Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Voting rights and emigrants

I've been mulling over the issue of voting rights ever since the European judgement and the subsequent vote in the House of Commons on the issue of prisoners and voting. I then more recently engaged in a thoughtful twitter exchange with Noreen Bowden who has been campaigning on the subject of the rights of Irish citizens to vote while they are abroad.

Just to reiterate my own position and situation - I am a British citizen, raised in Ireland and currently based in Singapore. Having lived in Brentwood for six years, and with every intention of returning, I am registered overseas as a voter in the parliamentary constituency of Brentwood and Ongar. This gives me the right to vote in General Elections and referenda, but not local elections in Brentwood.

Despite some of the rhetoric used, I've come to the conclusion that voting is not a human right - at least not in the sense that the right to freedom of religion or the right to be fed and sheltered is. I base this on a number of reasons, but the most obvious one is that a French citizen living in the UK or Ireland does not get the vote. Instead of which, the right to vote is a privilege of the citizenship you hold - and further, other restrictions can apply to that right (eg an Irish citizen must actually be resident in the UK to exercise the right of an Irish citizen to vote in a UK election).

It is however clear to me that any restrictions on voting rights must be clearly objective in a proper democracy (the European Court ruling on prisoners voting rights implied it was okay to stop them voting if their sentence was more than four years). British rules on emigrant voting rights are clear - the overseas vote is only allowed for 15 years.

The second point that needs to be raised is that under the electoral systems used in much of the former British Empire (which includes the US and Ireland) you typically vote for the representative in a specific area. When I cast my vote in the next UK election, the only thing I'm actually voting on is whether or not I want Eric Pickles or one of his opponents to represent Brentwood and Ongar in the House of Commons - I am not voting on whether I'd prefer David Cameron or Ed Miliband to be Prime Minister (though the position of the candidates themselves on that issue might influence my voting decision).

The final point is that the issue of overseas citizens voting gets even more complicated when one considers citizenship by descent - despite the failings of successive Fianna Fail governments, I doubt Ireland would have been better off if in the 1980s the romanticised view of Ireland amongst Irish Americans had ended up leading to second and third generation Irish American votes effectively imposing Sinn Fein on the voters who would have had to live with the day to day consequences of that decision.[1]

Noreen Bowden has made the point that the young Irish people who have had to emigrate as a result of the Irish economy imploding don't get a chance to determine the government who might be able to fix the mess so that they could come back in a few years[2]. She's right - but I do think there needs to be a balance between those who have the intention to return and those who ultimately decide to remain abroad for the remainder of their lives. Ultimately, in my view, there needs to be a balance between those who may or will be affected in their day to day lives by the decisions made at election at time, and those for whom the biggest impact may be reduced consular services in Timbuktu. I do think tax liability plays a part here - the US taxes American citizens abroad, Ireland and the UK do not.[3]

So how do you tell when a leaver has the intent to return? Well, that's actually in itself horribly subjective - and open to change. So you can't. Instead, you end up having to approximate - suggesting that there's a fixed period of time within which you retain the right to vote, but after that it's accepted you don't. In other words, I think the UK has it more or less right - British citizens retain the right for 15 years after departure. You can argue about the specific length (why not 10 or 20) but in general, I think the balance is right.

That's not to say there aren't other opportunities to engage emigrants in the political process. It has always been my view that having a two house legislature where both are elected on a proportional basis is a bad idea - the "Lower" house[4], which tends to be more representative of how votes are cast, should always have the precedence - and if both houses are fully and directly elected it's then unclear which has the mandate and precedence. The role of the upper house needs to be to act as a restraint on politicians simply passing idiotic populist legislation and to provide alternative voices within the system. My advice therefore to my Irish friends is that they should campaign for the right to vote to be retained for a fixed number of years, and that as part of the reform of the Seanad, they could also have a specific number of Senators to represent the views of Irish citizens abroad.

What do you think?

[1] Yes, I know there's a few big ifs in there, but I don't think by themselves they are unreasonable.

[2] Ironically, despite the tendency of Singaporeans to label those who do move abroad as quitters, there's actually a concerted effort to get those citizens to vote as overseas voters in the elections. And that's despite the evidence that overseas voters are much more likely to vote for Opposition candidates.

[3] The issue of tax liability is not of course the determining factor in itself. Plenty of emigrants still have investments back in the homeland, but that's a factor in how they deploy their investments, it's not automatic.

[4] Another artifact of the British legacy?

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

David Lammy shows why lawyers should never do statistical analysis

A few years ago, I watched an episode of Question Time when David Lammy and George Galloway were on the panel. Lammy spent most of the evening taunting George - ironically behaving like the stereotypical Oxbridge Union debater who spends most of the evening badly heckling others, and not being anywhere near as funny or clever as he thinks he is. In other words, he came across as a total and utter prat.

I was reminded of this when I saw Lammy's figures being quoted in the Guardian today. As an example of how not to do it, this has to go down well. Some details of what's wrong with this analysis is here - including making the point one didn't need lots of FoI requests as much or all of the data is made available by the university itself.

Even the Guardian article makes it obvious what is wrong with the analysis:

A spokeswoman for Oxford said: "Black students apply disproportionately for the most oversubscribed subjects, contributing to a lower than average success rate for the group as a whole:
That alone should send up red flags that what is needed here is a proper statistical analysis of all the factors that can affect the success rate of an application. Any competent statistician would start of by collecting data on all the potential factors (including popularity of the course, race, sex, school type, A level results and then run a detailed analysis of this to discover which elements are statistically significant). One case where this was done was in an analysis of the application of the death penalty in the state of Georgia - where it was clearly shown that statistically, the race of the murder was not significant, but the race of the victim was (ie: if the victim was white, the murderer was more likely to be executed, but this was true regardless of whether or not the killer was white). Ironically, in my Open University module where they presented this data analysis, they took it from a book called "Statistics for Lawyers". Perhaps someone could get Lammy a copy!

In other words, all this analysis proves is that Lammy is, in fact, a prat. Anyone who had seen that Question Time show already knew that, but it's always nice to have corroborating evidence.

(Note: this doesn't prove Oxbridge admissions aren't biased. And before the usual suspects make the comments on Facebook, nor should it be taken as a statement by me about the rightness of the death penalty, which I oppose).

Monday, November 08, 2010

Singapore and democracy

A few weeks ago, the wife and I attended a local production of the play "Boeing Boeing" (starring amongst others, Wendy Kweh, who some of you might more readily remember as DC Susie Sim on The Bill). Because the play had been customised to the Singapore audience, I didn't get all the jokes, but one of the highlights of the evening was when a Singaporean character was interacting with the British friend of the play's hero:

S: "Do you know what makes Singapore great?"

B: "Err... Democracy?"

S: "Don't try to be funny lah!"

In an evening when the mostly young audience did a lot of laughing, this was the exchange that got the biggest laugh of the evening.

I was reminded of this when in response to my recent tweet/facebook update suggesting that the London Underground should ring Singapore and ask how to do driverless metros, I was effectively accused of giving succour to dictatorships.

This is simply nonsense - I don't like dictatorships and I am passionate about freedom but more to the point, Singapore is not a dictatorship. It holds elections every four or five years, and there's no suggestion that the voting process itself is in any way corrupt. Another election is due before February 2012 (in the Singapore system, like the British one, the Prime Minister effectively gets to set the election date). It is guaranteed though that the PAP will still be in power in March 2012, regardless of when the election is held.

There are a number of reasons for this though - most of which would still hold even if freedom of the press was the same as it is in the US or the UK. The first and most obvious is that whatever else one can say about the PAP, noone can deny that as a party, they have been immensely successful in developing Singapore since the city state seperated from Malaysia in 1965. They have managed the feat of building a modern city despite having few natural resources, an education system that is the envy of the world (or at least the pre election Conservative Party!) and generally managed to punch above their weight at an international level. They've done this while managing to keep Singapore as one of the least corrupt countries on the planet, and their politicians seem to actually believe they have a duty and responsibility to the country. The opposition in the last election only bothered even putting up candidates for just over half the seats - presumably the ones where they felt they had the best chance of winning - and still only got less than 40% of the vote!

Indeed, the opposition is one of the reasons why the PAP are so strong. Not long after arriving here, I was out at lunch with my in-laws and my daughter. We were approached by a group of opposition activists - including their candidate who I later found was seen by some as their party's next leader. I was not particularly impressed by them[1]. Not that long afterwards, my wife and I attended a post budget dialogue with one of the local MPs[2] who despite being a backbencher, was impressive, intelligent, and had a good command of her brief. In addition, she also came across as a pretty decent human being - defending the presence of foreign workers and saying we had to remember they were people too. She wasn't afraid of saying things that weren't going to make her popular either.

The final point though that needs to be remembered is liberal democracy is not something that comes naturally to societies. Political cultures don't always take it for granted - in 1932, the winners of the Irish election turned up for their first day at work with guns in their pockets in case the previous government wouldn't step down voluntarily (the memories of the civil war were still fresh). A year later, German voters decided to put a stronger emphasis on strong leadership rather than maintaining democratic freedoms. Singapore is still a young society (though maturing fast) with a lot of internal tensions. Up until the 1950s the decisions were made by a group of people accountable to London's colonial office, not the residents. It's not surprising that many voters and citizens put a higher priority on maintaining that stability and comfort than on political freedoms.

[1] I may be slightly unfair here - they were wearing "Singapore for the Singaporeans" teeshirts which come a bit too close to the slogans of racist parties like the BNP back home. They then approached us and I got asked a couple of questions about my intentions to take Singapore citizenship (highly unlikely at this point and even more so when I'm less than a month in the country) and I just ended up feeling like I was offending these guys for giving my kids a chance to interact with the Singapore half of their heritage.

[2] The event was "graced by" her presence. One of the wierd things about Singapore is the level of respect shown to politicians! Also, no one gave me any hassle at all about being presented, though I was ignored by one activist who leaned accross me to talk to my wife about something.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Fisking Johann Hari

I'm not usually one for blogging on religion, but a couple of people I follow on twitter saw fit to tweet an article by Johann Hari, and I couldn't decide what astounded me more, his ignorance of Catholicism or his arrogance in attempting to preach to Catholics from that position of ignorance.
It is my conviction that if you review evidence of the suffering he has inflicted on your fellow Catholics, you will stand in solidarity with them - and join the protesters
Well, let's see. I would make a couple of points here - I refer to Damien Thompson's blog entry on a couple of occasions - Thompson of course has a bias due to his Catholic Herald connections, but he would have a better understanding of how the Catholic church works than a self proclaimed atheist (of whom it was once said that he's proof that "you can take the boy out of Govan, but you can't take the Rangers Supporters Club out of the boy" which leads me to conclude that he's not from a Catholic background).

Another more general failing in much analysis of Catholicism and it's administration is the failure to realise that it's organisational structure is not like that of large corporations or public bodies. If the head of GE or BT doesn't like what a senior executive is doing, it's relatively easy to sort out. Bishops act as head of their dioceses, with a reporting line to Rome that would on some organisation charts be represented as a dotted line. It is very hard for the Pope to fire a bishop - while moral pressure can be exerted on a bishop to resign, it's rare for that to happen (this is why many Catholics often complain their bishop is not working in line with what they perceive to be the Pope's leadership on issues - if you really care, you can go through Damien Thompson's blog and look at the debate over the liturgy).

I want to appeal to Britain's Roman Catholics now,...

Well there's always a first time (yes, I know it's a cheap shot).

In the final days before Joseph Ratzinger's state visit begins. I know that you are overwhelmingly decent people. You are opposed to covering up the rape of children. You are opposed to telling Africans that condoms "increase the problem" of HIV/Aids. You are opposed to labelling gay people "evil". The vast majority of you, if you witnessed any of these acts, would be disgusted, and speak out. Yet over the next fortnight, many of you will nonetheless turn out to cheer for a Pope who has unrepentantly done all these things.

A few points here - it may be a distinction without a difference, but the Catholic Church does not teach that gay people are "evil", only that gay sex is. The issue of condoms, AIDS and Africa is not as black and white as Hari cares to depict it (and neither is the response of Catholic agencies on the ground in Africa). There's also precious little evidence -as we'll go into - that Cardinal Ratzinger was involved in covering up the rape of children.

Some people think Ratzinger's critics are holding him responsible for acts that were carried out before he became Pope, simply because he is the head of the institution involved. This is an error. For over 25 years, Ratzinger was personally in charge of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the part of the Vatican responsible for enforcing Catholic canonical law across the world, including on sexual abuse.
Er, no. The body responsible under much of John Paul II's pontificate for enforcing the law on sexual abuse was normally the local bishop, not the Vatican. When the cases did get to the Vatican, it was usually the case that they were handled by the Congregation for Clergy, not the Doctrine of Faith. If Hari had done his research - and read up authors like John Allen on how the Vatican works, he wouldn't be labouring under this delusion. The rules were changed in around 2002 to give the CDF authority over the cases - partly because the then Cardinal Ratzinger (correctly) felt that the local bishops were rather dropping the ball on this one.

He is a notorious micro-manager who, it is said, insisted every salient document cross his desk. Hans K√ľng, a former friend of Ratzinger's, says: "No one in the whole of the Catholic Church knew as much about abuse cases as this Pope."

There is a lot of dispute about the Pope's management style - there's actually a lot of evidence that he over-delegates. Quoting Kung is not a good sign - Kung has been in conflict with the Vatican for over 30 years and is simply not a reliable source on how the Vatican (doesn't) work.

We know what the methods of the church were during this period. When it was discovered that a child had been raped by a priest, the church swore everybody involved to secrecy, and moved the priest on to another parish. When he raped more children, they too were sworn to secrecy, and he was moved on to another parish. And on, and on. Over 10,000 people have come forward to say they were raped as part of this misery-go-round. The church insisted all cases be kept from the police and dealt with by their own "canon" law – which can only "punish" child rapists to prayer or penitence or, on rare occasions, defrocking.

Hari's track record on handling figures is not encouraging - see Tim Worstal's blog for a number of recent examples. I suspect there's some conflating of figures here with the number of victims raped by priests who had already offended with the abuses that went on in a number of institutions - notably in Canada and in Ireland. The problem of course is that one is still too many.

Here are three examples.

In Germany in the early 1980s, Father Peter Hullermann was moved to a diocese run by Ratzinger. He had already been accused of raping three boys. Ratzinger didn't go to the police, instead Hullermann was referred for "counselling". The psychiatrist who saw him, Werner Huth, told the Church unequivocally that he was "untreatable [and] must never be allowed to work with children again". Yet he kept being moved from parish to parish, even after a sex crime conviction in 1986. He was last accused of sexual abuse in 1998.

Cardinal Ratzinger of course moved from Munich to Rome in 1982, so he didn't have direct authority within the Munich archdiocese from that point onwards. Most of the documentation in the Hullermann case suggests that he was allowed into Munich to receive treatment - and Cardinal Ratzinger was aware of this. The decision to put him into a parish was taken by the Vicar General, not Cardinal Ratzinger. What the hell the Archdiocese thought it was doing in allowing Hullermann to remain working after the 1986 conviction is anyone's guess, but it's a little harsh to blame a man who hadn't worked there for five years for the decisions being taken.
In the US in 1985, a group of American bishops wrote to Ratzinger begging him to defrock a priest called Father Stephen Kiesle, who had tied up and molested two young boys in a rectory. Ratzinger refused for years, explaining that he was thinking of the "good of the universal Church" and of the "detriment that granting the dispensation can provoke among the community of Christ's faithful, particularly considering the young age" of the priest involved. He was 38. He went on to rape many more children. Think about what Ratzinger's statement reveals. Ratzinger thinks the "good of the universal Church" – your church – lies not in protecting your children from being raped, but in protecting the rapists from punishment.

A couple of points here about the Kiesle case which Hari doesn't mention - either because he's not aware of it or because it doesn't suit his polemic - Kiesle already had a criminal conviction for the crime referred to. Kiesle was already suspended from active ministry by his bishop. Hari also misrepresents the circumstances of the laicisation request - it came from Kiesle himself - apparently to get married (in other words, he was looking for permission to marry within the church). It could equally be argued that 'Ratzinger thinks the "good of the universal Church" lies' in not effectively rewarding child rapists with a church wedding they were otherwise not entitled to.

Finally, the further allegations of assault on children came fifteen years after Kiesle was laicised. Damien Thompson has more on the details of the case here, but Hari's reading of the case seems to be based on the inital reports without looking any further into the details. It could also do with looking at the context of the laicisation process in the 1980s as well, but as he can't see the difference between an application to be laicised and "de-frocking" I doubt he'd able to properly understand it.

In 1996, the Archbishop of Milwaukee appealed to Ratzinger to defrock Father Lawrence C Murphy, who had raped and tortured up to 200 deaf and mute children at a Catholic boarding school. His rapes often began in the confessional. Ratzinger never replied. Eight months later, there was a secret canonical "trial" – but Murphy wrote to Ratzinger saying he was ill, so it was cancelled. Ratzinger advised him to take a "spiritual retreat". He died years later, unpunished.

The Murphy case is another case where inaccurate reporting in the early stages seems to dominate the story - especially as spun by the Protest the Pope crowd. Some of the facts missing from the above paragraph - Murphy's crimes took place between 1950 and 1974. The relevant Archbishop had been in situ for some time (and later had to resign in his own personal scandal when it was revealed he had lent a male lover diocesan funds) - so there's some question over his own competence when dealing with these cases (it's also alleged that he was not particularly sympathetic to other allegations of abuse in his diocese). The relevant canonical process was not cancelled, but was still underway when Murphy died in 1998 - two years, which is not what was implied by the paragraph. Incidentally - the case was only even able to be tried because of the confessional element - in terms of both Wisconsin criminal law and Catholic Canon Law the statute of limitations had kicked for the sex crimes themselves. Again, more detail here.

These are only the cases that have leaked out. Who knows what remains in the closed files? In 2001, Ratzinger wrote to every bishop in the world, telling them allegations of abuse must be dealt with "in absolute secrecy... completely suppressed by perpetual silence".

The subtle implication here is that Ratzinger's letter in 2001 forbade bishops to get the local police involved. This is quite simply a lie. Guidelines laid down by the US bishops, the English bishops and at least in the Archdiocese of Dublin during the 1990s made getting the civil authorities involved a mandatory part of the process. None of the bishops took the letter as meaning those processes should change.
...the Vatican actually lauded Bishop Pierre Pican for refusing to inform the local French police about a paedophile priest, telling him: "I congratulate you for not denouncing a priest to the civil administration." The commendation was copied to all bishops.

Er, no. A Vatican offical - albeit a very senior one - did that, not "the Vatican" (Hari again falls into the error of assuming the Vatican works as one mind. It's a collection of human beings, not the Borg collective). It was a strange thing to do - and only really acceptable if the reason the bishop failed to inform the police was that he himself only learned about it when hearing the priest's confession - which has been suggested by some. There is however no indication that the letter was approved by the current Pope (which would be fine if he was simply railing about the Church's handling of the cases in general - but Hari has personalised the issue in this piece).

When Ratzinger issued supposedly ground-breaking new rules against paedophilia earlier this year, he put it on a par with... ordaining women as priests.

No, he didn't. The Vatican's press department rather screwed up on this one - they did a clean up of canon law and process in a number of areas that it was felt needed clarification, and then released them all at one go. Fr Lombardi even said at the press conference they weren't equating the two. In PR terms, it was a stupid thing to do, precisely because people like Hari would make the claim above.

In short Hari's article is long on rhetoric, short on dispassionate analysis of what actually happened. This is not exactly unusual for him. I appreciate he's never likely to be a huge fan of the current pope - and at the end of the article he does manage to make a couple of half decent points, but he ruins the effect by making no attempt to understand how the Catholic Church works or to look into the cases past the initual reporting which sensationalised the cases into something they weren't (namely the "smoking gun" that tied the Pope to cover ups).

During my teenage years I had a number of encounters with Sean Fortune - one of the more notorious priest abusers in Ireland. I count myself fortunate I was not one of his victims - something I may blog about later. I am angry at the actions of the bishop whose inactions allowed me to be put in that risky situation (Fortune already had form at that point) - but that bishop wasn't Cardinal Ratzinger.

To be clear, I am not denying there were failings - at both the local and at the Vatican level - to get to grips with the problem. There are countless explanations for this, but the reality is there's little excuse for a lot of what happened. Cardinal Ratzinger appears to have been one of the first senior Vatican officials to fully get the extent of the problem, and his response to centralise the administration of the cases was to some extent a reversal of some of the Vatican II reforms. It is a tragedy it took so long, but there's a long distance from incompetence to international conspiracy to cover up.

One final point - there was a lot of comment when the Pope was elected that he wanted a purer church - even if it was smaller. His role at the CDF would seem to support that suggestion. Cardinal Ratzinger was also quoted as saying it was time to get rid of the "filth" from the church - he then backed that up by fairly quickly pushing Fr Maciel into contemplative retirement once he became Pope - despite Maciel having powerful friends in Rome. It does appear that on the abuse issue at least he is devoting more time to actions than perhaps he is to words.

UPDATE: made a few minor corrections of spelling and sentence structure - the perils of blogging at 2am.

Also worth noting that Catholic Voices responded much better than I did.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

David Laws, expenses and public service

I'm not going to get into the debate over David Law's sexuality because in the context of the controversy over his expenses claims, it's irrelevant.

Unless I've misunderstood something - it seems his "offence" is that having shacked up with his partner in London, he then claimed (substantially below) the second homes allowance for this over a period of four to five years - a total of about £40,000.

£40,000 may sound like a lot of money, but that's actually not a lot to be paying in rental over a period of 5 years (when I first moved to Brentwood in 2004, I rented a one bed place at 550 a month - that would have come to a total of about £33,000 over five years. That was about as cheap as I could get, and was for a small one bed flat).

The ridiculous thing about this does appear to be that had Laws -having claimed well below the allowance in the first place - simply "flipped" his second home to his constituency and claimed the full whack, wouldn't be under fire this morning.

The actual breech of the rules is that apparently it's not okay for an MP to pay his expenses to a family member or partner. So far, so good, and Laws has moved to pay the money back to the Commons authorities - it probably helps that he is "independently wealthy" as a result of his investment banking background.

But why precisely is it not acceptable for MPs to not claim expenses for staying with friends or family. One can essentially two approaches to expenses as expenses - one, that they should actually cover the costs to the MP of doing his job, or second, that they should be used by MPs who could not otherwise afford the costs of being an MP.

If we take the latter approach, then Laws shouldn't have claimed the expenses - the fact he can repay such a large sum of money indicates he was well able to pay them in the first place without claiming the money. This is not an unreasonable approach - it emphasises the public service element of being in politics, but doesn't prevent the less financially well off from entering parliament on affordability grounds. In effect, you means test the second homes allowance.

That's not what the rule book says though. What it says is that the costs are there to cover the expenses of being an MP. There is a category of MP that clearly needs a second home - either in London or in their own constituency (Laws almost certainly falls into this category). If an MP owns a house in their constituency, and then owns a flat in London - there is still a cost to them of using that flat in London - if they weren't using it for their duties as an MP, they might have the option to rent the flat out. So the cost to that MP, of using a flat in London, is that they lose the rental income on the flat they would otherwise have. Under the current rules though - they can't claim that. In fact I even recall one MP being criticised because they did rent out their London flat and then claimed second home expenses on a "third" property they used as their London base.

This is how it works in the real world by the way - if I stay with a friend instead of using a hotel on a business trip, I can claim a nightly allowance (under HMRC guidelines, there is a set amount which isn't taxed and doesn't require receipts). Most managers and finance departments if they see an expenses claim that comes well under the allowance tend not to question the details too much, as they are simply pleased that the employee has saved them money (a manager who is expecting to sign a claim for 3000 pounds and might look at the details will simply just sign a claim for the trip if it comes in at 2300 - and that's my own recent experience).

It's really quite simple - either we pay MPs expenses on a what it costs them basis, or we means test them. David Laws seems to have fallen into that gap where despite saving us money by his own lifestyle choices he is being condemned for... well what precisely?

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Education, education, education...

Those of you following my twitter feed (apparently there's 56 people following me - so when I tweet this I might get a few more readers) will have noticed I've been tweeting reasons why I think it's time to get rid of Labour. Some of these tweets when imported by facebook have led to some interesting debates there.

The most interesting, and yet fundamentally irrelevant one though, came from one friend who insists that it's unacceptable that the "privileged" are over represented in the Tory Shadow Cabinet. He based this on the assertion that several of them have been educated in private schools and then went onto Oxbridge (mostly Oxford). He clearly feels that being privately educated gives you an unfair start in life.

There's little doubt in one sense that it does - apart from anything else, look at the Labour cabinet that also has plenty of privately educated people - Straw, Harman, Balls for a start (Straw apparently attended Brentwood School on a scholarship/funded place - which only proves that simply looking at the school proves nothing about background!)

However, I'm not convinced that being privately educated makes all that much difference - after all, state education didn't exactly stop the Milliband brothers getting into the cabinet.

My son is four - he seems quite bright, though it's hard to be objective about this. If he ends being educated in our part of Essex, he has a number of good state schools to chose from, in Brentwood or in Chelmsford (or possibly in his case, Hornchurch). There is little doubt in my mind that the key influence in whether or not he goes to Oxbridge is not whether or not I pay for his education - but whether or not he has the natural ability to do so.

The reason for this is simple - the school really isn't the determining factor for most children in terms of their future - it's the parents. If you come from a background where university education is taken for granted, you most likely will end up going to university. If you come from a background where it isn't - then your chances of going are considerably lower (my paternal grandmother didn't go to university partly because she felt it wasn't for her - it was my father who was the first to go). I am the eldest of eight - the only two who don't have degrees are the two who aren't old enough to have graduated yet - and several of my siblings either have or are studying for postgraduate degrees. None of us went to posh schools - in fact my secondary school was particularly ordinary.

The state schools, such as King Edward VI in Chelmsford - that regularly rank at the top of the league tables and often send 10 to 20 to Oxbridge each year - are in one sense self perpetuating. The sort of parent that values academic excellence is more likely to send their child to that school than the parents who don't (and for what it's worth - an academic education isn't for every child - it may not be for mine).

So it's not the schools that matter - it's the parents. And if you're unfortunate not to have the "right" set of parents, you are doing to start at a disadvantage.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Jon Venables and hysteria....

I am currently in Singapore with my two year old daughter - I'm going to be working out here for a while - in all probability at least a year. Maybe I should think about renaming the blog :)

I can't begin to imagine the horror of what Jamie Bulger's parents have had to go through over the last 17 years. I know that if something similar happened to my little girl, I'd be devestated. Should it be done by an adult while we're out here, that adult would be hanged - and I genuinely believe my principled objections to capital punishment might well crumble in the face of such a horrendous event.

Here's the point though - even hanging the culprit wouldn't bring her back. And nothing that we do to Robert Thompson and Jon Venables can bring James Bulger back either.

Here's another point - a lot of emphasis is put on the entirely understandable anger that Denise Bulger in particular exhibits towards her son's killers, as though this should some how influence how they are treated. Imagine however, that her reaction had been the stoic one of Gordon Wilson on the night of his daughter's murder by the IRA. His pain was no less, but his personality combined with his religious faith clearly affected how he reacted to the loss of his child.

I first became aware of the reports regarding Jon Venables return to gaol through a Facebook update of an old friend which read "Good riddance to Jon venables, I hope he gets put in a cell with a big hairy paedo... I'd pay to watch the big brother version of these two getting aquainted... Oh and why oh why at 27 is his identity being protected...." (incidentally said friend lives in Ireland, so it's not his taxes that are paying to protect their identity). This was then followed up with a comment by him "As for Thomson... keep looking over your shoulder son..." Sadly, this attitude seemed typical of the gross over reaction of some in the media.

(Incidentally, I find the above reaction particularly shocking as it is from a friend who professes to be a Christian - and yet he seems to forget the principle that all people are equal in the eyes of God.)

There appears to be a growing body of opinion that somehow we should know what specific terms of his release Venables breached to be locked up again - despite everything, it does seem probable it was more than a mere technical breach. One press report suggested he'd been to Liverpool several times - including attending a Premier League game at Goodison. If so, then the man's an idiot - there was a significant if small possibility he could be recognised (I met an old primary school friend some years back, having not seen him since we both left primary school, and we quickly recognised each other). A member of the Question Time audience on Thursday suggested we should know as it would help put the issue to rest. In fact, as the above quote from Facebook shows, this debate will only be put to rest when both Venables and Thompson are dead - so we could be dealing with this for another 70 years!

The Question Time panel, with the except of Carol Vorderman, generally agreed that in this case the law should the law should be allowed to proceed in it's own way in the full knowledge of the facts, as opposed to the more emotional response that many in the public feel. This has to be the correct way to proceed - if we start dealing with this in an emotional manner based on incomplete or inaccurate press reports, or even the feelings of the mother, then we end up with a situation where justice and the rule of law cannot prevail.

One final thought - Venables and Thompson were arrested on the 20th February 1993 for Jamie's murder. Six days later, two children - Jonathan Ball, who was only a year old than Jamie, and Tim Parry, aged 12, were murdered in nearby Warrington. As far as I know, no one has ever been convicted of their murders - but if we did find the adults who killed them, and convicted them - their murderers are unlikely to spend much if any time in gaol under the Good Friday Agreement. Is murdering a child somehow more acceptable when it's being done by an adult in pursuit of a cause?