Friday 20th February 2015: The Anglican bishops this week published their Pastoral Letter on the 2015 General Election. The document has prompted controversy over its authors’ implied political allegiances.
Friday 6th February:This week, Rotherham Council was in the news: its ‘cabinet’ stepped down in the wake of last August’s report on the sexual abuse of 1,400 children over sixteen years. The official investigation has now found the council unfit for purpose. As Eric Pickles, the Communities Secretary, sends a team of commissioners to Rotherham to take over, the fundamental problems remain.
The council along with South Yorkshire Police force failed over a period of sixteen years to prevent, or deal with when reported, the crimes committed against underage children from 1997 - gang rape, threats of murder, trafficking into local towns. Families and children who reported them were treated with contempt. Rotherham’s disgrace follows Oxford’s, where children were also abused and prostituted over many years going back to 2004, with an initial trial convicting in 2013 seven men for offences of rape, child prostitution, trafficking and conspiracy to rape. Oxford’s disgrace had come after Rochdale’s, where nine men were convicted in 2009, of similar crimes.
The stop gap solution –with full council elections called for next year - applies to the elected councillors. Theresa May, the home secretary, who pressed for the resignation of Shaun Wright (at the time the councillor responsible for children’s services) now South Yorkshire’s police and crime commissioner, has put the spotlight on officials and urged them to consider their position.
The underlying problem nonetheless remains. Rotherham and other local councils have failed in the most serious responsibility of any: for vulnerable young people in their care. That failure is compounded by another failure: to hold to account those responsible, whether the elected councillors or the full time officials.
Across all three councils the pattern of failure to look after the children in their care was the same. The victims of these crimes were young girls, some as young as ten or 11, many in the councils care. Officials failed to respond adequately to reports; in many cases they appeared to blame the unfortunate children for their misfortunes. In one council, social workers ignored victims because the girls were reported to be ‘making their own choices. In another, a ‘safeguarding’ body claimed it was not ‘a child protection issue’ because the children’s behaviour was ‘risky’. Where officials did not blame the children, they sometimes lapsed into what one residential care worker called the ‘heartbreaking’ helplessness about their inability to stop young people going out late at night, even though very concerned about the people they were meeting. Were this not a government organisation, employees would be supervised and directed, with problems or failings picked up and dealt with, with a chain of authority leading to the top.
Around twenty years ago, when I served as Parliamentary aide to David Mellor, then Chief Secretary to the Treasury, he frequently lambasted the Opposition by reminding the Commons that "Dogs bark, cats miaow and Labour puts up taxes". This was to happen increasingly from 2001, when Tony Blair surrendered domestic policy to Gordon Brown, and particularly from 2005 when Labour abandoned Conservative spending plans, the next decade proved how depressingly prescient Mellor had been.
Friday 23rd January: The euro is fundamentally flawed. Thursday's decision by the European Central Bank (ECB) to engage in quantitative easing is a further example of that. The scale of quantitative easing (QE) announced by the ECB may have been sizeable, but it is taking place years too late, and with four fifths of the government debt to be bought by national central banks it exposes further the problem at the core of the system, namely the economies within the euro are so different that one size does not fit all.
In many respects the ECB was damned if it did, and damned if it didn't. Since the financial crisis, monetary policy has become the shock absorber for Western economies. This is not just a European concern. I use three words beginning with 'u' to describe monetary policy in Western economies: unlimited, unclear and unknown. Unlimited in the sense that there almost appears to be no bound to what is now expected of central banks as they push interest rates close to zero, and allow their balance sheets to expand through quantitative easing. Unclear, as it is still by no means certain what is the full impact, although as we can see from the US and UK, it is asset markets that are likely to benefit the most. Ironically, at Davos this week, inequality was an issue frequently raised and yet QE by boosting asset prices in many respects adds to this. Then there is the unknown longer-term impact of all of this. What impact will a prolonged period of low interest rates and of printing money have? Yet interest rates in the US, UK and Europe have to remain low for some time, to allow their economies to recover.