Friday, December 21, 2007

A lot to celebrate

Dropped in on Oliver Mills, Managing Director of Kent Adult Social Services and the rest of his management team and staff for a Christmas drink on our last working day before the break.

There's a lot to celebrate as 2007 draws to a close. Kent's Adult Social Services ends the year with moderate eligibility criteria, with a more controlled budget position than almost all our neighbours, and with a star rating from the Commission for Social Care Inspection of three stars - the highest accolade and one which Kent has held since the start of the government's star rating system.

Nobody can predict what 2008 will bring, but at least Kent can be safe in the knowledge that it has the best team in the business to handle whatever lies around the corner.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Through the Barricades

Forget chestnuts roasting on an open fire, or even Jack Frost nipping at your nose. There's nothing like the KCC Labour Group Christmas Drinks to get the Christmas juices flowing.

Just like the Christmas football match between the trenches in the First World War, for a few short hours all political rivalry is set aside, and local elected County Councillors from all parties get together over a mince pie and a glass of mulled wine to celebrate the festive season.

Even the Leader of the Labour Group, Mike Eddy, adopted a warm benevolence that - in less festive circumstances - would have been positively terrifying. So - at least until January - politics is set aside and all is right with the world.

Was that a turkey or a pig that just flew by?

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

A Christmas success story...

I love my job, but some days just put the icing on the cake. Yesterday was one of those days, when I visited Pembury Primary School to join Head Teacher Cath Thewlis and three of her pupils on an interview panel.

It seems the work we'd done with poster competitions, job descriptions, coverage in the Courier and on BBC South East news, and finally a live broadcast by Radio Kent, had actually produced four applications for the post of lollipop person.

Final selection was between two applicants, and Cath decided the children should choose their lollipop person themselves.

The children's questions were superb - "are you kind?", "what would you do if we misbehaved?" and so on. Eventually, they selected the person they felt most appropriate, and subject to the usual checks and references, the children of Pembury should be able to cross the road safely in a couple of weeks.

Just shows what can be achieved when we all work together. Well done Pembury!

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

An employer of excellence

Travelled early this morning up to Waitrose at Biggin Hill to present an award to David Patrickson, the Manager of the store.

He had given a job some months ago to a young man with a learning disability. Now sitting in the cafeteria with an early morning coffee, I found it hard to detect any disability in the bright, engaging, enthusiastic young chap sitting opposite me.

The most encouraging aspect was that it seemed the entire staff were supportive of this initiative - they all helped with training and support. In return they had an energetic, personable young man with a passion for his store, his products and his customers.

If only all retailers were like this...

Monday, December 17, 2007

Ferry 'cross the Solent...

Nice crisp morning in Southampton as I caught the ferry over to the Isle of Wight - working with two colleagues, for South East Employers.

The three of us were spending a day on the island to assess the Isle of Wight Council, who over the preceding eighteen months has worked hard to achieve Charter status for the development of their elected Members.

The three of us spent the day talking to officers and councillors about the Council's plans to train their Members to face the growing expectations of voters, and better represent their constituents.

It was a long day, but the sheer pride on the faces of the Council team when we told them they had achieved Charter status made it all worthwhile.

Congratulations to the Isle of Wight Council - KCC has just begun the same journey, and I hope we can be as enthusiastic when our inspection comes.

It's a tough life

At this time of festive cheer, spare a thought for poor Tony Blair.

His premiership over, he has to eke out an income on the after-dinner circuit, since his role as Middle East envoy for the superpowers of the world is unsalaried.

Poor Mr Blair's autobiography deal with Random House will pay £5m, but not for two years yet. And with a £16,000 a month mortgage on the Connaught Square property, he's having to travel the world speaking at dinner after dinner At around £200,000 an engagement he's averaging a million a month, though his recent "boring" speech in China netted him £240,000.

Isn't socialism grand?

Sunday, December 16, 2007

So over £36,000,000 of public money has been used to give four thousand pound handouts to failed asylum seekers to 'persuade them' to return to their country of origin and start up businesses.

Exactly what qualifies these people to start businesses? Is there any kind of vetting? Business plan? Cash flow? Any remote idea of how they will be spending our money - other than blowing it and coming back for more?

One suspects not. Because the Government has said it all - "It's cheaper to give them this money than for them to stay in the UK".

Why would they stay in the UK if their application has failed? Isn't that why we have our laws? Isn't that why we have our Government?

What happened to the art of conversation?

Drove down to Southampton tonight in preparation for an inspection of the Isle of Wight Council tomorrow.

I'd been booked into the Novotel Southampton, and having checked in, I went down for dinner. Seeing I was on my own, the waiter showed me to one of a number of 'booths, each with one seat and a single place setting. Curiously, each had a headset and a television screen, so that I could watch TV as I ate my meal in silence.

Whatever happened to engaging other lone diners in conversation?

It brought to mind a saying I heard some years ago - "Strangers are just friends you haven't yet met". Is it just me, or are we losing our sense of society?

Saturday, December 15, 2007

An inspector calls...

As Kent County Council begins to shift into fourth gear for its corporate assessment inspection by the Audit Commission in January, it was interesting to hear a different take on performance management.

I had an interview with Bill Leighty, ex-Chief of Staff for Tim Kaine, governor of Virginia, voted the "Best Run State in the Union" for several years now.  We've asked Virginia to undertake their own inspection of how good they think we are.

Did Bill ask about all the usual 'tick box' questions about how many miles of road, how many complaints we dealt with, or how many school meals we served?

No. Instead, just one key question - "what would you say is the single most important measure of your success here at KCC?". I thought hard, then answered "Whether that elderly lady crossing the street outside thinks she's getting great services and good value for money".

We're all working hard for our Audit Commission inspection, but I often think this Government has moved too far away from what really matters - the people who elect us, and whose taxes pay for the services we provide.

Statistically speaking...

I heard two fascinating facts this week:

First, the monetary value of friends and family who care for loved ones at home.  At 87,000,000,000 - that's eighty seven billion pounds - it's worth more than the entire National Health Service budget.

Secondly, the amount of time that the Government's somewhat ill-fated Patient Records System will take to implement. I'm told it will occupy the equivalent of sixty thousand nurses for life...

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Tax upon tax upon tax...

I notice today that The Fabian Society is suggesting that parents sending their children to private school should pay VAT on their school fees.

The General Secretary Sunder Katwala feels that the. Money raised could assist others, saying "Putting VAT on private school fees could finance an opportunity fund to tackle educational disadvantage"

Haven't those very parents who can afford private education already done their bit by - in many cases - paying higher rate taxation, and by reducing the pressure on overcrowded state schools by taking their children out in the first place?

Sounds like the old 'private health care' argument to me. Those who pay for private health schemes, don't use the ever-worsening NHS, yet still pay for it through their National Insurance. Why not charge them another tax as well?

Maybe government should spend more time chasing the hundreds of thousands who slip through their large-mesh net and into this country's "black economy" - thus evading tax altogether - to account.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

No such thing as free TV...

First prize today for sheer meanness of spirit must go to Patient Line, the company responsible for providing "Pay As You View" bedside television for patients at the Royal Sussex County Hospital.

Cyril Holes was recovering from his fourth stomach operation this year, watching a small battery-operated television which he brought in from home.

He was surprised when a woman from Patient Line told him to "turn it off or we'll prosecute you". Despite his protestations, Patient Line insisted that Mr Holes could only watch their TV set at a cost of £2.90 a day.

The company are wrong, of course, and overstepping their remit, but like the companies making a fortune from providing telephone facilities, I wonder how many other frail and vulnerable people have been harangued and bullied in this way?

Why can't we just let patients recuperate, rather than 'doorstepping' them in their beds?

Pembury crossing update

Met the head teacher at Pembury Primary School this morning first thing. Although the Courier ran a great story this week, she hasn't had a single call from any potential lollipop person. Spoke to the reporter again who told me he intended to run a 'follow up piece' so that should give us more much-needed publicity.

I was pleased to hear that Radio Kent have picked up the story, and will bring their radio car to the school tomorrow morning to broadcast a story.

By late morning I heard that BBC South East were sending a crew to the school this afternoon to film a piece for tonight's local news.

In getting lots of coverage like this, it should only be a matter of time before someone out there volunteers for the job.

Fingers crossed.

Monday, December 10, 2007

An inevitable consequence

Heard on Radio Kent today that the police are now exploring their right to take industrial action.

Apparently, they have calculated that the promised 2.4% pay award from Government has been reduced to a mere 1.9% in real terms, because the Home Office won't back date it to when agreement was originally reached.

Don't know which is worse - trying to pull a stunt like this or the belief that people would actually accept it without complaint...

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Merry dairy Christmas!

So Sainsbury's and Asda have admitted price fixing on dairy products, and following an investigation by the Office of Fair Trading revealed that shoppers paid an additional £270m, the two retailers have agreed to pay fines totalling £116,000,000.

Who gets that then? Are the Government tracing everybody who paid 15p extra for half a pound of cheese, 15p extra for a quarter pound of butter, and three pence on a pint of milk? I suspect not.

It couldn't be that the Government will just take the money to use on their latest ridiculous hare-brained scheme? Because that would be unfair, wouldn't it?

Friday, December 7, 2007

The Last Post?

Well done Government! Unless you've been on holiday for the last couple of months, you'll be aware of the battle to save our Post Offices, in the light of Government cutbacks. Around 2500 small local Post Offices need to be closed to 'balance the books' of the Post Office, of which the Government is a majority shareholder.

A 'consultation' period was launched, during which many local residents across the county fought passionately to keep open the very hubs of their communities. The facts and figures presented by Post Office management were seen to be hopeful at best, deliberately misleading at worst.

Kent County Council mounted a strong campaign, pulling in Post Office management to Cabinet Scrutiny to answer some hard questions. Local Councillors and MPs spoke out in defence of their constituents, and during the six week consultation - half the length usually allowed doe such an exercise - over 5,500 letters of protest were despatched.

After putting the people of Kent through weeks of uncertainty and fear, the verdict has been announced. Of the fifty local Post Offices threatened with closure, just two have been saved. The rest will be shut down in due course, tearing the heart out of many small communities, and causing the elderly and infirm the inconvenience of travelling possibly miles to their nearest town centre.

It has been mentioned that the consultation period wasn't even long enough to read all the letters of protest.

Perhaps they got lost in the post...

That's the way to do it...

Having been part of the Local Government pay negotiation team earlier this year, I'm keenly aware of how hard the Government were trying to keep public pay low. I was struck by how unfair it was that while local government was being told not to go above a 2% settlement "at any cost", it was fine for other public professions to get 2% "plus a bit extra for their jolly hard work". This was both divisive and derisory.

The Police were awarded 2.5% in this year's pay round, and since September officers have waited patiently for their enhanced pay packet. Today we hear that their new pay will be awarded from December - a full quarter later than promised. Of course, in real terms this is a reduction in agreed pay, and a breach of the promised pay settlement.

The Home Secretary must be immensely proud of her success in reducing the pay bill without risking industrial action by police officers.

Of course, Christmas is a dangerous time to be playing politics with the wages of your police force ...

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

It's a Mad Mad World...

Just read in today's Times - "Sperm Donor Forced To Pay Child Support After Lesbian Couple Split".

Seems on the face of it like another cracking job from this Government's Child Support Agency.

And just when you think it can't get any worse, the headline on the next page reads "Corporate risk is too high over sky-diving, so executives bond over cookery". Careful you don't singe your ties...

Sunday, December 2, 2007

The Asylum Fiasco

Had a day trip to France today with my family, to stock up on goodies in the run up to Christmas. Really bumpy crossing to Calais, but more than made for by great lunch and cheap wine!

On driving back to the ferry at Calais though, we encountered a lorry jam which stretched for miles. We must have sat for over an hour before we got moving again.

Yet as we did, a strange thing happened. Four young men in hoodies and with scarves over their faces appeared from the darkness at the side of the road, and, running along behind the lorry ahead of us, opened its back doors. Two men clambered inside the back, the other two duly closed and locked the doors and ran back into the shadows.

We watched transfixed, as someone in the next lane called across and indicated to the driver that he had just been boarded, and that there were two people in the back of his truck.

And so it was that on a foul night, in high winds and driving rain., this innocent lorry driver had to pull over, climb out of his cab, open his back doors and begin shouting to his illegal passengers to get out. I assume that if this failed he'd have to climb in and remove them physically, not knowing whether they were armed or not.

And of course, if he drove into Dover with them on board - even if he wasn't aware they had climbed aboard as he drove along - our Government would have fined him £2,500 for each one. That's probably as much if not more than he would have made from the whole trip anyway.

Isn't it time our governments just got together and resolved the asylum fiasco?

...And a Merry ChrIstmas to you too!

What a sad letter in the local paper today. Previous correspondents have talked about a Mr Cosham of Wadhurst who for some years has festooned his house with Christmas lights. This year, it seems, he has received anonymous letters threatening him if he puts the lights up again.

Today's writer now suggests that whilst these letters are "cowardly", they go on to talk about "making every effort to cut carbon emissions and reduce global warming" and suggest that "this is one area where we could all save electricity". They suggest that "whilst they look pretty, they aren't really necessary".

Neither are lights on the tree, the power we use to cook the turkey, or the fuel we use to visit family and friends over the festive period.

These 'green extremists' seem very generous with their advice. Cut carbon emissions? Why not just cut Christmas...

Saturday, December 1, 2007