Same Difference

This evening MPs will be voting on the second reading of a Bill to introduce same sex marriage (SSM). It is, to say the least, proving to be controversial, with some estimating that more than a hundred Conservative MPs will oppose the Bill. However, even though Labour quite likes to revel in causing the government discomfort by voting against things it agrees with (like reform of the House of Lords allowing it to win out against boundary changes), it is unlikely that it will go as far as defeating SSM.

I think it is probably fair to say that there isn’t a large majority, or even a majority in the country that is agitating for SSM. So, in one way, it might be seen as a strange thing for David Cameron to be pushing through against the wishes of a significant proportion of his MPs and Conservative supporters, particularly when one might think that antagonising his Party’s core vote is a dangerous thing to do given their option of switching to UKIP. That SSM ought to be the sort of thing that a Party like UKIP that still pretends to be “libertarian” should support is by the by – by forcing out a parliamentary candidate and its youth wing’s chairman in recent weeks over their support for SSM UKIP has forfeited that claim. So, what’s it all about?

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Nothing against them, some of my best friends are racist, but…

Not really, well, not quite. The trope “I’ve nothing against them, some of my best friends are… “ has been a staple of offensive pub bore conversation for as long as I’ve known and has had a new lease of life online in forums like the BBC’s Have Your Say and the comments sections of local and tabloid newspaper websites.

In reality, whether we like it or not, most of us are a little bit something-ist. In the otherwise impeccably Guardian left-liberal suburb of Leeds where I live there’s a strong whiff of “studentism” to preserve areas for long-term family residents rather than letting landlords put students in. This view is held by people who themselves were once students, often students in Leeds who had come from elsewhere in the country, and who found
themselves settling in the city after they graduated. There’s not a whole load of difference between this and the phenomenon observed particularly in the US of the last wave of immigrants often being the strongest critics of fellow immigrants who have not assimilated properly and the strongest supporters of controls on future immigration. In the report on Radio 4’s PM programme on 26 July 2011 several interviewees who were first generation immigrants to the US from West Africa were highly critical of the alleged victim of sexual assault by Dominique Strauss-Kahn on the basis of the adverse impact on “good” immigrants of lies she may have told.

The desire to categorise other people is, I believe, a natural one. At least in one sense, civil society is about believing oneself to have some common bond with the others around you – about feeling that “we’re all in it together”. So, no-one begrudges paying taxes to support people who have hit hard times if they feel they can identify with the beneficiaries as being, but for circumstance, “people like us”. Setting up bankers as a group who are undeserving and unfair recipients of state largesse is as divisive as highlighting benefits cheats or bogus asylum seekers – all are playing the system and perhaps more than superficially undermining the feeling that we are all in it together. In either case, it is the extreme examples who get the press – the 200,000+ bank employees who have lost their jobs are not considered when extravagant seven figure bonuses to traders are criticised, the vast majority of benefits claimants who would love to work and are eking out a
subsistence lifestyle are overshadowed by the egregious examples of those who get more in housing benefits than a couple earning the national median wage take home after the taxes that pay for those benefits.

The same goes for extremists, both Islamists and indigenous culture terrorists like Anders Breivik. It is right that one should not consider all of the 1.5bn Muslims around the world to be terrorists or to make sweeping statements based on selective readings of the Quran about what all Muslims believe. Most Muslims, like most people, live ordinary lives with the same mix of virtue and vice – no ethnic or religious group is peculiarly saintly,
whatever the public perception of them as a group might be. We tend to ignore the fact that in South East Asia some purportedly Buddhist monks have committed terrible crimes when thinking of Buddhists as a group. Chanting, meditative (and irritatingly smug) Western Pop Stars or the Dalai Lama are more defining of them than any number of rapacious monks a long way away. However, it is also wrong to reverse this and to single out individual wrongdoers as being separate from the group they come from where that is convenient.

It is convenient to do this for Muslims because of the fear that criticising Islamism becomes a criticism of Muslims. Much easier, as Tom Harris MP says   ( http://bit.ly/pvkeVa ) to bend over backwards to accommodate and try to explain away the murderous acts of the minority, even if carried out in the name of the faith, even if, in
fact, tacitly supported to some extent by otherwise peaceable coreligionists. At the same time, the temptation to broaden out the atrocities of someone like Breivik is great because the “white far right” can safely be hated by everyone. Picking out a bit in the Quran which says something that clashes with Western Liberal ideas about, say, homosexuality and using it to condemn the religion and its adherents is out of order. Picking out a bit in Breivik’s Book of Dave-ish manifesto where he cites Melanie Phillips or Jeremy Clarkson with approval to condemn those writers is somehow OK http://bit.ly/o6cCl5. I don’t like or generally agree with Ms Phillips but she hasn’t called upon anyone to go round killing people or shown support for them. Saying that the last Labour government had an immigration and multiculturalism policy that was aimed at marginalising the base for nationalist feeling is contentious but not entirely unsupported (the policy criticised isn’t even necessarily malign). Bemoaning, as Clarkson did in the article Brievik quoted, that the British flag has become something that some encourage us to be ashamed of is not a call to arms to mowing down dozens of teenagers. The irony, lost on Breivik is that shame is brought on national flags by people like him and the BNP if they are allowed to claim them as their symbols rather than being something that binds a nation.

Of course, it is also not allowed for those who might share some of Breivik’s views to quote selectively to support themselves, such as the head of the English Defence League on Newsnight’s vain attempt to quote the bit in the Breivik manifesto where he condemns the EDL for being anti-racist, anti-fascist, non-violent and naive in believing that its aims can be achieved through democracy rather than extreme terrorist action. Six hundred apparent EDL members being facebook friends with Breivik out of the hundred thousand who “like” the EDL on facebook is used as knockout evidence that the UK has a
hundred thousand people poised to turn Breivik.

I’ve no time for those who think that all Muslims are terrorists, all men are rapists, all those who question immigration are racist, all bankers are evil, all benefits claimants are parasites, all students are anti-social neighbours. But, that doesn’t exclude that some members of these groups do fit the stereotype and that their membership of the group can be relevant in working out how to respond. It was relevant to the response to the 7/7 bombings that the bombers were British Asian Muslims because the bombers were not crazed individuals working in a vacuum to do something inexplicable and arbitrary that could not be foreseen or prevented in the future.

As with the recent and ongoing controversies about political and media corruption, censure by other members of a maligned group is a strong force. Good journalists have rallied to make their case against bad practices (although sadly there still seems to be a rearguard action to preserve something of Johann Hari’s reputation even if it is merely that portion of which reflects upon his employers), good politicians have condemned the dishonest ones. Good Muslims can and should continue to speak out against Islamist terrorists and their aims. Decent people who believe that immigration should be limited can and should speak out against Breivik. Otherwise, the bad minority wins and the reputation of the good majority is ruined while the views of the minority get amplified. Just because it is convenient to let that happen (if eg you don’t like anti-immigration campaigners or Muslims) doesn’t make it right.

UPDATE

Interesting piece by Melanie Phillips on Breivik –  http://bit.ly/mYTFaC

Public Sector Revolution or Public Procurement Problem?

David Cameron has announced today a “transformation” of the public sector by introducing a presumption that any and all services (bar justice and national security) can and will be open to competition from the private sector; http://bit.ly/hQVhKS

Whether this is a good or a bad thing is debatable, as is whether it is a reform that is intended to improve public service or a fig leaf for an ideology of destroying it.

However, one aspect which needs to be considered is the practical impact on the policy of the EU Public Procurement regime. While the proposal is couched in terms of removing regulation and red tape, breaking unnecessary state monopolies and bringing services closer to the control of the people rather than the state as a proxy for them, the application of the procurement rules could have the very opposite effect.

In brief the procurement rules require that all moderately substantial public works, services and supply contracts must be openly advertised throughout the EU and subject to an appropriate form of competitive tendering process. The underlying rationale for this is to ensure a level playing field across the EU and access to markets by businesses in each Member State. In most EU countries, the public sector and public spending accounts for a large proportion of the national economy. It was recognised that in the absence of safeguards it would be too easy for national governments to reserve these parts of their economies to their own country’s businesses and so make the project of a single EU market that much less realistic. The procurement rules were designed to stop public bodies stitching things up.

So far, so consistent with the economic liberalism of the proposals to open up public sector markets to even wider competition.

But. The obligation to have competitive tendering gives rise to substantial compliance costs both for public authorities and for contractors. Changing the presumption opens up the entire public sector to being obliged to go through complex procurement processes for every single contract of note. More than that, it changes every single activity into a separate public contract rather than just being public services.

Why does this matter? Well, now, where a public authority carries out a function in-house, or wishes to bring a function in-house, it can benefit from an exception to the procurement rules stemming from an European Court of Justice case called Altmark and so not be required to go through the rigamarole of tendering. The introduction of a presumption that all public services are capable of being provided on a competitive market and that public sector bodies (including the in-house departments) should compete for them removes the ability to rely on the Altmark judgment. A public body would still be able to award a contract in-house, but instead of merely ensuring that the Altmark criteria had been fulfilled it would also need to take a decision that the new legal presumption of competitive provision was rebutted on the facts. A move from showing that a service could be provided by a public authority’s staff to showing why it must be.

So, in addition to the costs of running competitive procurements for every service there would be a litigation risk introduced for those cases where public authorities decided that in-house provision was most appropriate as that decision would become strongly susceptible to judicial review. The remedies provisions of the procurement rules allow for parties who might have been interested in bidding for a contract to have illegally awarded contracts set aside – what were internal decisions of public authorities to give work to their departments would become challengeable commercial decisions.

Historically contractors have had some reluctance to challenge public authorities under the procurement rules not least because of an unwillingness to bite the hand that feeds. In purely private commercial transactions it is rarely a recommended customer-care strategy to be ready to sue every customer who decides not to buy from you. Moving to a public contract presumption of competition means reversing this. Any service that stays with a public-sector provider and which you’d like to have a go at may be worth readying your lawyers on.

Ah, but of course, lawyers are expensive and litigation can be ruinously so, particularly if a claim is unsuccessful. This will, perhaps, limit the actual number of challenges. So that’s OK then? No, because the real impact will be on the compliance costs for both the public sector and those interested in bidding. Compliance costs are another way of saying “red tape” and “bureaucracy”.

Already the majority of public authorities have very complex and detailed procurement policies and processes. These can seem to gild the lily when the underlying EU rules could be complied with in less formal ways. In practice they are susceptible to leading to public authorities making the wrong choice and forcing themselves into awarding contracts to those who are the best at writing tender documents rather than those who are in fact the best at providing the service. However, when the risks and costs of getting one procurement wrong are high, the impact is for reasonable risk assessments to lead to very stringent compliance processes. More hoops for the customer and contractors to jump through to exclude the possibility that the ultimate award of the contract might be challenged.

Apart from the bid costs for public work being substantially higher than for private sector customers there’s another nasty impact. One which, ironically, is likely to make the high policy behind the proposals (taking the Big Society rhetoric uncynically) fail. Public authorities that have to focus on compliance with rules designed to make cross-border trade fair and undistorted and to minimise the risks of costly legal action from large and sophisticated businesses are going to find it very hard indeed to do this while making contracts realistically accessible to small, local undertakings. Where those service providers are voluntary groups or other Big Society favourites it will be even harder. This has already been seen in the difficulties faced in trying to open up contracting work for the 2012 Olympics to SMEs and will be orders of magnitude worse in areas where there is an obvious lack of commercialism and experience.

This would defeat the Big Society purposes of the proposals and give credibility to criticisms based on a fear that what the government really wants to do is hand over public service to large corporations.

It will be interesting to read the White Paper in a couple of weeks to see how these concerns could be addressed. I don’t believe the circle can realistically be squared.