THIS IS the tale of two dinner parties. Both had fabulous food, good wine, candles that drip according to plan and a pretty good mix of people. At the first, everyone was polite, charming and well-behaved and it ended in a flurry of hugs, kisses and good wishes. At the second, there was rather a lot of shouting and screaming and accusations of the wildest sorts. Wine, and tantrums, were thrown. There were tears before dessert, never mind bedtime.
So which is the success? Pick the first and you may well be labelled boring for wanting to spend a calm and sedate evening in the company of good friends. Pick the second and you may be asked what kind of person actually wants to sit round a table where insults are passed as freely as vegetables?
Quality is a fickle thing, though not, perhaps, if you are a member of the Government. After all, this has been the week in which John Prescott has presented us with 13 indicators to measure our quality of life. Apparently, this is being dubbed the Skylark Index, which scores very high on any quality of naff index. But, skylarks aside, the index is quite a dinner party conversation in itself.
Take Health. This sounds completely uncontroversial but it turns out that it's really about Unhealth. No more will we be looking at life expectancy (79 for women, 74 for men). Instead we are going to measure the years people can expect to live in good health. By inference, then, we will also find out how many years we can expect to be in bad health. I know that I am really looking forward to receiving my years-of-pain estimate. But what I'd really like to know at the same time is how many of those years are going to be spent with proper care.
Then there is Land Use. I'm sure you, too, have spent many a sleepless night worrying about how many homes were being built on brownfield sites.
Social Investment - money put into railways, hospitals, schools, water - is much more relevant but my idea of measuring this has nothing to do with percentage of GDP. Instead, I would like this to be based more or less solely on the number of times the 9.22 from Tonbridge to Charing Cross is more than five minutes late, the numbers in my children's classrooms, how many hours I have to wait with a potentially broken leg in casualty, and how many times a year the water coming out of my bath taps is brown.
Several indicators are hardly qualitative at all. Employment is measured in terms of jobs but surely it is also about flexible hours, bullying bosses, photocopiers that work. Water Quality seems to be measured as to whether our rivers can support fish that have not mutated into monsters. But what does this have to do with the water I drink and how much I have to pay for it?
Air Pollution looks a sensible indicator. Then I read that the number of days when pollution was recorded as moderate or worse fell from 62 in 1993 to 40 in 1997. Obviously this must be different air than that being taken in by my daughter whose asthma gives her an in-built air pollution indicator. On some of the rest of the 13, I simply have the wrong attitude. Climate change? Yes, I know greenhouse gases are vitally important to global environmental policy but perhaps it is a little less so to my daily life. Wildlife sounded exciting at first, before I discovered this was a reference to birds, animals and mother nature. Here's a suggestion: why go to all the trouble of measuring the number of living skylarks when you can count the number of road-kill foxes so much more easily?
Perhaps the most obvious thing about the Quality of Life index is that it seems so divorced from, well, Life. Where is crime, childcare, equality? Where is a measurement of companies that are willing to deliver at a time when you might be home? Where are the number of men who actually know how to clean a toilet? Where are sex, food, the arts and the number of Frasier episodes to be shown per annum?
And where are dog turds? Surely our taxes would be well spent measuring the number of dog turds on pavements. While we are at it, let's find out the quality of brown water dispensed by tea machines and monitor swimming pools for how many slow swimmers are in the fast lane.
This is what life is about. But politicians who breathe in the rarefied air of Westminster and perhaps all swim in the same lane, may not realise this. Perhaps they actually think that our happiness is inextricably linked to brownfield houses, unhealthy years and estimated tons of waste. They probably even think that everyone goes to the same dinner parties. But even they must know that all conversations eventually lead to the subject of dog turds. Now that's quality for you.
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