Conference resounding success

Today’s Federal Party Conference finished on a high note. Menzies Campbell’s leadership withstood its first test on Saturday, as delegates overwhelmingly voted through the parliamentary party’s policy on Post Offices. This was the motion that had been sent back by the autumn conference — but yesterday tables were turned and it was the (now rather few) rebels who were defeated. Today the party proved that it has the will to take the fight to its political enemies.

Everywhere there was a sense that change is in the air. This wasn’t just the thrilling Harrogate weather. Elsewhere Labour was going through another regretful crisis. While in Wales David Cameron was pleading with his party not to be frightened by the pace of his changes.

We should not gloat over the discomfiture of Tessa Jowell. Her situation is a tragedy largely not of her making. Nor should we be gleeful over the down-turn on Tory confidence in Cameron. Britain needs rejuvenation in its parties, and if the Tories are too slow-witted to see that, then that is their loss and ours.

In fact, the time for continuously comparing ourselves with our opponents and our poll-ratings has reached its end. Scandal may sell newspapers, but it does not make for good government.

Outside of the tiny world of British party politics, the world is changing. The environment is deteriorating far faster than most people are willing to believe. The West’s recent adventures in war and publishing have dramatically destabilised our relationship with the entire Muslim world. The economic development of China and India is a seismic shift in international trade. And, all the while, the worldwide growth in human trafficking for the sex-industry sees more than five million people sold into slavery each year — a blight on our consciences about which are doing almost nothing.

We no longer have time for bickering.

And Liberal-Democrats, at least, are ready to engage in constructive politics.

Agency heads roll, but two governments should carry the blame

See BBC NEWS | Education | Results fiasco test chief quits and BBC NEWS | Politics | CSA chief resigns amid criticism

Today Jonathan Ford resigned as head of the National Assessment Agency, following a fiasco of English testing for 14 year olds, while Doug Smith, head of the Child Support Agency, resigned amid a prolonged and powerful attack by MPs on the “chronic, systemic failures” of management across the agency.

If these were merely the isolated failures of isolated agencies, then today would have been a simple coincidence. But they are not. They are part of a long series of systematic failures in public sector agencies. Over the last few years we have seen fiascos on passports, on CRB checks for school teachers, on exam results, and on the introduction of computer systems in many parts of the public sector. And, of course, we saw the fiasco of the Millennium Dome and the abortive UK athletics stadium.

It would be convenient to pin the blame on New Labour, but at least half of the failing agencies and systems were established by the Old Tories.

Rather, it points to a malaise in British politics which dates at least back to the Thatcher years.

The malaise is one of farming out the risks of untested policies to paid officials or unelected boards, making ministers accountable only for their intentions, and not for their results.

It was not always so. We may rather laughingly look back at the plethora of government departments, admirably satirised on Radio 4 in ‘The Men from the Ministry’ and later on television in ‘Yes, Minister’. But the old system of departments – for all its faults – made ministers directly accountable for the implementation of government policy. This – in itself – was probably enough to make ministers think twice before establishing systems which could not possibly work.

The Child Support Agency was just one such system. It was doomed to failure from the start, structurally unsuitable for the task it was required to complete, under-resourced and sent off to sink or swim by a government (John Major’s) that knew there was little chance that it would still be around to pick up the pieces.

So, quango heads have rolled. Doubtless others will follow. The public has already forgotten which minister it was created the mess. In this way, although they may have failed in their tasks, the quangos have satisfied their purpose – to take the heat off government long enough to survive just one more election.

Business will pay the price of language teaching collapse

See also BBC NEWS | Education | Compulsory language lessons fall

Only one in three schools in England make all pupils study a foreign language at GCSE level, according to a new survey commissioned by the National Centre for Languages. 97% of independent schools keep languages until 14, but only 30% of state sector schools. This figure has dropped from 57% just one year ago.

The reason? Since September schools in England have no longer been required to teach foregin languages to children over 14. Curriculum changes have simply led to languages being squeezed out.

I have to admit that I was more or less the worst at languages in my year at school. I scraped a B at O-level in French and a C in Latin. It wasn’t until I went to live in Belgium that I learned to speak French and subsequently Flemish.

But it’s a good thing that I did. When I went to work for Lucas Automotive as a senior manager, I got the job partly because I was able to conduct half of my interview in French.

Unless we only buy from ourselves, the Australians, the Americans, and a few others, and unless we only sell to these same markets, language learning is fundamental to our commercial future. As a German business man once put it to me, ‘if you want to buy from us, you can speak English, but if you want to sell to us, you must speak German.’

Britain can simply not afford to abandon language learning. It is time that government looked to the future.

Why tinkering with justice should alarm us all

BBC NEWS | UK | Juries learn sex offenders’ past

An election is coming up. By all accounts it will be on May 5 2005. So we now face the cyclical clamour of the Tories and nearly-new Labour trying to prove that they are tougher on crime and kinder on health. Usually this comes down to promises for building more prisons, giving more money to the police, short, sharp shocks, and other repackagings of the same old solutions.

But this time one-careful-owner Labour has surpassed itself. Juries in trials for theft and for child sex abuse will soon be told of the offender’s previous convictions.

Mm. Interesting choice, that. Theft and Child Sex Abuse. Why not Car-jacking and Internet Scamming? There’s a strong whiff of which crimes the public is most cross about in this policy decision. More government by polling, but we will let it pass.

We will let it pass, because the core of my complaint against this particular popularity stunt is not that it is a typical second-hand Labour random act of policy, but that it is tinkering with the core of justice itself.

Figure it any way you like. If you’ve been fingered before, the police will already have you marked as a potential suspect. Fine. This is necessary for proper investigation. ‘Form’ as the coppers say. But when juries are told as well, your past convictions are, as it were, fed into the system twice.

If there is genuinely reasonable doubt about the evidence presented in a trial, the accused should go free. This is fundamental to justice. Can the quality of the evidence be improved by providing details of previous convictions? Surely not. But the jury’s mind might be swayed. Suddenly we are looking at a system where other considerations are influencing the jury’s mind about a question of fact.

And suddenly we are staring at the face of a completely different kind of justice.

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