Saturday 20 June 2009
Deborah Orr: Blacked-out claims show just how fearful MPs are of the public
Nadine Dorries, the Conservative MP who warned weeks ago that the Telegraph's expenses investigation was putting MPs under so much pressure that she feared that some might kill themselves, has now reported that her patio furniture has been vandalised. She says she knows it was a deliberate response to her position as an MP because she received a blog comment that she didn't post, which read: "Nice patio Nadine, or was."
The attack on her property – which was a gift from her mother, not the taxpayer – could be considered a small justification of the "national security concerns" that were used to explain why so much of the MPs' expenses information released by Parliament this week was blacked out. It could also be seen as a reproach to the Telegraph, which decided earlier in the week to publish today its own, less sensitively edited version of the expenses claims.
Yet surely there is some reason for parliamentarians to be a bit cheerful about the public response to the expenses scandal. Certainly it was uncivilised of somebody to damage Dorries's garden furniture, and a horrible thing for her to experience. Likewise, nothing was gained from the throwing of a brick through the window of Julie Kirkbride's constituency office.
But apart from these two small breakdowns in permissible behaviour, the response of the public to the scandal has largely been angry but constructive. People have turned up to meetings, gathered petitions, talked of organising protest marches, thrown themselves into heated discussions about constitutional reform, or discussed the possibility of standing themselves as independents. The most anti-democratic thing that individuals have done during these strange weeks was to decide not to vote in the European elections. Even this was, for once, a gesture that was understood by politicians as registering disgust, not apathy.
Yet there is something very miserable about the situation we are all now in. The information that has been "redacted' this week is sometimes creepily reminiscent of that which people are warned to guard carefully in countries where kidnapping or political assassination are common, such as details of regular journeys.
There are worries that the contempt in which MPs are currently held will dissuade people from standing in future. But if the blanked-out spaces on expenses claims can be seen partly as a measure of how fearful MPs are of the electorate, then they speak of a distrust between public and politicians that is dangerously immense, and mainly nurtured on the politicians' side.
Yet one party fears most of all the loss of our votes. The days following Gordon Brown's rebuttal of a raggle-taggle leadership coup have been awful. Not only the doctored expenses have been sneered at. The announcement of a private inquiry into the Iraq war has been dismissed as useless too. The Governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, even saw fit to attack the Chancellor, Alistair Darling, at a Mansion House event usually seen as a cosmetic exercise in pomp.
Surely it must be clear now to the Brown Government that it really is "in office, but not in power" and will remain so till its collapse. Why can't that stubborn and uneasy cabal yet see that the game is up, and that there is only one way to end the terrible and debilitating paralysis that has settled over the political life of the nation?
It is time for Labour to realise that the promotion of active and vigorous democracy is far more important than protecting the desperate hopes of one fearful political party. That would in itself restore faith in politics and politicians, far more than anything else possibly could.
The able are rewarded. The disabled suffer
Not many people are interested in preserving the Remploy factories. Established after the Second World War to offer sheltered employment to disabled servicemen, they are now considered an old-fashioned and patronising way of assisting people with disabilities.
Most of the big disability charities support the Government in its plans to restructure Remploy and turn it into a specialist agency that will annually assist up to 20,000 people with disabilities in their search for the same sort of work as everyone else. To this end the charities supported a programme that closed 29 of the company's 83 factories last year, with the loss of 2,500 jobs. The GMB union stands virtually alone against plans to phase out all of the factories. Well, the union and the remaining people who work in the factories, who presumably are disabled by their own political incorrectness and don't understand what's good for them. That seems rather patronising too.
Certainly, the Government's arguments appear to make good financial sense. Each Remploy worker is subsidised at an average of £20,000 a year, because so many of the factories are far from profitable. Yet, the organisation boasts that last year it placed 6,500 people a year in mainstream employment, at a per-person average cost of a mere £5,300.
It's not the only Remploy financial statistic that doesn't make much sense. The GMB pointed out that in 2007-8, when 2,500 Remploy workers lost their jobs, the directors and managers were paid £1.7m in bonuses. The head of Remploy, Tim Matthews, is on £120,000. He used to list "drinking champagne" as a hobby in Who's Who.
The bonuses, says Remploy, were awarded because directors achieved "individual targets which are performance-related". Since none of these managers seems capable of running, say, a factory at anything like break-even, one starts to wonder if they get their bonuses for doing the opposite. Each senior manager, in 2007-08, placed 13 people, on average, in mainstream jobs. That's while they were not clocking up five redundancies per manager in the same period. Lack of ability, it seems, is worth subsiding handsomely, while disability is not.
Brüno is back from obscurity, and he's found his true calling
Years ago, before Sacha Baron Cohen was famous, the Paramount Comedy Channel used to fill up its dead space by broadcasting again and again bland footage of a gay Austrian fashion journalist called Brüno, asking models and designers fatuous questions at a fashion show. It should have worked – such an easy target – but it was dismal.
When Baron Cohen made it big, with Ali G and then Borat, I assumed that Brüno had merely been an early and unsuccessful experiment, rather like Frank Skinner's carefully buried incarnation as preppy comic Chris Collins, or the relentlessly heckled Jack Dee before he discovered that he made audiences laugh only when he presented himself as miserably contemptuous of them.
However, it turns out that Brüno was not redundant, but just resting. He was waiting for the point when Eminem would agree to have him rub his bottom in his face at an award ceremony, then sit in his hotel room laughing for three hours, or when he could whip up a storm of publicity by complaining that his raved-about feature film was being unfairly censored.
The British Board of Film Classification says that the producers of Brüno knew all along that they would get an 18 certificate if they did not remove particularly smutty sequences. The producers, in turn, say that the material in question is the funniest in the film. Those of us with tiresomely long memories can confirm that filth-free Brüno is not worth seeing, even if one does remain bamboozled that you can legally have sex at 16 but not legally laugh at it in a cinema.
David Cameron must feel like the most dreadful idiot now. All those months of yelling again and again that the Blair government didn't mend the roof while the sun was shining, when it had actually been smartly fixed and neatly redacted in the very nick of time.
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If these extraordinarily powerful images of a dead Syrian child washed up on a beach don’t change Europe’s attitude to refugees, what will?
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