Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Prison Works?

Once upon a time the Conservative line on crime was that "Prison Works". Michael Howard, Home Secretary from 1993 to 1997 and subsequently Tory leader before Cameron, coined the phrase at his party conference in 1993. Since then the prison population in England has almost doubled both under both major parties.

In the election campaign the coalition partners took contrasting approaches to Criminal Justice. The Liberal Democrats' most striking policy was to introduce a presumption against short prison terms on the bases that these put pressure on capacity, could be better dealt with by alternatives to custodial sentences and that prisoners in such a situation do not benefit from rehabilitation programmes. The Conservative policy, while more nuanced than previously, was still very much that of "Prison Works".

Fast-forward two months and the Justice Secretary Ken Clarke has began to lay out the new government's approach as outlined in the Coalition Programme for Government. The harsh language of yesteryear has been replaced by a focus on developing programmes to reduce recidivism.

The plans draw on Cameron's "Big Society" idea with the outsourcing of programmes designed to reduce the number of ex-prisoners who re-offend and Liberal Democrat ideas on restorative justice and Neighbourhood Justice Panels. Sentencing policy will be subject to a review which will focus on its effectiveness as a deterrent, as punishment, as a means of protecting the public and - crucially - preventing re-offending.

Most significant today was Clarke's tone and his focus on the "revolving door" created by the current system. While the Conservative manifesto had included a commitment to increase capacity if required, Mr Clarke was critical of the growth in prison numbers. Of course, he has gone through a revolving door himself - prior to Mr Howard and the doubling of prison numbers it was he who was Home Secretary!

Unusually, crime and punishment did not feature largely in the election campaign. It didn't feature in the initial Coalition Agreements. It is still, however, a hugely important area and one which has often been used to pursue populist policies. In this regard it is an area where the Liberal Democrats have been able to temper this tendency and to prevent the government from pandering to its right wing - and to the right wing press.


Tuesday, 29 June 2010

The RFL's fine by me...

Late last year, former Wales Rugby Union International, Gareth Thomas came out as a gay man. This year, he re-entered the arena of professional sport as a player with the Rugby League side, the Celtic Crusaders.

At the time he came out, many suggested this was a brave thing to do, although some wished that he could have felt able to do so much earlier when he was still playing. Moving back into the macho environment of the 13 man code was certainly a brave move.

It was almost inevitable that references to his sexuality would be made in the stands. Indeed, a certain amount of banter is to be expected.

What shouldn't be tolerated, however, is out and out abuse. Homophobic comments - like racist and sexist sentiments - have no place in any sport. So when such things happen, they should be dealt with.

Such a thing did happen. In his second game - against Castleford Tigers there were some instances of abuse being hurled. Today, the Rugby Football League (RFL) fined the Tigers £40,000 for "unacceptable behaviour, breaching the RFL’s Respect Policy, misconduct by their supporters and of conduct prejudicial to the interests of the sport."

While the case is not yet settled - the Tigers' plan to appeal - this story is noted for the determination of the RFL to take action and take a stand. Such a strong position is to be applauded - and other sporting bodies could learn a lesson when it comes to dealing with such issues.


Saturday, 26 June 2010

The Sporting Week...

I love this time of year, there's so much going on sport wise - tomorrow there's the European Grand Prix with England-Germany in the World Cup straight after... It's got potential to be a great day!

Last weekend Scotland won it's first ever Rugby Union test series in the Southern Hemisphere against Argentina. A decade or so ago, this wouldn't have been regarded as a huge achievement - Argentina having been in the second tier of test nations. Not so now - they were two places above Scotland in the rankings (a situation now reversed by the win and results elsewhere).

The challenge now for Scotland is to build on this in the Autumn Internationals (against New Zealand, South Africa and Samoa)... and then, of course, there's the Six Nations in the spring...

Also this week, Wimbledon got off to a glorious start and Andy Murray seems to have put the disappointments of the past few months behind him to advance to the 4th round without dropping a set.

The biggest sporting story of the week though - other than England setting up tomorrow's tie with Germany - was the historic match between John Isner and Nicolas Mahut. It was amazing to watch them trade game after game without either giving way. Not only was it a tremendous advert for Tennis and Wimbledon, it was one of those events where sport transcends the mundane to become a statement on the human condition. Isner and Mahut's have not only earned a place in the record books but in the hearts and minds of all those who followed the story of the three day long epic encounter.


Tuesday, 22 June 2010

A Budget Response

Well it's all over bar the shouting - George Osborne has delivered the coalition government's first budget.

Of course, there will be a lot of shouting. Indeed Harriet Harman in her Commons' response was particular hard on the Liberal Democrat members of the government. All very ""Old Politics" - and to be expected. Ms Harman has the luxury of not having to make any of the hard decisions which the opposition leader always has on these occasions.

It's easy to argue against cuts or tax rises but given the situation we find ourselves in, it's not particularly responsible. If we had continued on with the current arrangements, things would get a lot worse as the economy failed to meet the last government's overly optimistic forecasts for growth.

It is this simple point that Ms Harman doesn't seem to have grasped - Labours' plans to reduce (but not eliminate) the deficit was founded on ridiculous assumptions. Not only was their target less ambitious than it should have been - and what the markets expected - they consistently overstated the economic expectations for the country.

The nature of budgets - even more so when you're a member of a party which is part of the coalition government - is that there are some good measures, some bad measures and, even more so than usual this time, some measures which are both. The nature of the coalition means that some of the things now deemed necessary were the very things were previously argued against by one or other party. Much is made of Lib Dem views on the VAT rise but that overlooks Tory compromises on CGT and Personal Allowances.

So what did I make of it? Well, in the end, I'm not sure it's as harsh a budget as expected. I've picked out some of the headlines, and added a brief comment of my own for each:

VAT: A regressive tax, of which I am not a fan, but a reliable revenue raiser. All Osborne has done has brought forward a rise which would have been inevitable even if Labour had won.

Personal Allowance Rise: A welcome move towards the £10,000 threshold and a move which will help offset other tax rises, particularly for lower earners.

CGT: Higher rate of 28% not the simplified and systematic approach I would favour but a pragmatic approach to balance politic interests and the potential income against people maximising use of loopholes and reliefs.

Child Benefit: Still feel we need to think the unthinkable on this - not sure universal payment still justifiable. Perhaps 3 year freeze pre-empts wider changes once Frank Field has reviewed.

Tax Credits - Reduction in the threshold fat which they get removed much needed. Not sure about the additional payments for the Child Element but seems progressive and recognises that some of the pain caused elsewhere needs to be addressed.

Housing Benefits - New limits seem completely reasonable.

Benefit linking to CPI - Unfortunate, as RPI still widely used by employers to set pay and for measuring inflation, but necessary.

Public Sector Pay Freeze - Just what many private sector workers have had to endure.

State Pension - Earnings link long overdue. "Triple Lock" one of the best outcomes of the coalition agreements.

Corporation Tax - Reducing levels should help ongoing recovery and growth.

Bank Levy - Tricky, but welcome if handled carefully. Good that others have agreed to similar measures. At the end of the day many owe there very existing to the state and this needs to be recognised.

Fair Fuel Stabiliser - To be looked at by the Office of Budget Responsibility but eminently sensible measure. Again, long overdue.

I could go on, I'm sure, but I've gone on long enough already. In the circumstances the budget was fair and balanced. Cuts were always inevitable, scale and timing the only issue. The fear that large cuts this year may be too early is still there although some of the spending commitments announced will temper this. In any case international thought is going in this direction and global and market pressure may have taken the timing out of our hands if things had got worse throughout the year.


Sunday, 20 June 2010

As The Ruin Falls

I'm conscious it's been some time since I posted a poem, so have looked around for something suitable and discovered this by the novelist and Christian theologian C S Lewis. Best known for creating Narnia, Lewis also wrote a number of books on apologetics as well as Science Fiction epic, The Cosmic Trilogy.

This poem is about Love and the writer's inability to truly understand it until it was too late.

As The Ruin Falls by C S Lewis

All this is flashy rhetoric about loving you.
I never had a selfless thought since I was born.
I am mercenary and self-seeking through and through:
I want God, you, all friends, merely to serve my turn.

Peace, re-assurance, pleasure, are the goals I seek,
I cannot crawl one inch outside my proper skin:
I talk of love —a scholar's parrot may talk Greek—
But, self-imprisoned, always end where I begin.

Only that now you have taught me (but how late) my lack,
I see the chasm. And everything you are was making
My heart into a bridge by which I might get back
From exile, and grow man. And now the bridge is breaking.

For this I bless you as the ruin falls. The pains
You give me are more precious than all other gains.


Saturday, 19 June 2010

Who needs Cliff Richard?

If it gets a bit rainy at Wimbledon this year, all we need is Andy Murray:


PS Here's hoping Murray can kick-start his season.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Iconic Images 6

I've chosen two Album sleeves for this entry in the Iconic Images series. I'm not going to add anything as they have enough cultural resonance to speak for themselves.
Justify Full
The Beatles' Abbey Road:

Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon:


Monday, 14 June 2010

Flying the Flag

The flag of St George is flying over Downing Street for the duration of the World Cup. Up and down the streets of England are awash with flags and pendants.

Is this a good thing? Is it appropriate that the flag of England should be above the residence of the British Prime Minister?

As a Scot living in England, I think it's important that the English feel a strong sense of identity and that they are able to express this freely. People should be able to fly the flag without accusations of jingoism and to reclaim it from extreme nationalists.

The re-emergence of an English identity - and the ability to divorce this from a British identity - is a positive thing. An understanding of our differences is as important to the Union as an understanding of the things we have in common.

But this has to work two ways. There are elements in Scotland, and Wales, that need to rediscover Britishness. They have to accept that "Anyone But England" is petty, foolish and ill-judged at best, pernicious and destructive at worst.

We all have multiple identities, whether that be Scottish, English, British, European or Human Beings. Supporting England may not come naturally as a Scot, but wishing another part of the UK well - particularly in a tournament in which the Scots are not involved - should.

All Brits should be willing the best for England and this is what makes it appropriate for the Prime Minister to fly the flag. It's not about English dominance of the UK, it's about respect for one of its constituent parts.


Saturday, 12 June 2010

The End of the Road...

Today I'm selling my car back to a dealership. After 2 and a half years (and a bit), Connor and I are parting company.

I'm no longer doing the commute for which he was purchased and it doesn't make sense for me to keep paying out every month to fund his finance contract.

While he has been reliable and done the job intended, he has also been a bit of a drain on my efforts to sort financial affairs out - see various blogs regarding my resolutions. In retrospect, I probably shouldn't have gone for a brand new car at the time but as I don't believe in regrets, that's just a bygone!

It's another step forward and another positive for 2010 - albeit tinged with a touch of sadness. Still, I'm looking forward to the savings I'm going to make and the chance to pay down some of my other debts a bit faster.


Monday, 7 June 2010


This is my 150th post and, as is usual on each 50th post, it's time for a spot of blog introspection...

Top tags so far:
  • Poetry (19)
  • Books (18)
  • Anthology (17)
  • Blog (16)
  • Photos (15)
  • You Tube (15)

Number of posts with comments: 57

Most number of comments for 1 post: 5

While poetry has maintained it's number one position overall, I've blogged much more on books lately, with regular book reviews. I've also made an effort to include more photographic and video content.

I've not blogged about sport for a while and this has dropped out of the top five. While politics haven't made it up there, I was pleased to get more political content in the blog over the election period, and intend to include more ongoing than I previously did.

I'm blogging about blogging less, which is good - this strand being an obvious exception to my feeling that it is somehow cheating to post about the blogging process. I finally started a series of posts on architecture - and there will be more of these to come.

In addition to content, I've also tarted up the look and added links to the bottom of each entry - these should be themed to (broadly) tie in with the subject of any individual posting. My tweets can now be read in the window to the left and there are two stand-alone pages linked to above. These are the Directory (about me and my blog) and Links to other websites or blogs which I've mentioned in various posts.

I've got more incremental changes planned and more ideas for posts but the eclectic mix of topics is set to continue! Enjoy!


Sunday, 6 June 2010

5 on the 5th on the 6th

Yesterday ended up being a really busy day, partly because various things in my life are "looking up"... but that is a story for another day. In the end I never managed to get my five pictures for Stephen's monthly photofest taken until today...

As chance would have it, the theme is this month's 5 on the 5th is "looking up". While I flirted with other ideas relating to recent developements, I've chosen a more literal interpretation of this month's theme. All the pictures were taken around Bristol:


Thursday, 3 June 2010

the widows web, part 3

The third in my series of notes on websites I've seen and liked... Some of which I'll revisit regularly, others less so. Two of the choices this time are slightly macabre, the other is slightly geeky! Follow the links, browse and enjoy!

Deathlist is essentially a sweepstake of old celebrities who are knocking on heaven's door. As could probably be surmised, the idea was conceived in a student union bar. The inaugural list was created in 1987. Modern lists feature input from an internet forum... who says death can't be fashionable.

The next selection is also related to death. It's a personalised Death Clock which tells you how much longer you have - or not as the case may be. Complete with a countdown of the seconds, you have left, you really can watch your life slipping away. It appears I have a little under 38 years and 3 months left - how about you?

The final selection is a geeky one which feeds my love of statistics and trivia. The Public Profiler worldnames site allows you to check the relative popularity of surnames across Europe and much of the English speaking world (along with a handful of other countries) and to break down these region by region.

For example my surname - Brown - is more widespread in Scotland than the rest of the UK (as you might expect) and relatively uncommon in Wales. Bizarrely, it is most popular in East Lothian.

You can also access local statistics on names too - mine is the 8th most popular first name and 3rd most popular surname in my hometown.
I find that kind of thing fascinating but I can already see you dosing off in the back row...


Wednesday, 2 June 2010

A first - and last* - word on Big Brother

A week today the last series of Big Brother will begin on British television. And I, for one, will be glued to my TV set.

Few shows have divided opinion as much as Big Brother, but whatever you think of it, there's no denying that it made an impact on British Television in the 2000's.

Before BB, reality shows were in the mould of Driving School and Airport. Serial documentaries with a handful of characters grabbing the limelight. Big Brother opened the door to a world where these characters had to compete for attention in an environment where they weren't, even nominally, in control.

No longer was it enough to be a wheel-clamper who could make bitchy remarks to the camera. Now you had to compete for the affection of the public while keeping enough of your fellow contestants onside in order to avoid nomination. And the cameras didn't get turned off at the end of your shift - they stayed on all through the night.

And so a new generation of reality shows was born, from Castaway to Survivor to Shipwrecked, ordinary members of the public could, if they were lucky, launch a career in television. A sub-genre, of which I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here is the most notable was also spawned, in which forgotten stars of yesterday could relaunch their careers.

Although I've always been a fan, although I've not watched every series - in particular Big Brothers 6 and 7 passed me by. I personally enjoyed the first couple of series when the contestants weren't there specifically to launch careers, although both of the first two winners did, of course. These early shows were part gameshow, part social experiment.

These were followed by a stage in which contestants were, for the most part, fame-seekers. Subseqently, there was a phase in which housemates were chosen for weirdness and conflict. The beauty of Big Brother has always been it's ability to re-invent itself year after year - and the golden rule: Big Brother reserves the right to change the rules at any moment.

So I'm looking forward to this year and seeing what's in store. As ever there is a lot of rumour but not a lot of confirmed fact. One thing is for sure, though: the producers will be determined to make the most of it and let the show go out with a bang.


P.S. Where next for reality shows? Well, I suspect the template for this decade may have been laid down by the recent Pineapple Dance Studios on Sky 1. Ostensibly an old-fashioned reality show, it featured regular set-pieces and deliberate interventions by members of the "cast" and production crew. And, in a stroke of genius, had Michael Buerk delivering the voice over in a wonderful dead pan style. Not easy when describing the auditions for Priscilla, Queen of the Dessert as "separating the men from the ladyboys"

*It may not be the last but I do promise not to blog endlessly about it!

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Resolution Check 4

It's June! Can you believe it? After missing May's update on my resoltutions, it's time for another look. Just a reminder of what they are:

  • Continue to reassess, manage and improve my finances
  • Lose some weight/get fitter
  • Read more books than last year - say 25-30
  • Blog around every 2-3 days (c. 147 posts)
  • Re-start my entries to Three Positive Things and explore positive psychology further
  • Commence work on a piece of fiction of my own (other than this list!)
So here we go:

Moving house was, as it always is, a costly exercise, but am hopeful of some anticipated changes which will stabilise and improve things going forward.

I've no idea if I'm either losing weight or getting fitter - although gardening does tend to leave you feeling like you've had a workout! This is also in the must try harder category

Book reading has stalled - after a great start to the year. Am currently on The Storm by Vince Cable - but have been since before I moved. Need to adapt my new routine to accomadate books again.

My blogging suffered through lack of internet - and a great deal of inertia when I did get back online. Am back in swing of things now, though!

Progress on my editing of my friends novel has stalled - a project to return to in April, erm May, erm June...

So, for one reason or another - or one reason and one reason being used as an excuse - it's been a step back this month. Still, the only way is up!