The Plastic Hippo

June 9, 2010

Walsall leads the way in the axe factor

Filed under: Education,Politics,Walsall — theplastichippo @ 1:34 am

Way back in September 2009, the then Shadow Chancellor George Osborne predicted that a future Conservative government would emulate the “success” of local Tory councils in cutting front-line services. Speaking then from the safety of opposition, it is worth again repeating what he said:

“When it comes to rooting out waste and cutting costs, or improving services through innovative new policies, Conservative councils are showing it can be done.” Err…a bit like Walsall, then.

After an election campaign in which Tory tacticians seemed to keep the multi millionaire locked up in a cupboard for the duration, Osborne emerged blinking into the sunshine and was handed the keys to Number 11 and the economy. At first he had a capable Liberal Democrat deputy to do all the thinking stuff, but when David Laws was sent to stand in the corner for a year or two for fiddling his expenses, George needed to come up with a big idea. He needed to look no further than the big brains running Walsall council.

It seems we are to have a “fundamental re-assessment” of the workings of government and a “wider public engagement exercise” in which the public will have their say on what should be cut. Osborne wants to hear from “the brightest and best brains” so it is unlikely that the rest of us will be invited to the garden party and be asked to choose between care homes or schools, policing or bin collection.

Walsall knows a thing or two about consultation. Remember the consultation over the closure of Darlaston Community Science College so Conservative donor Robert Edmiston could fast track another God-bothering academy against the wishes of parents, pupils and staff? That consultation offered a straight choice between compliance and closure.

Consider too the consultation to close another secondary school abandoned and left to rot by Serco. Sneyd School suffered horribly at the hands of the private company that runs schools in Walsall and its pupils scattered to allow Serco to fulfil its contractual obligation to provide a 14 to 19 year-old apprenticeship production line for factory fodder. The results of the consultation overwhelmingly opposed the closure but such a minor factor was not allowed to interfere with the Serco business plan.

A statutory “place survey” consultation document is about to be put before the Social Care and Inclusion Scrutiny and Performance Panel and it makes for very depressing reading and so is unlikely to see the light of day. The survey shows that Walsall council is seen by its residents as being the third worst local authority in the country at making the area safe, the seventh worst at promoting the interests of local people and the eighth worst at keeping public land clear of litter and refuse. The good news is that 14% of us feel that we have been involved in decisions that affect the local area. Hooray.

For Walsall council and our new coalition government, consultations only work when they agree with a decision already made. If the evidence shows that popular opinion is against a decision, the consultation is buried or selectively reported. A great deal of effort, time and money is spent on making sure that consultation questions are worded to give the desired answer and prove that we are all delighted to go along with anything our masters decree. However, no amount of statistical spin will protect any of us from the approaching maelstrom.

David Cameron has already begun the softening up process prior to the suffering by claiming that the budget cuts will affect “our whole way of life”. That is understandably easy to say for another multi millionaire who blames the entire deficit on the previous administration. He makes no mention of the greedy bankers who got the world into this mess and who continue to receive obscene bonuses or the fact that that not a single Conservative MP or councillor complained about the level of borrowing when offered a new school, hospital, ring road or waterfront development funded by the previous Labour government.

This places Walsall council in a rather unique position. When the Building Schools for the Future project is cut after a huge amount of money has already been spent on consultants, newly appointed council officers, glossy reports and, of course, meaningless consultation without even a single minor improvement to any school, we can expect our council leadership to blame Gordon Brown. When the Gigaport is confined to the white elephant graveyard, the gnashing of teeth will be directed at the Lord Mandelson and when Tesco/Serco take full control of the town, Bruce George will be to blame.

A future survey will no doubt prove that nine out of ten vulnerable people agree that our council and coalition government are doing a wonderful job. Schoolchildren will realise that being taught under leaking roofs is character forming and the elderly will understand that dignity is less important than value for money.

So, according to Cameron, while there`s moonlight and music and love and romance, let`s face it, the honeymoon is over.

Following a “wide” consultation which resulted in overwhelming opposition to closure, Walsall cabinet has decided to close Willenhall Leisure Centre.

Following a “wide” consultation which resulted in overwhelming opposition to closure, Walsall cabinet has decided to close Bryntysilio.

Opposition to the closure of day centres, the Grange golf course and cancellation of the illuminations has been ignored. These cuts are clearly our fault. We had our chance to join a consultation on an elected mayor, shame that nobody told us about it.

June 3, 2010

I don`t like Wednesdays

Filed under: Uncategorized — theplastichippo @ 10:49 pm

Roy Lichtenstein - The Gun in America - Time Magazine Cover - 1968

Quite why a non-descript and ordinary man should decide to kill 12 people and wound 11 others is beyond the understanding of most rational human beings. The close knit communities in Westmoreland must be asking why such arbitrary horror has been visited upon them and why, in such a peaceful and beautiful part of the world, their friends, neighbours and relatives are lying dead in the gutter after being shot in the face at close range.

Fatal shootings in this country are very, very rare and are usually the result of turf wars between gangs in the conurbations of London, Manchester and the West Midlands. Whitehaven, Egremont and Seascale are not Moss Side, Handsworth or Peckham and the last thing inhabitants of quiet seaside towns and villages would expect is to live and die in the shadow of a gunman.

As the extent of the terror unfolded, the chilling juxtaposition of normality and unimaginable violence has led many eye-witnesses to describe what they saw as being surreal. One man was shot dead as he trimmed his hedge and a woman was killed carrying her shopping home. Perhaps the most disturbing reality of the disaster was hearing the broadcasts from Radio Cumbria which told listeners to find a place of safety and stay indoors. The station informed listeners that a flower show at a village hall had been cancelled and would have more news on the shootings after we have heard “Close to you” by the Carpenters.

A seemingly endless stream of “experts” have flooded the media with theories explaining why Derrick Bird shot his twin brother dead along with the family solicitor before randomly killing another 10 people and then taking his own life. Neighbours and acquaintances have described the man as ordinary and state that his deadly actions were out of character. In small, face-to-face communities, not saying good morning is considered out of character; gunning down neighbours indicates something far more serious.

Although rare, mass murders involving firearms understandably induce massive trauma within communities and the scars left by the so called spree killings in Hungerford and Dunblane are still evident. In those massacres, the perpetrator was found to be a “normal” man who acted out of character. We might never know what made these “normal” men commit brutal murder but they have one thing in common. Michael Ryan, Thomas Hamilton and Derrick Bird had access to legally owned, registered firearms.

In a fracturing society, once described by our new Prime Minister as “broken”, casual violence depicted on film, television and video games passes for entertainment and oozes into the collective subconscious as being “normal” behaviour. School children justify acts of violence by claiming that the victim of a beating displayed “disrespect” and examples of road rage can be expected on even the shortest journey. At long last, the peddlers of sensation seem to be becoming aware of their responsibilities with the producers of Coronation Street postponing two episodes which feature the lethal use of firearms and the writers of Eastenders ordered to change the script involving the murder of a prostitute following the Bradford deaths. But note that these are postponements and cosmetic changes and after a few days we will be back to salacious, sensational and surreal storylines in a blood-lust chase for ratings.

In the face of national shock and revulsion at the Cumbria murders, the government has been cautious regarding a review of licensed gun ownership with Cameron stating that there should not be a “knee-jerk” reaction in terms of new legislation. After Hungerford, semi-automatic and self-loading rifles were outlawed and after Dunblane, handguns went the same way. These restrictions were not enough to stop a “normal” Cumbrian man from legally acquiring and keeping two deadly weapons which, in some crisis event, he decided to use.

The pro-firearm lobby have, of course, crawled out of the gun case to chant the rather bizarre mantra that “guns don`t kill people – people kill people”. Perhaps they should explain this logic to the mother of Derrick and David Bird and, more importantly, to the devastated families of West Cumbria. Astonishingly, within hours of the first shooting, the clearly insane Dr Sean Gabb, director of something called the Libertarian Alliance, issued a press statement calling for the legalisation of civilian gun ownership claiming that this mad idea would stop any future mass shooting. He bases this craziness on the fact that none of the victims of the shootings were in a position to return fire because they were not armed. Here is a guy who should not be allowed access to a sharp pencil, let alone a firearm.

There are those who claim that legitimate licensed ownership of guns is a basic human right for those involved in hunting, sport and vermin control. It might well be that the aristocracy out on the grouse moors would not be able to find their next meal without the aid of a shotgun and so they demand the right to shoot things. Sportsmen and women have alternatives to firearms; ask any kid in an amusement arcade or a competitive dad in a paintball field or laser gun warehouse. As for vermin, the use of lethal weaponry against even the Libertarian Alliance is totally unacceptable.

These attempts to legitimise gun ownership mask the real reason why some people demand the right to bear arms. There is something lacking in their personality and intellect that requires something to compensate for an unsuccessful, unfulfilled and inadequate life. In these strange days, “normal” men like Derrick Bird need guns to be respected and, more alarmingly, live out their Dirty Harry and Rambo fantasies when unknown stress takes them over the edge.

The law is clear on licensed gun ownership. If anyone reports concerns over the actions or mental state of an existing gun owner, the local Chief Constable has to revoke the license and confiscate weapons during an investigation. Regardless of government prevarication and claims that the UK has the most rigorous gun control law in the world, new legislation should be put in place that questions the mental state of existing license holders and any new applications for ownership of a firearm. It is impossible to predict in this turbulent world, which gun owner will crack next.

As for the people of West Cumbria, still to recover from horrendous flooding and the recent loss of three lives in the Keswick bus crash; they must be wondering what they have done to offend all the deities. The events on Wednesday will leave physiological wounds that may never heal. Nothing will ever be “normal” again. We should all think of them and their loss because next time…

June 1, 2010

Rendition extraordinaire

Filed under: Education,Law,Politics,Rights,Walsall — theplastichippo @ 4:13 pm

Tucked away in the recent Queen`s speech, and largely unreported, is a Liberal Democrat commitment to finally end the detention of children for immigration purposes. Ironically, the compromises, contradictions and conceits contained in the dogs-dinner deal between the suddenly like-minded Liberal Democrats and Conservatives could be very bad news for child detainees and very good news for our own dear Serco.

Even the most Neanderthal of intellects will realise that locking up children is a bad thing, particularly when they learn that the overwhelming majority of the 1,000 kids banged up in this country have committed no crime or misdemeanour. According to Children`s Commissioner Sir Al Aynsley-Green, children belonging to families seeking asylum face “extreme distress” during violent pre-dawn arrests, lengthy transportation in caged vans deprived of food, drink and toilet breaks and by suffering further violence and racism when detained at Immigration Removal Centres. There is evidence that new-born babies have been denied medication.

Given this disgraceful state of affairs, our new coalition government deserve a rousing three cheers for ending the scandal of child detention. Hip, hip…hang on.

A closer look at the detail reveals that Her Majesty`s Government will implement a “wide-ranging review” but offers no time-scale other than the vague “in the coming months”. More importantly, Conservative insistence that the policy should apply only to children and not their parents leads to three disturbing possibilities.

The compromise means that the most likely outcome is that the commitment will be put on the back burner in the hope that everyone will forget about it and most people probably will; apart from the detained children who will continue to suffer irreparable physiological damage as a consequence of such barbaric treatment.

Or, the government will insist on detaining parents and then release their children into the care of local authorities. Apart from contravening Article 9 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, separating families will place an unbearable work load on local council social services already failing to care for looked after children. Local authorities, lacking adequate resources and expertise, would not welcome the legal responsibility for caring for traumatised and emotionally damaged children who are the victims of state child abuse.

The third option available is to fast-track deportations. The private profit making companies such as G4S (formerly Group 4 Securicor) and Serco who kick down the bedroom doors of children born in this country on behalf of the UK Border Agency, could cut out the middle man and drive the cattle trucks straight to the airport instead of wasting all that time in detention centres. With no hungry mouths to feed or expensive medication to administer, shareholder dividends would improve.

There is, however, some positive news. The new immigration minister, Damian Green, has announced that Dungavel Immigration Removal Centre in Scotland is to close. Hip, hip…hang on.

On the day of the announcement, a mother who has lived in Scotland for three years was arrested and detained in Dungavel along with her eight-month-old baby. Damian Green, the guy who was arrested for allegedly leaking sensitive information when in opposition, then waffled on about an ongoing review but confirmed that “current policy is still in place”. Another factor in the proposed closure of Dungavel is the discomfort felt by the Scottish Executive. Immigration and asylum policy is controlled from Westminster but child protection and safeguarding in Scotland is the responsibility of the Scottish Parliament.

Although Dungavel (run by G4S) may one day close, the families detained there will be transferred to the infamous Yarl`s Wood Immigration Removal Centre (run by Serco). Yarl`s Wood in Bedfordshire was previously burnt down in a fire started by inmates protesting against inhumane treatment. Group 4, who ran the facility at the time, locked detainees inside the burning building. Since Serco took control of the facility, there have been hunger strikes, suicides and allegations of racism, violence, abuse and even theft brought against Serco employees. One child with a broken arm was not allowed to see a doctor for 15 hours and had to wait a further five hours before receiving treatment. The charity Legal Action for Women distributed a guide to the legal rights of detainees which was promptly confiscated by Serco.

Figures from the Office for National Statistics show that applications for asylum are actually falling, down 48% in the first quarter of 2010 and the popular myth that work-shy, scrounging asylum-seekers are flooding over our borders is as truthful as a Daily Mail editorial. These families have fled from torture, oppression, rape and war to seek refuge in a country that was once thought of as a sanctuary. Being bashed about by a private security firm is a kids game compared to what they can expect following deportation. In many cases, the families have been here for years, have integrated into communities and tend to do the dirty jobs that others refuse to do – a little like Serco.

With its myriad portfolio of business interests, Serco is well placed to be the agent of a government intent on denying basic human rights. “Not our fault” claims the government. “Just doing our job” say Serco. With its extraordinary expertise in rendering ground handling and air traffic control at a number of remote and unusual airfields, who better than Serco to drag terrified children from their beds and fly them off to an unknown future?

In case you need reminding, Serco run schools in Walsall.

Hip, hip…

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