Edintfest: 70 years of challenge and innovation

edinburgh inetrnational festival - Rhinoceros

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This year the Edinburgh International Festival celebrated its 70th anniversary . So did I.

The opera, music, dance and drama festival tends to be overshadowed by the huge Edinburgh Fringe with its thousands of zany, rude, comical and political shows. But the international festival with its world class productions never fails to either stimulate or challenge you – even if you live near London  and can already see a very wide range of productions.

I have been a recent convert  attending the festival – starting post early semi retirement when I left the Guardian in 2009 – before that I was sometimes expected to stand in for the dead season of political coverage in mid August or went on a family holiday.

But what constantly surprises now my wife and I do try to go every year is the extraordinary range of productions. I have been entertained, moved, frightened and only occasionally bored by what we have seen. This year was no exception, even if underlying some of the themes has been the rather alarming and dangerous state of the world in 2017.

No more so than the joint Scottish and Turkish production of Rhinoceros  – Eugene Ionesco’s Theatre of the Absurd play – drawing from his experience of the rise of Fascism and authoritarianism in Romania in the 1930s. It is very, very funny but it tells of the growth  and attraction of authoritarian rule by people being turned into Rhinoceri until only one person was left. It was particularly poignant that it was a joint production with the DOT theatre company from Istanbul, given the rise of Erdogan.

Equally dramatic for anyone who likes flamenco music was the Maria Pages Company production of Yo, Carmen – an energetic and beautifully choreographed performance partly using Bizet’s music from Carmen. This eight all women group  also had a strong Feminist message that women were not there just to please men.

Surprisingly disappointing was the premiere of Alan Ayckbourn’s new play   The Divide- a  Dystopian  sci fi picture of Britain after the Plague in the 22nd century. This was a diminished world of separated men and women – but it suffered from following a similar theme to the recent Handmaiden’s Tale on TV – and in two parts was over long and more of a narrative than a drama. This will come to London at the Old Vic next year. Not everybody stayed including us.

Anoushka Shankar – daughter of the late Ravi Shankar – also pursued a ” shock and awe” theme in her loud and strobe lighting musical story of the refugee crisis. Classical Indian music it was not – but a  Westernised performance with an electric sitar.

As interesting was the supporting act – A gawwali ( Arabic meaning word of the prophet says the programme)  performance singer – Faiz Ali Faiz- with a male chorus, two harmoniums, a tabla and handclappers is sung rather like an Indian repetitive raga.  The sacred music dates back 700 years to the Sufi mystics. The performance was also a political statement against Muslim fundamentalism which bans singing. It was a complete revelation to us in more ways than one – since it had not been billed by the Festival when I booked the tickets.

Finally there was the revival of the Incredible String Band – the 60s psychedelic folk band – with one of its original members, Mike Heron, who with musical friends and relations, turned the clock back 50 years to a less troubled time, with both spirited and poignant performances. In its time incredibly innovative music and still powerful today. An avid follower in the audience told me to watch out for Trembling Bells, a more recent Glasgow psychedelic folk group, who occasionally join forces with the band.

One parting shot – since my wife became disabled following a stroke four years ago- access to events has been important. She doesn’t now need a wheelchair but can only walk slowly and needs rails -particularly on stairs to keep her steady. The Edinfest venues  vary from good- the Lyceum and Usher Hall – to antiquated – the Kings Theatre – and more difficult, the Playhouse. Unfortunately at the Playhouse we were allocated seats in the circle  which had no rails to get there- and if it had not been for one of the helpful ushers and a member of the public – she could easily have fallen. This put her off returning for the Incredible String Band concert.

But overall such different, innovative and challenging stuff in just six days is why the international festival is really worth seeing. Happy 70th birthday Edinfest and long may it continue !

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The train driver who averted a major disaster on a London commuter line in nine seconds

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The two collided trains in the Watford Tunnel.Pic credit: British Transport Police

An accident  report out today on the landslip at Watford that derailed an early morning  London Midland commuter train last September reveals the importance of having properly  trained staff  on our railways.

It reveals that without prompt action by the driver there would have been large number of casualties and possibly fatalities when another commuter train running in the opposite direction collided with the derailed train.

It also shows having a guard on the train meant that passengers on the service who had not been injured got immediate reassurance and help after the driver was trapped in the cab following the accident.

The report praises both the driver and the guard for the way they handled the accident – caused by heavy rain leading to a landslip on the line just inside the entrance to a tunnel at Watford.

Simon French, Chief Inspector of Rail Accidents said:

 ” The collision of a passenger train with a derailed train in Watford tunnel on the morning of 16 September last year serves as a reminder of why everyone in the railway industry continues to work so hard to manage risk – the collision of two trains in a tunnel is a scenario we all hoped never to witness.

The derailment of the 06:19 service from Milton Keynes could so easily have led to a catastrophic sequence of events were it not for two notable factors. The first was the sheer professionalism of the driver who, within moments of becoming derailed, had the presence of mind to apply the brake and then transmit an emergency message using the train’s ‘GSM-R’ radio. His actions alerted the driver of a train approaching in the opposite direction who immediately applied the brake. As a consequence, the northbound train had reduced speed from 79 to 34 mph before striking the derailed train a glancing blow. This reduction in speed may well have made a big difference to the eventual outcome.

The second mitigating factor was the slotting of one rail of the track in the gap between a gearbox and a traction motor on three of the axles, so preventing the derailed train deviating any further into the path of the approaching train. This unintended consequence of the train’s design probably made the difference between a glancing blow and something closer to a head-on collision.

The report reveals that the driver had just nine seconds to alert the oncoming train after his train had been derailed – but as a result it certainly saved lives.

The circumstances of the crash are also a grim warning in the age of climate change given that very heavy rain caused the landslip at exactly the same spot  as another landslip in 1940.

The rail accident investigators found details of the earlier landslip in Network Rail’s archives but unfortunately the  management of Network Rail had not alerted people  who had  been working on removing vegetation and trees in the cutting on the need to  revamp an old drainage system.

The report also reveals that had there been a serious accident access by the emergency services to the scene would have been difficult and there did not appear to be any plan for organising a major rescue should an accident happen in the Watford tunnels.

All this suggests to me is that ministers and privatised railway companies – such as Southern railways – who want to save money by continually cutting staff should be wary of doing so. It could cost lives and passengers need help and reassurance should the unexpected happen on their daily commute.

 

 

The collapse of the local press: A disaster facing local democracy

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Grenfell Tower: The next morning Pic credit: Wikipedia

I recently wrote a piece for the National Union of Journalists campaign,Local News Matters fighting to keep local newspapers alive. While much time has been devoted to the plight of the national press losing swathes of staff, not enough attention has been given to the almost total collapse of local news reporting.

The catalyst was the appalling Grenfell Tower fire which erupted with a huge loss of life, and why ,until then, nothing had been written about it. The fire not only destroyed a community but exposed the appalling lack of local reporting in the months leading up to the fire.

The local residents association – the Grenfell Action Group – had been warning of fire safety issues in Grenfell Tower and other blocks of flats as long ago as 2013.

But they had been ignored and when their blogs got too critical they were threatened by  the solicitor to the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea with defamation proceedings unless they took down the critical posts.

The reason why their concerns went unreported was entirely due to the state of the local press. As Grant Feller, a former reporter, wrote in Press Gazette
In 1990 there would have been two rival papers the Chelsea News and the Kensington News and a team of ten reporters looking at everything in the borough.
“But today there is no-one there. There is a newspaper that cares for Londoners, reflects London and does its bit for London – and that’s the Evening Standard. But it doesn’t do these types of stories.”
Indeed there are only two on line papers Kensington Chelsea and Westminster Today and the Kensington and Chelsea Times. Both are mainly life style and leisure publications. The KCWT contained just one article on the Tower disaster culled from coverage already broadcast by the BBC. The Kensington and Chelsea Times had one original story by a named reporter when the fire had taken hold and one story on an appeal for the victims.
This is not unusual. A damning submission from the NUJ to Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, gives details of the parlous state of the capital’s papers and their reporting abilities. It warns that events are not being properly covered, staff have been slashed to the bone, pay is appalling with many journalists not able to afford to live in London in rented accommodation yet alone get a mortgage. The situation is similar in the rest of the country.
Ex editors feel the same. Mike Gilson, who has had a stellar career in regional and devolved national journalism from the Portsmouth News to the Brighton Argus and from The Scotsman to the Belfast Telegraph, recently quit the Argus after trying to revive good investigative local journalism.
In article in the Press Gazette quoting from an essay he wrote for a book Last Words? How Can Journalism Survive the Decline of Print? he says :
“In Brighton searing images and accounts of the Shoreham Air Show tragedy last year, as an out-of-control vintage aircraft sped from a clear blue sky into unsuspecting motorists on the A27, were online before journalists, photographers and writers, had even made it to the scene.
But we still need journalists with the time, training and passion to avoid this ever-increasing deficit. No amount of digitally empowered bloggers, many of them diligent thorns in the side on a range of issues, will make up for the loss of professional reporting.
In some towns courts, council meetings and trust boards are all going unreported now.”
Now some of the slack has indeed been taken up by the growth of bloggers and citizen journalists. But however good these people are they are not a substitute for a well staffed paper with ten fully paid reporters covering a local community.
Bloggers just like the Grenfell Action Group are also vulnerable to being picked off by powerful people and threatened with defamation if they criticise wealthy powerful individuals or even public bodies. The case of the Camarthenshire blogger,. Jacqui Thompson, who was threatened with losing her home after a bitter legal dispute between her and the chief executive of her local council, Mark James. is an example. He used public money to sue her and fight a counter claim despite criticism from the National Audit Office in Wales. She is still left with paying out £25,000 over a dispute that began with her filming the council.
Frankly this means that people in powerful positions are beginning to realise they can get away with things that ought to be investigated by an independent press. Whether it is local corrupt deals, appalling child sexual abuse claims or people being bullied and harassed by the wealthy, those in authority and criminals knowing they have a 90 per cent chance of getting away with it.
The conclusion is obvious. If we don’t do anything to stem the collapse of local reporting we will have a democracy in name only, with no substance because nothing will be reported.

The £5 billion pay out to people who shouldn’t have received it

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Department for Work and Pensions – £3.5 billion of overpayments detected by auditors

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Here is a strange paradox. The government has imposed a tough and to many people unfair benefits and  tax credits regime which has squeezed the poorest – both the unemployed and those in work.

Yet this summer accountants have revealed that HM Revenue and Customs and the Department for Work and Pensions has paid out £5 billion to people on benefits and low incomes who should not have received it. And they predict that even more will receive these payments next year. I have written about this in Tribune magazine this week.

The disclosure comes in the annual audit of both departments by Parliament’s financial watchdog, the National Audit Office, who have qualified the accounts of both departments – as not being a true and accurate description of public spending.

According to the NAO report: “HMRC estimates that the overall level of error and fraud that resulted in overpayments in Tax Credits in 2015-16 increased to 5.5% of Tax Credits expenditure (from 4.8% in 2014-15)

“HMRC estimates that the overall level of error and fraud resulting in underpayments in Tax Credits in 2015-16 remained at 0.7% of Tax Credits expenditure (0.7% in 2014-15). This equates to overpayments of £1.57 billion and underpayments of £210 million.

“HMRC has told us that it believes the level of error and fraud in Tax Credits will increase further when measured for 2016-17. Two main factors have been identified that will lead to this increase: the introduction of the ‘Commercial with a view to a profit’ self-employment test for those who are self-employed and the impact of the Concentrix contract. The impact of these factors on error and fraud levels will not be measured until June 2018, and so the estimate of error and fraud in 2015-16 remains the most up-to-date indication available of error and fraud in Tax Credits expenditure for 2016-17.”

Concentrix were sacked by the department after a privatisation programme went wrong – and they were not up to the job.

Worse are the figures for DWP.

The  NAO’s findings are: “Excluding State Pension, overpayments are at the highest levels since 2009-10, while underpayments are at the highest recorded levels.”

Overpayments amount to £3.4bn, excluding the state pension, an increase of £400 million while underpayments are £1.5bn In percentage terms this amount to an increase to 4.1 per cent of all overpayments and 1.9 per cent of all underpayments.

The report says: “Amongst benefits measured annually for fraud and error, Employment Support Allowance and Housing Benefit overpayments are at the highest recorded levels, and Jobseeker’s Allowance overpayments have returned to the highest levels since 2010-11.

The NAO questions some of the techniques used by the DWP to calculate fraud – saying it assumes that when people don’t get back to the department for a re-assessment that they have been fraudulently claiming. This may not be the case. Also, information is out of date.

“The absence of up-to-date information on error rates in large benefit streams creates a risk that the department is not targeting its fraud and error interventions effectively,” the report says. “For example, Disability Living Allowance, which accounted for £11.5 billion of expenditure in 2016-17, has not been measured for fraud and error since 2004-05.”

All this points to some serious mismanagement by the ministries – which have been squeezed by successive coalition and Tory governments. But it doesn’t mean that those at the top have suffered. I shall return to some interesting findings in their annual reports.

Uncork the Gauke: Could the Tories go for another grey man to lead the party – like John Major

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David Gauke: potential leader? pic credit; Gov uk

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August is the time of the year when lobby journalists love to speculate on leadership plots. If Jeremy Corbyn had done really badly in the June general election – it would be all about who is going to succeed him. But as it is Theresa May who lost her majority and authority – the speculation is all about who will replace her – even though she is at the moment determined there will be no vacancy. So I thought I would add my pennyworth.

The last Tory PM to be deposed in office was Margaret Thatcher in 1990 and she was at that point even more unpopular than Theresa is now. Her disaster was the poll tax – which was quickly replaced by the present council tax – after she stood down.

People forget that at the time John Major was the least known of the candidates who stood to be leader and PM.

Just as now the leadership favourites were big beasts –  the two top runners were Michael Heseltine – who had resigned over a row over the  fixing of an order for a new generation of helicopters in what became the Westland affair – and Douglas Hurd, a well known big Tory beast and foreign secretary. Both are now peers.

Heseltine was at the time a bit of blonde bombshell – unpredictable and strident. Nicknamed ” Tarzan ” because- though he denies it – he was accused of swinging the Parliamentary mace in protest against Labour. Definitely regarded as leadership material – he had shades of Boris Johnson in his leadership claims for today.

While Hurd was seen as more thoughtful – just like Michael Gove who prides himself as a radical thinker – sees himself today.

But both these big beasts were trounced by the ” grey man ” – the relatively unknown John Major.

Today there is another relatively unknown man – a John Major for the 21st century. He is David Gauke. In the Westminster bubble he is known by the phrase ” Uncork the Gauke ” for  his ability to smoothe over gaffes made by his then boss George Osborne in successive budgets. He is a safe pair of hands to send to Westminster and handle Opposition anger over ministerial mistakes.

He was first out of the traps to address the Westminster  press gallery lunches this month – and came to put himself over as an agreeable lunch companion with a store of self deprecating jokes. He is also benefiting from Theresa May’s decision to promote him to Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, presumably thinking like Thatcher about Major that he is no leadership challenger.

But don’t be fooled by his manner. At the heart of the man is a determination to continue the Conservative austerity programme. He was careful only to park plans to end the ” triple lock” on pensions and a new charging system for social care. He has since taken the decision to raise much earlier the pension age to 68 – something that was not in the Tory manifesto.

He also showed little real concern that benefit claimants had committed suicide as a result of  tough decisions. He came out in favour of means testing and to a question from me that his ministry was turning into the Department of Corporate Manslaughter – ignored the point – saying  lamely that there might be mistakes by staff.  There is a lot of difference between a  mistake and a suicide.

A lot is at  stake at the next general election – and Jeremy Corbyn has no longer that element of surprise that he is supposed to be a ” no hoper”  to become PM. So expect the unexpected from the Tories – they will devise new ways to stay in power and an unexpected figure emerging as their leader could be one of them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Revealed: The man who sacked a woman on maternity leave is now head campaigner for women’s equality in Scotland

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John Wilkes, now chief executive of the Scottish Equality and Human Rights Commission Pic credit:Third Force News

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Meet John  Wilkes. He is now chief executive of the Equality and Human Rights Commission in Scotland. The ECHR’s top campaign at the moment is fighting against  the discrimination  of women who take maternity leave from their jobs.

As the ECHR’s own research says on its latest campaigns website says:

  • Around one in nine mothers (11%) reported that they were either dismissed; made compulsorily redundant, where others in their workplace were not; or treated so poorly they felt they had to leave their job; if scaled up to the general population this could mean as many as 54,000 mothers a year.”

Great words. But they didn’t seem to reach John Wilkes before he took up his highly paid post at the ECHR in Glasgow.

Then he held the job of chief executive of the Scottish Refugee Council, a respected body. Now after the findings of a tribunal hearing in Glasgow ot appears to do more for refugees than its own employees.

And one of those was Petra Kasparek,who was employed as a refugee integration adviser, who became pregnant and took maternity leave. When she decided to come back to work she faced a gruelling interview which included responding to some questions she would have been unable to answer properly, and then declared redundant.

The man who stood in for her Stephen McGuire was also sacked.

But a ruling on 6 July by a Glasgow employment tribunal has ruled that both were unfairly dismissed and that Ms Kasparek suffered indirect sexual discrimination under the Equality Act.  Both are to get compensation amounting to thousands of pounds and the tribunal ordered Mr McGuire to be reinstated. The case was championed by their union, Unite, which even proposed ways to solve the dispute without sacking either of them.

But the most severe criticism comes in the tribunal’s view of John Wilkes whose knowledge of the law and procedures as a chief executive seems remarkably lacking for such an experienced official whose Linked In profile portrays him as a top notch executive.

The tribunal said that Mr Wilkes had “a surprisingly poor understanding of the SRC’s ( Scottish Refugee Council’s) policies and procedures.”He  had “a poor grasp of how some of the SRC’s actions were at variance with its formal policies.”

He  and the head of finance there also had”  a striking lack of insight and appreciation of the criticisms levelled at their decisions.”

One of the points raised at the hearing from Mr Wilkes was that Ms Kasparek had not tried hard enough after leaving to get a similarly better paid job so she wasn’t entitled to compensation. In my view the man shows surprisingly little empathy or understanding of women who are looking after a baby.

The damaging point is  he is now in charge of Scotland’s Equality and Human Rights Commission policies including a campaign to help women being unfairly treated at work. One wonders how sympathetic he will be.

I put this to the Scottish EHRC and got a stock reply saying:

“John has brought to the Commission a wealth of experience, knowledge and dedication to our role in creating a fairer society and is making a valuable contribution to our work.”

I did ask whether Mr Wilkes had been sent on a retraining programme since his knowledge of  indirect discrimination under the Equality Act and other laws seemed to be rather minimal. But they told me they had nothing more to say.

Given the recent history of the EHRC in sacking disabled and black staff  I might have been asking the wrong questions. He will probably fit in well with the ethos there.

He is also not the only recent appointment to the EHRC from organisations that had discriminated against women on maternity leave.

 

 

Exclusive: How the Boundary Commission could smash the Tory DUP love in

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Sir Jeffrey Donaldson ” These proposals are not welcome” Pic credit: BBC

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While everyone has been concentrating on  the wrangling between  Cabinet ministers over Brexit another crisis is looming for Theresa May which could cause enormous bad blood between the Tories and its newly found friends, the Democratic Unionist Party.

Theresa May has inherited  from David Cameron a  controversial revamp of all Parliamentary boundaries with the aim of slashing the number of MPs from 650 to 600.

The review is being undertaken by the Boundary Commission- independent of government – but set to strict guidelines on the size of each constituency. A move to reform Parliamentary boundaries collapsed during the coalition government when the Lib Dems voted it down and Cameron and Theresa May backed its revival when the Tories won a majority. The change is expected to benefit the Tories at the expense of Labour because many of the smaller constituencies are inner city seats.

In Northern Ireland the Boundary Commission has made its recommendations are they are extremely bad news for the DUP. The number of seats in Northern Ireland are cut from 18 to 17 – with the loss of one Belfast constituency – but the real controversy is the complete redrawing of all the other seats to meet the new standard size constituency.

As I have written in Tribune  this radical revamp means the  DUP are set to lose three of its ten seats and Sinn Fein is expected to gain two – making it the largest party from Northern Ireland. The DUP have reacted with fury and complained to the Commission asking them to change the proposals.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, MP for Lagan Valley, which will disappear to become part of a new constituency under the changes, said: “The proposals are not welcome. We have made representations to the Boundary Commission to get them changed and expect them to publish their final proposals in September”.

More seriously for the government, the proposals are not part of the deal agreed with the DUP on “confidence and supply”. This was confirmed by Sir Jeffery, meaning that the government could face a defeat in the Commons next year if the DUP decide to vote them down – denting the government’s position still further and possibly triggering a general election before Brexit negotiations are completed.

Such a defeat would cause enormous damage for ministers because it would mean that the next full term general election, originally scheduled for 2020 and but now 2022, will have to be fought on the present boundaries. These are now years out of date.

And the embarrassment will not be confined to N Ireland.There is no provision under the Act which set up the boundary review to allow any special concessions to N Ireland. So not a single Parliamentary boundary will change if it is voted down in the Commons.

The damage by this debacle will only add to the frailty and weakness of this government – if it can survive as long as next year.