officials prepare for what the Conservatives have dubbed their "rehabilitation revolution".

My senior civil-servant source stressed that "this government is dedicated to evidence-based policy" and that the consultation on the future of penal policy due to start at the end of October or early November will begin with "a page of facts" about the criminal justice system. The hope is that they can stage a rational rather than emotional debate about the management of offenders.

If this all sounds dangerously liberal to some, it was emphasised to me that policy discussions consider three aspects: cost effectiveness, public opinion and the principle of justice. That said, it is the first of those criteria that is the key driver in departmental deliberations.

Ministers are very excited about the potential of using private investors to deliver criminal justice services on the basis of payment by results. Last week the MoJ began a pilot of so-called Social Impact Bonds at Peterborough prison, the first scheme of its type in the world.

Over six years, £5m invested in the bonds will be used to work with around 3,000 short-term prisoners. If the social enterprise can reduce re-offending sufficiently, the investors stand to make a £3m profit. If they fail, as on The Weakest Link, they leave with nothing.

There is some departmental concern, I am told, that if social bonds do become the norm for service delivery, budgeting becomes extremely tricky. In the current climate it is unlikely that ministers will agree to large contingency funds in case results exceed expectations.

But the principle is a perfect fit for a government that wants to shrink the state and develop the "Big Society". "We will simply specify the outcomes we want and how much we are prepared to pay," my source explained. Concern that an absence of targets combined with light-touch government might mean "variable justice" is dismissed.

The more one learns of what is going on in Whitehall at the moment, the clearer it becomes that this is a remarkably radical government. While the effects of public-sector cuts preoccupy the headline writers, behind the scenes the building blocks are being put in place for the most fundamental shift in the relationship between citizen and state since World War II. It is an extraordinary change being conducted at breakneck speed.

Allow me to remind you of some of the key criteria being used to define that process as defined by the Spending Review Framework [373Kb PDF]:

Is the activity essential to meet Government priorities? Does the Government need to fund this activity? Does the activity provide substantial economic value? Can the activity be targeted to those most in need? How can the activity be provided at lower cost? How can the activity be provided more effectively? Can the activity be provided by a non-state provider or by citizens, wholly or in partnership? Can non-state providers be paid to carry out the activity according to the results they achieve? Can local bodies as opposed to central government provide the activity?

 

Spending Review Framework

 

People are waking up to what changes when you ask these questions. Advocates of the Big Society idea are realising the enormity of the moment. Richard Wilson, who heads a project pledged to empower local individuals and communities, has written about the day the penny dropped for him. Apparently, it was last Thursday:

"The location for this enlightenment experience was a room in Biggleswade, Bedfordshire (the Lord works in mysterious ways) with 30 local authority practitioners. I finally realised a simple point. There is no detail. The canvas is blank. This is the profound shift that Pickles, Cameron, Wilcox, Wei and others have been talking about."

When Whitehall mandarins say this is a "unique time" for putting previously "unpalatable" ideas on the table, we'd better believe it.

Should drugs policy be based on facts or opinion?

Mark Easton | 16:22 UK time, Thursday, 16 September 2010

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Should Britain's strategy to reduce the harm from drugs be based on scientific evidence or public opinion? When the issue came up during the course of a Parliamentary debate on "legal highs" last week, there was an interesting insight into how the previous Labour administration viewed matters.

Alan Campbell

Click on the image to watch the debate at the Parliament website

The Liberal Democrat MP Tom Brake stood up to ask a question of the shadow home office minister Alan Campbell.
"I seek reassurance that when sound, factual evidence is produced to show what is effective in tackling drug crime and addressing health issues, the hon. Gentleman will sign up to that."

Mr Campbell, who was, until the election, the Labour government's voice on drugs and crime, thought he detected a trap.

"I cannot give the hon. Gentleman the assurance he seeks because he is sending me along a route he knows I cannot go down."

The route, of course, was towards decriminalisation or legalisation of currently illicit drugs.

Mr Brake, a member of the Home Affairs Select Committee, recently travelled to Spain and Portugal where the possession of drugs is no longer a criminal offence. The question behind the question was "if it works there, would he support doing the same here?" (I blogged from Portugal last year.)

"It is no bad thing to learn lessons from abroad," Mr Campbell replied, "but we need a drugs policy for this country that reflects the evidence and takes into account the views of the public."

What happens, though, if the "evidence" and "public views" are in opposition? Mr Brake went in for the kill.

"Will the hon. Gentleman go on the record and confirm that if a policy is backed by clear, evidence-based research that shows the most effective way of tackling drugs to be something that the public do not support, he will back the public rather than scientific fact?"

It is the question that lies behind so many of the arguments about current drugs policy in Britain. The former home secretary's dismissal of Professor David Nutt as chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs last autumn prompted a public battle between scientists and politicians over exactly this point. (See previous posts.)

"Politicians always think that they back the public because they hope the public will back them," Mr Campbell replied.

"We can take the evidence, but we must also take into account what the public think about such matters. There is an argument to say that scientific evidence alone can be collected on the harm that a drug would do to someone's health, and that the judgment can be made entirely from that. However, that is not the basis on which the advisory council is set up. Other factors must be taken into account, not least the attitude of the public, which I hope is informed by the evidence, as the hon. Gentleman suggests it will be."

Mr Campbell's hope that the public's attitude "is informed by the evidence" will have had many experts in the drugs field shaking their heads, however.

When the new drugs minister, James Brokenshire stood up to speak at the end of the debate, he was adamant that the coalition had no intention of going down the Portuguese route.

"The Government are opposed to the legalisation of drugs and to decriminalisation for personal use" because "illegal drugs are harmful and no one should take them".
 
"To legalise their supply for personal consumption would send the wrong message to the majority of young people, who do not take drugs on a regular basis, if at all, and, alongside that, it would increase the risk of drug use and abuse. On the specific point about the Portuguese model, we are against that proposal."

Interestingly, the new head of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Yury Fedotov, took up his post only three days ago, promising to "place a strong emphasis on safeguarding health, human rights and justice in drugs and crime policy".

Calling for a period of consolidation at the body which polices the international treaties underpinning global drugs policy, Mr Fedotov appears supportive of his predecessor's view that "people who take drugs need medical help, not criminal retribution".

Also this week, the former Spanish Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez called for global action to legalise drugs. He acknowledged that "no country can take this decision (to legalise drugs) unilaterally without an extremely serious (political) cost for its leaders.

"What is needed therefore is an international treaty that is respected by all," he said.

It is also worth recalling that, as a member of the Home Affairs Select Committee inquiry into drug misuse in 2002, David Cameron voted in favour of a recommendation that "the Government initiates a discussion within the Commission on Narcotic Drugs of alternative ways - including the possibility of legalisation and regulation - to tackle the global drugs dilemma".

However, this is clearly not where the coalition is heading. When it comes to the question of evidence-based drugs policy and public opinion, it would appear that the new British government has carried on precisely where the old one left off.

Has the credit crunch left us poorer... but happier?

Mark Easton | 15:36 UK time, Tuesday, 14 September 2010

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I need your help with a question. Why are we apparently happier today in the middle of a financial crisis than we were at the height of the economic boom?

The government says it wants to keep track of the happiness of the nation and today the Office for National Statistics (ONS) published its thoughts on the best way to measure our subjective well-being [422KB PDF].

In considering the Treasury's demand for "broader indicators of well-being and sustainability", the researchers have been looking at the existing data measuring how satisfied we are with our lives.

The surprising finding is that, despite the economic gloom, Britain remains remarkably chipper. If anything, we are a bit happier now than we were before the credit crunch.

I know there will be some readers rolling their eyes at the whole idea that you can have a meaningful measure of something as intangible as happiness, but that view is dismissed by a host of academic studies, not least the 2009 report of the Stiglitz Commission [114KB PDF] set up by President Sarkozy and including no less than five Nobel prize winning economists. (I wrote about their report then.)

The ONS agrees that "recent developments suggest that subjective wellbeing is a valid construct that can be measured reliably" and says the question now "is not whether to measure subjective wellbeing, but how".

In fact, the government has been asking plenty of questions about life satisfaction for years and it looks certain they will continue to do so.

The Conservative manifesto explicitly pledged to "develop a measure of well-being that encapsulates the social value of state action" and the coalition's budget report said ministers intended to review how the Stiglitz report "should affect the sustainability and well-being indicators collected by Defra".

Defra is home to Whitehall's happiness central and officials have been quietly posting all kinds of fascinating data on the department's website assessing the way Britain feels about itself [138KB PDF].

One might imagine that national well-being has taken a bit of a knock with the recession, but the latest data suggest there has been little or no discernible change in our mood.

The standard question for measuring subjective well-being is this:

"All things considered, how satisfied are you with your life as a whole nowadays? Please answer on a scale of 0-10, where 0 means extremely dissatisfied and 10 means extremely satisfied."

In 2007, the average answer was 7.3 out of 10. In 2008 it was 7.5, 2009 it was 7.4 and, as reported from a survey in March this year, the current score is 7.5 out of 10.

table comparing people's happiness scores from a survey between 2007 and 2010

There we were back in March 2007, before Northern Rock, before Lehman Brothers, before the credit crunch, before the recession, and our happiness level was 7.3. Now, it is 7.5. Not a significant change perhaps, but good evidence that economic well-being is no proxy for emotional well-being.

Chart showing life satisfaction rating in 2010, by social grade

AB: Doctor, solicitor, accountant, teacher, nurse, police officer
C: Junior manager, student, clerical worker, foreman, plumber, bricklayer
D: Manual workers, shop workers, apprentices
E: Casual labourers, state pensioners, unemployed

Here's how satisfaction relates to what are defined as "social grades".

85 per cent of respondents gave a response between six and ten (suggesting that they were satisfied overall), compared with 82 per cent in 2007. 5 per cent of respondents gave a response of less than five (suggesting that they were dissatisfied overall), compared with 7 per cent in 2007. There were significant differences by social grade, with those in social grades A and B (e.g. doctors, solicitors, accountants, teachers, nurses, police officers) scoring an average of 7.7, compared with 7.3 for those in social grade E (e.g. casual labourers, state pensioners, unemployed). The gap in life satisfaction between grades AB and E is narrower than in the previous 3 years. This is largely owing to an increase in the average life satisfaction scores of those in social grade E, increasing from 6.8 in 2007 to 7.3 in 2010.

I don't know about you, but I find this all a bit puzzling. The poorest in society seem to be getting noticeably happier just when one might expect them to be become gloomier.

And the story gets even more counter-intuitive when you look at the answers to questions about selected aspects of people's lives.

Overall satisfaction with selected aspects of life

People say they are no less satisfied with their future financial security now than they were before the downturn. If anything, they are slightly more optimistic.

Perhaps, there was a sense in 2007 that the good times couldn't last, that something bad was bound to happen. Maybe the recession has persuaded people that economic growth is now more sustainable.

A clue to what is going on is offered by a table from the previous year's data. This looks at how those "social grades" measure up in comparison with the average. Group E, the poorest group, is below average on every measure except 'community'. The professional group is above average on every measure except 'community'.

Percentage of people fairly or very satisfied with selected aspects of life, by social grade, 2007

The biggest difference is on future financial security where group AB is almost 10 points above average and group E is almost 15% below.

It is hardly a surprise that the better-off are more confident than those in low incomes, but the central conundrum remains. Why, on almost any measure you choose to pick, are Britons more satisfied with their lives now than they were when the economy was at its height? Suggestions please.

Weaning places off the state

Mark Easton | 06:00 UK time, Thursday, 9 September 2010

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Today's research for the BBC's English regions on the vulnerability of local areas to cuts in public spending reveals a clear north-south divide. It is a divide which is a legacy of government policy over decades.

Landmark in Middlesbrough

When one looks at the bottom 10 places in terms of resilience one finds three places in one small area in the north-east of England - the Tees Valley. Hartlepool, Redcar and Cleveland and, right at the bottom, Middlesbrough.

I travelled to the area this week to find out why they are apparently so at risk and take the temperature.

The Tees Valley in general and Middlesbrough in particular are places which became rich on heavy industry. William Gladstone famously went to the original town hall in Middlesbrough and proclaimed it an "infant Hercules".

Go to the same spot now, as I did, and you find a sad, boarded up building surrounded by wasteland and a few abandoned, crumbling houses.

What happened was that the area found it increasingly hard to compete in global markets and, over time, government felt obliged to pump in state support to prop up and regenerate the declining economy.

The result is that a town like Middlesbrough has become state dependent.

Today's Experian data finds that 42% of workers are employed in the public sector. In the decade to 2008, it's estimated that while private sector employment created only 168 jobs, 13,000 public sector jobs were created in Middlesbrough, Redcar and nearby Stockton. No wonder today's survey finds this area so vulnerable to a shrinking state.

Over the past few years Middlesbrough has tried to reinvent itself for the 21st Century. Teesside University has expanded and nurtured talent in the high-tech, high-skilled digital economy. I visited Boho One, a nest of young, vibrant companies working largely in the IT sector.

The town has opened an impressive gallery - the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (MIMA) - and a few weeks ago a huge Anish Kapoor sculpture was unveiled on the waterfront.

It is as though Middlesbrough is trying to emerge, Phoenix-like, from the red-hot furnaces of the old industry, reborn as an exciting and competitive international player. But a lot of the regeneration money has come from the state - a tap that looks certain to be tightened over the next few years.

The town's elected mayor, Ray Mallon, is very bullish about Middlesbrough's prospects but he does accept that there are challenging times ahead.

"We will lose something like £6m this year from the budgets and something like £12-18m next year and over the next three years it will be over £30m" he told me. "Clearly we will get job cuts (but) we will survive this because we have the get up and go and the will to deal with what we have got."

It is estimated that 11,000 public sector jobs could be lost following the cuts in the Tees Valley and the big question is whether the private sector can replace those workers as fast or faster than they disappear.

In the past, Middlesbrough might have looked to the Regional Development Agency, One North East, for help. But, separate to the cuts, the government has decided to abolish RDAs. Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEP) made up of area councils and businesses will replace them.

Whether they can hope to have the same clout when competing for bit international investment is a moot point, but I encountered realism and determination in equal measure on my visit. This is the future and Middlesbrough is going to make it work.

Earlier this week, five councils in the Tees Valley along with business backers put in their bid to central government to be one of the first LEPs in England. Leading the group is Les Southerton who sounded very positive about their prospects.

When I pressed him on the risk that Teesside is going to find it difficult to throw away its crutches of state support, he sounded a note of caution.

"The government has to recognise that there has to be a period of transition. We faced up to 100,000 job losses since the 1970s. We are still here and still heading in the right direction. But we need the government to come aboard and say we recognise that you are making progress, you do have a strategy in place, but it will take some time to wean yourself off some of that public sector employment."

What is interesting talking to people on Teesside is the recognition that the weather has changed. They know that there is no point just arguing for more state-aid, more public sector investment to dig it out of its economic hole.

But the anxiety is around how fast the coalition decides to pull the plug. After decades of dependency, they fear that they are not in a position to go cold turkey on their addiction to the state.

Londoners' resolve and unity

Mark Easton | 11:40 UK time, Tuesday, 7 September 2010

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Trying to catch a train from Kings Cross to Middlesbrough this morning, I was reminded of events on a fateful summer's morning in July 2005. Like today, London was bathed in soft sunshine as I drove down Euston Road towards work. I never reached the office.

People leaving London Tube station

On the radio, BBC 5 Live were reporting strange "power surges" that were disrupting the capital's tube network. I glanced out of the car window at the entrance to the underground at Kings Cross and saw a couple of people emerge with soot-blackened faces.

It was nothing to do with a mythical technical fault, of course, but the murderous activities of al-Qaeda inspired suicide bombers.

I parked my car and walked back to the station where I would spend the rest of the day reporting on the unfolding events of what became known as 7/7.

The reason I was reminded of that awful day is that, as then, today's Tube strike has forced hundreds of thousands of people who would normally be travelling underground onto the streets. The pavements around Kings Cross were heaving this morning. With traffic seized up in many places, for many walking has been the only way to get to work. Central London sounded different: the hum of buses and cars was muted, replaced by the clatter and swish of shoes and coats.

And there was another rare sound - I could hear people talking to each other as they shuffled along in the crowds. Faced with the shared challenge of beating the strike and making it to work, complete strangers swapped stories of their commuting nightmare. Human chatter was louder than the traffic noise this morning.

There has been a bit of jostling and pushing, the occasional flash-point as desperate people tried to board a near stationary bus, but what I have been watching is a city pulling together.

In the context of the 7/7 bombings, I remember writing about the determination of Londoners to beat terrorism by continuing their activities as normally as possible. I recall the resolution on people's faces as they marched purposefully on their way. "Keep Calm and Carry On" was the mood.

It is a similar story today although one cannot compare legitimate industrial action with international terrorism. Frustrating and annoying and inconvenient it may be, but London doesn't like being beaten. Once-a-year cyclists have dusted off the bike in the shed, walking boots and back-packs have been donned as one of the world's great cities hangs out a hand-painted board which reads "Open As Usual" just as shop-keepers did during World War II.

On this day 70 years ago, London experienced the start of the Blitz. The Nazis wanted to soften up the people of the capital, to sap their morale ahead of a planned invasion.

What happened, however, was that citizens pulled together across class and creed. Far from fostering despair and division, shared adversity can often inspire resolve and unity.

That is what I saw in the soft sunshine in London this morning.

Are foreign students good or bad for Britain?

Mark Easton | 16:09 UK time, Monday, 6 September 2010

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Immigration Minister Damian Green, faced with the tricky challenge of halving the level of UK net immigration, has - as predicted on this blog - turned his attention to the hundreds of thousands of foreign nationals who come to Britain on student visas.

Damian Green

"Half do not fit with everyone's image of the hard-working student in higher education," he told journalists ahead of a speech this evening. "People think that they are the very brightest and the best, but we have discovered that only half are studying degree-level courses. Half are coming to study sub-degree courses."

What conclusion are we to draw from this? The implication appears to be that "sub-degree courses" are somehow a bit dodgy. The Daily Telegraph interpreted his comments to suggest that he was considering "limiting visas to those studying degree courses" rather than "lesser qualifications such as A-levels and even GCSEs".

I suspect this idea would not go down very well at the prime minister's alma mater, Eton College, or many of the other independent schools which currently educate 23,000 overseas students in those "lesser qualifications".

According to the Independent Schools Council (ISC), two-thirds of those foreign pupils come from outside the EU, notably Hong Kong and China.

Graph showing non-British pupils with parents living overseas

The British Council, which is tasked with trying to attract foreign income into UK education, estimated earlier this year that international students contributed "nearly £315 million" to the independent schools sector, which would suggest that pupils requiring visas bring more than £200 million into the sector.

British Council figures on the economic impact of international students in UK

In a statement given to me this afternoon by the British Council, chief executive Martin Davidson says "our universities and colleges mustn't lose ground to international competitors".
"In addition to the students who come here for university courses, others are attracted to the excellent English language and further education opportunities in public and private institutions, many doing so for short periods of time. Meeting the demand from overseas students brings incalculable benefit to the UK."

(Incidentally, the table the council published in their report Making it Happen [2.04MB PDF] also provides the source for the £8bn figure for the economic benefit from international students which some correspondents questioned in my previous post on this subject.)

Independent schools were expressing concern when the previous government tightened student visa controls a year ago. Oundle School near Peterborough described the impact of those new rules as "a crisis verging on a national disaster" and this afternoon the undermaster at the school, Roger Page, told me that "any system that made it more difficult for outstanding students to study in this country would be complete madness".

Mr Green realises that if he is to have any chance of keeping the promise to reduce net immigration to less than 100,000 a year he must do something more than cap the number of skilled and highly-skilled workers coming to Britain from outside the EU. Even that bit of the equation, he admits, has proved a hard sell within the coalition.

"We've announced a limit, that's been controversial. What is transparently clear from this evidence is that the limit itself isn't enough to reduce net migration to the tens of thousands." No wonder he is turning his attention to overseas students whose increasing numbers are boosting the net migration figure.

Today the Home Office published a report entitled The Migrant's Journey which had followed the progress of the 186,000 students granted visas in 2004. The press release to go with it points out without further explanation that "more than a fifth of those were still in the UK five years later".

Again, what conclusion are we to draw from the research suggesting 21% of people granted student visas in 2004 were still in the country in 2009? The implication seems to be that these migrants should have gone home. Some will no doubt jump to the conclusion from today's news coverage of this story that one in five foreign students are overstaying their welcome. The document from which the figures are drawn, however, says no such thing.

Home Office findings

Far from suggesting it had uncovered evidence of dodgy foreign students joining an army of illegal immigrants, the report says that the figures are exactly what you would expect from law-abiding people coming and paying to study in the UK.

Indeed, the data would seem to be reassuring evidence that the student visa system is not being used as a back-door into Britain. Of the 186,000 who came to study, the report says, "very few of these students (3%) had reached settlement after five years in the UK". No evidence is produced to suggest that large numbers are hiding from the authorities.

"The minister believes these levels are unsustainable, and will say that this will be looked at as a priority" the Home Office said today. What, precisely, is "unsustainable" about this situation?

'No health without good mental health'

Mark Easton | 17:41 UK time, Thursday, 2 September 2010

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Some years ago I interviewed David Cameron on the subject of happiness. Did he think it was the government's job to make people happy? "It is the job of government not just to put money in people's pockets but to put joy in their hearts", he replied.

Paul Burstow

Today an article by health minister for England, Paul Burstow, suggests that principle may soon be reflected in policy. Writing in Community Care magazine he reveals that he is determined to give "mental health parity with physical health in the NHS".

Mr Burstow believes the key is the current proposal to replace process targets with "a new focus on patient outcomes".

"Over this summer, we are discussing with patients and clinicians which 'outcome' measures should be used to judge the Health Service in the future. I passionately believe a person's general wellbeing and overall mental health should form part of this assessment. There is no health without good mental health and certainly no well being."

These remarks will be music to the ears of many who work in the mental health sector and fear that they will be returned to Cinderella status within the NHS as the efficiency savings are announced.

The government is currently reshaping its mental health strategy amid concerns that treatment funding would be increasingly focused on services to deal with cancer and heart disease. But Mr Burstow seems keen to allay such worries.

"The fact is we can no longer accept that curing someone of cancer then leaving them to struggle with depression afterwards is a true mark of success. The NHS should deal with the full parameters of a patient's recovery; including helping them return to work and get their life back after illness. That's what the new outcomes framework should deliver."

The economic downturn and the implications of extensive public service cuts will themselves put pressure on the nation's mental health. In previous recessions there has been a spike in suicides. Mr Burstow, though, believes that "even in these tough circumstances, we can move forward in mental health - and, by doing so, we can land a major blow against poverty and deprivation."

There will be cynics who suggest that these are just empty promises from a politician whose role as care services minister requires him to utter such warm words. But if the prime minister is serious about putting "joy in people's hearts", his government will need to turn this kind of rhetoric into reality.

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