Friday, 6 December 2013

Hamba kahle Uncle Nelson

I wrote most of this on 24 June. Nelson Mandela’s was still alive but his condition was reported as being “critical”,  and I knew that when the end finally came I wouldn’t want to write anything. The end did come last night. By what I regard as a happy twist of fate, I was with my parents and sisters at the premier of the Mandela movie. We commented that the last time we were all together, just the five of us, no children, no partners, just us, was when we went to cast our votes in the first democratic elections, voting in Nelson Mandela as President of a free South Africa. I was so pleased we were all together when we heard the news. 

Nelson Mandela is dead. He was a truly extraordinary human being and I am sure that there will be no end of tributes from people who knew him, who were inspired by him. He really was an inspirational figure. Certainly he was for me and my sisters (the Joseph Girls as we were and continue to be known by a particular generation of South African activists in spite of the fact our girlhoods are distant memories).
Growing up in London, Uncle Nelson loomed large in our lives. In South Africa my parents had been close to him and that friendship bound by shared political beliefs and values as well as a love good food and good company, endured despite imprisonment, exile, power, distance and age.
For me and my sisters he was revered figure. Ours was a godless house. I say that with pride and gratitude. There were no pictures of the Virgin, Vishnu or Buddha on the wall, no icons on the mantelpiece. It sounds trite but my parents’ faith was and is in humanity. Their commandments relate to justice and equality.  So our living room walls were adorned with the text of the Freedom Charter, a photo of the 156 defendants of the Treason Trial (of which my father was one) and a photo of Nelson Mandela.  
When other children looked at Christ on the Cross and wondered what he would think of their behaviour, I would look up at Uncle Nelson.  He was the benchmark of goodness, of bravery, of honour.  He had given up everything for his country, my country, and I really wanted to live up to him.
It is probably worth remembering that when I was a child and indeed until he was elected President, Mandela was far from an international icon with Bono, the Spice girls and all manner of other vacuous celebs without a political thought  in their heads queueing up to be photographed with him. Most people in Britain hadn't heard of him and many of those who had regarded him as a terrorist. (There are in fact some people who hold public office today who wore "Hang Mandela" badges on their lapels when they were at university – but today is not the day to name and shame.)  So there was no kudos for us Joseph girls in having a connection with him. But our parents didn't raise us to do things to score social points, so we looked up to him regardless and used him as a moral reference point - what would Uncle Nelson do, what would Uncle Nelson think.
His letters and cards to my parents from prison were received with huge excitement.  His correspondence was severely limited by the South African regime.  He was only permitted to send a handful of letters a year and even then there were restrictions on the number of pages he was allowed to write. The tiny script written on wafer thin paper had to be deciphered by my parents who read out his words with respect and joy that from all those thousands of miles away this man who had so encouraged them to take up the struggle remembered them. He joined us in celebrating births and weddings; he remembered birthdays and anniversaries; he sympathised over deaths.
And I suppose that is what struck when he was finally released from prison and I met him as an adult. Although he was clearly a Great Man with a huge number of things on his mind, he had an uncanny ability to remember everyday details of my life. Now I have worked for other Great Men and I know that besides each of them stands a great official who whispers in their ear as a new person approaches. You know the thing: “That is Joe Bloggs, you met him in such and such a place last year, wife does X and he is worried about Y".  His interest and consideration was not prompted by whispering. Even when he met me out of context – not when I was with my parents, but when I was working, standing at the back of a Downing Street reception room or orchestrating a press conference, doing the kind of work that is normally invisible to Great Men. No matter who was there and what was happening, he would call me over to ask after my family, naming each of my sisters and their children, and if the Prime Minister was around he would demand to know in a very loud voice why I was working for the British and not him, glaring at TB before grinning widely. When after I left No 10 and went to make a film of him to promote equality for disabled people, he asked me if the reason I was involved was because of my disabled brother who died as a child when Mandela was still on Robben Island. It was the first time anyone had put the two things together – even me. 
The world has lost a hero, a peacemaker, a visionary. South Africa has lost its greatest father, its founding President. And a few of us, I would say a lucky few, have lost an Uncle.  But none of us should lose hope. As his handwritten inscription on the photo on my parents’ living room wall reads:  “Those who have chosen freedom and who have banished fear from their hearts will win.”

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Remembering Dr King is not enough

Today is the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom when Dr Martin Luther King Jr delivered his “I have a dream” speech

It is one of the finest pieces of rhetoric in modern times. Not surprising since Dr King was a preacher who understood the power of words. He moved the 250,000 people who stood before him in front of the Lincoln Memorial and countless others across the US and the rest of the world. I know my parents and their contemporaries struggling for freedom in South Africa felt he was speaking to them when he envisaged a future in which his “ four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character”. 

It was a powerful speech and one that we should all read again today.  We can reflect that much has changed since that August day half a century ago. We have seen African American men and women achieve amazing things. They have become mayors and Supreme Court judges, generals and admirals, Congress men and women and Secretaries of State. We have seen the election not once but twice of Barack Obama as President of the United States. 

But before we get all dewy-eyed about it, let us also remember that there is still so much more to do.  Let us remember that the racial disparities within the US remain stark. The life chances of both Hispanic and African-Americans are worse than that of their white counterparts. This is perhaps seen most vividly when it comes to the criminal justice system.  For example although Hispanic and African-American make up under 30 per cent of the US population, they make up around 60 per cent of the US prison population. A staggering 1 in every 15 African American men and 1 in every 36 Hispanic men are incarcerated in comparison to 1 in every 106 white men. And if you are an African American man who didn’t finish high school you have a one in three chance of being incarcerated.  

One consequence of these dramatic ethnic disparities in the criminal justice system is that state laws which remove the right to vote from people with felony convictions (5.3 million Americans denied the vote so far and counting) has a greater impact on Hispanic and African-American men. As a result 13 per cent of all African American men have been disenfranchised, in 11 states this amounts to more than 10 per cent of their African American population.

I don’t think Dr King would have been proud today. I think he would be standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial demanding that we do more.

Monday, 22 July 2013

A question of leadership: Cameron, Crosby and Blair

David Cameron will be breathing a small sign of relief that the royal baby has finally decided to make its way in the world. Not because royal line is secured but because hopefully people will stop asking him awkward questions about his election guru Lynton Crosby and the influence of said guru on government policy.

Now, regular readers will know that I have a particular view about lobbying. I think it is fine, indeed more than fine. I think that lobbying is part of a mature democratic process. I want policy decisions to be taken on the basis of evidence , of fact. Engaging with a wider range of people and organisations helps inform decision-making. Lobbyists have a role to play in that process. A good lobbyist, a professional lobbyist will help her/his clients marshal their arguments, put together compelling evidence and advise on how that is communicated in a way that is likely to engage the attention of key influencers and decision-makers. A good lobbyist will not take the “if you scratch my back” approach, using personal relationships to buy favours.

From what I have read, I have no problem with Crosby Textor, Lynton Crosby’s firm, giving advice to private healthcare providers. That is what lobbying firms do and there does not appear to be any evidence that Crosby doing anything untoward. Unpalatable to some but not untoward. In these circumstances, it seems perfectly reasonable for Mr Crosby to use his skills and experiences to earn a crust.

I am a more than little more concerned about the allegations that it was after a chat with Crosby (whose firm has worked for tobacco giant Philip Morris) that the government decided to shelve plans for cigarettes to be sold in plain packets. Cameron has denied Crosby influenced the decision but has repeatedly dodged the question of whether they discussed the policy.

But what has really made me even more concerned, actually I would say furious, is a comment the Prime Minister made to ITN last week when pressed on the issue. He said: “Tony Blair is a good example. Tony Blair is someone who does lobby me from time to time on things like the Middle East peace process. Do I have to know who all Tony Blair's other clients are? If I did that, I don't think I've got enough paper in my office to write them on."

What? Did Cameron really compare the Middle East peace process to the tobacco industry? Does he really think the Middle East is one of Tony Blair’s clients? Seriously?

It is absolutely ludicrous to suggest that Blair’s role as the Middle East envoy is on a par with that of a lobbyist.  I would have thought that it is requirement of the role (for which I am pretty sure he does not get paid) that Blair reports on a regular basis to the quartet that appointed him, namely the UN, EU, US and Russia. Last time l checked we were still part of the UN and the EU and a pretender to the title of world power so on that basis alone I would have thought the Prime Minister of the UK would welcome an opportunity to discuss the process to the man that is tasked with helping to sort things out (I imagine his brief is a little more detailed than that).

Has DC taken leave of his senses? I don’t think so. I think he thought that by trying to bring TB into the row it would be defused. Well he made a serious misjudgement. Not just about defusing the issue but about comparing the Middle East with fags, an issue of global political and economic consequences with a tawdry local political row. So no, he hasn’t taken leave of his senses. He just needs to take better advice, probably not from Crosby, and start behaving like a world leader.

Sunday, 14 July 2013

No Minister

I am not sure if Francis Maude would accept the description but he is an aspiring revolutionary. Last week, the Cabinet Minister laid out his plans to reform the civil service. Ok, I know every government has plans to reform the civil service, it is a constantly evolving institution which grows and shrinks from from one decade to the next (for reference it is now the smallest it has been since the Second World War). So what is so different about Mr Maude's plans to warrant a Joseph blog and the word revolutionary?

Like others before him he is calling, nay demanding that senior civil servants have experience of business. But he also announced radical changes to the tenure of employment in the civil service. The most significant of these is that the most senior civil servants - the Permanent Secretaries who head up each government department - will only be appointed for five-year terms. At the end of these terms, they have no guarantee of staying in the civil service at all let alone their jobs. Their continued employment will be dependent on the incumbent Secretary of State.  

Maude is also proposing that ministers will be also allowed directly to appoint a dozen or so key personnel in their private offices teams including making political appointments.

Now, I would absolutely advocate that we encourage more people from more diverse backgrounds and with wider experience to enter into public service. And I have no problem per se with ministers having access to more than one or two political advisers (although it is ironic that the party which gave the Labour Party so much stick about the number of special advisers it had when it was in government - it was around 70 by the way - is now proposing changes which would see the number of political appointments rocket).

But I do take issue with the changes to the employment contract of Perm Secs. The real value of Permanent Secretaries is precisely because that they are appointed at the pleasure of ministers. They are among the few people who can tell the minister "no". They can advise ministers robustly and professionally. If their careers in the civil service are to be dependent on politicians you can imagine their desire to stand up to those very politicians may not be as deep.

These changes put the independence of the civil service at risk. I say independence rather than impartiality because civil servants are not meant to be impartial. They are employed to implement the programme of the government of the day. Their impartiality comes into play on the day that government changes when they should and do transfer their commitment seamlessly to the new administration.  But their employment should always be independent of politicians.

Friday, 5 July 2013

Xenophobia is not the right path

My dad had surgery on Tuesday (the subject of a future posting almost certainly) so I was a bit distracted when I heard about the Government's plans to charge foreigners for using the NHS. At least that is how I accounted for my confusion. But then I took a closer look and realised it was just plain confusing.

On paper it just doesn't make sense. It doesn't appear to be a huge problem.  Given the size of the NHS budget, the amount they are looking to save is pretty much a rounding error. I have been frequently asked at hospitals across London if I am a UK citizen, so there clearly is some system in place. Health care professionals appear united in their view that we should not be discouraging anyone from anywhere seeking medical help for infectious diseases (and yes I know these would be excluded from the proposed payment regime but there is likely to be a deterrent effect). And if they do want to clamp down on health tourism then why target people who are here on two-year visas almost all of whom are working and therefore paying NI contributions or married to/partnered with a UK citizen who is paying NI?

It really doesn't add up. Until you think about the rise of UKIP. And then suddenly all this xenophobia makes sense. Up against a right-wing, anti-immigration, little Englander party? Worried it is stealing votes you could normally count on? Then indulge in a little bit of Johnny Foreigner bashing yourself. It is the cheap and easy option.

It is also the wrong option
. It won't stop the loss of votes to the right and risks losing votes on the centre, all those votes the Conservatives have picked up through taking a stand on same sex marriage and other socially liberal reforms. 

And it isn't just the Tories who have been tempted down the xenophobic path. The Labour and Lib Dems have also fallen prey. I fear that as we get closer to the next general election, we will see more lurches to the right, more intolerance on display, more foreigner bashing from the three main parties.

They would all do better both electorally and morally if they treated voters with a bit of respect, challenged xenophobia and celebrated the huge benefits this country has reaped from foreigners who have contributed hard work, wealth and culture to this land.  Foreigners like the most of nursing staff looking after my dad today.

Friday, 31 May 2013

This is not a lobbying scandal

I am not exactly sure what Patrick Mercer has done. He has clearly been up to no good, not for the first time. Whether he has been corrupt, well we will have to wait for the morning’s Telegraph to provide us with the details to help us form an opinion. However, the one thing I am clear about is that whatever has or hasn’t happened, it is not a “lobbying” scandal.

Once again the allegations relate to the behaviour of a politician, or as we will certainly discover in the morning politicians, not of a professional lobbyist. The temptation to blame the public affairs industry will be great, and indeed the BBC has already linked the story to the Coalition’s failure to introduce a statutory register of lobbyists.

But let me be clear the only way that the existence of a register could have stopped what Mercer is alleged to have done  (which for those of you aren’t aware is to have been paid to promote the interests of Fuji in parliament, specifically advocating for its re-admittance into the Commonwealth), is that he could have checked the identity of the “consultants” against the register and might have found they were not bona fide consultants. But then again the journalists involved in the sting might have thought about that and covered their tracks.

A statutory register will not stop politicians being stupid and/or greedy. And that is what this episode reveals. Indeed all the recent so-called “lobbying scandals” have been about politicians either being incapable of resisting filthy lucre or of being guilty of hubris, mainly the former.

It has been a long time since an actual lobbyist has been found to be corrupt. That is because the profession is well regulated and goes to great lengths to train new entrants to understand what is acceptable and what isn’t. I am not sure that MPs and Peers get the same training.

As I have written before, I am happy to support a statutory register but am a firm believer that it should not be limited to public affairs consultants working in agencies but to all those who engage in public affairs activities including in-house practionners.  

Sunday, 12 May 2013

Let's have an honest debate

If I hear one more person declare that we need to have a debate (often prefaced with the words "honest" and/or "open") on immigration, I will scream. The reality is immigration is constantly being debated. I have lost count of the number of immigration bills over the since 1997 and it has featured in every election since I can remember (and I am pretty old). The very people who demand the right to have the debate, have in fact been debating it all the time. And most of the time they have been debating using bogus fact and figures and plain old prejudice. 

I made the mistake yesterday of listening to Any Questions. I should have known better, even at the best of times it makes my blood boil but yesterday was particularly fury-inducing. One of the panellists, a supporter of UKIP made up a host of "facts" about the impact of recent immigration. None of them stood up to any scrutiny. But they will be repeated by her and others, quoted by the media and before you know they will become gospel. I am happy to debate the issue, I just want to have a debate on the facts. So just to be clear:

  • illegal immigrants can't claim benefits in this country because they are illegal - you have to have a right to live and work here to claim any kind of benefit
  • Council houses are not being given over to "foreigners" - there is no automatic right to social housing just because you are an immigrant. A survey by the Equality and Human Rights Commission showed that only 1.8% of those living in UK social housing were recent immigrants (ie had come to the UK in the previous five years) and most of these were people who had come to here as refugees. 
  • there is no evidence to indicate that immigrants are less law-abiding than anyone else. 
I can understand the concern that recent immigrants are accepting low paid jobs and so distorting the local wage economy but it there is evidence that anyone is being paid below the national minimum wage there is a very easy answer: prosecute the employers who are breaking the law plain and simple. 

I should declare an interest, I am an immigrant, actually my family and I were asylum seekers. I grew up in this country with racism pretty much a constant feature of my life - some was unconscious and easily overlooked but lots was overt and scary. It has got better but it still exists and I really do worry that trying to pin our current economic woes on immigrants - for that is what is happening - will encourage racists.  We cannot let that happen.