31 May 2005

Sex and the city - and elsewhere

Warning: this article contains explicit sexual references, but no strong language – though I’m sorely tempted.

Three sisters, aged 16, 14 and 12, living with their mother in a council house in Derby, each give birth within a matter of weeks of each other. Their story hits the headlines.

Their mother makes the remarkable observation that her girls are too young to have children. She blames schools for providing poor quality sex education.

Call me old fashioned, but shouldn’t she share a tiny bit of the responsibility herself? ‘I don't care what people say,’ she adds, ‘I love my kids and I'm here to help them.’ But is it the right kind of help at the right time?

Two teenagers arrive at a GP surgery in Belfast with a 4-week old baby. The nurse/receptionist seeks basic details. The 14-year old mother cannot say for certain who the father is nor can she accurately recall the date of the child’s birth. She is still thinking about a name. She was surprised she got pregnant. At 14 she is still growing herself. She is not sure about returning to school.

The surgery tells me this is not an isolated case. In that particular district many babies are actually half-brothers and half-sisters, not that anybody really knows.

The lady from Derby may be right in saying that sex education in school is poor but many schools are wary of taking responsibility for fear of parents’ attitudes as to how it should be taught.

One survey showed that a considerable proportion of adults believe it is somebody else’s job to speak of birds and bees while some parents did not think it was their duty even to explain menstruation to their pre-pubescent daughters. Perhaps they favour the surprise element.

One parent I know had indeed prepared her daughter for the great event. It came when she was in her school classroom. The teacher did not recognise the real reason why the child urgently wanted to be excused and refused permission. What followed is best not described.

I later quizzed the school manager. He clearly found the subject more embarrassing than the actual incident. This all-girls secondary school (in County Down) has apparently no policy whatsoever in dealing with the intimate requirements of their pupils.

There is the theory that if you tell kids how it’s done they will start doing it; and if you discuss safe sex you allegedly egg them on. That does not reflect the general Continental attitude and experience.

Perhaps that’s why the Northern Ireland teenage pregnancy rate has consistently been amongst the very highest in Europe.

24 May 2005

A good job with prospects

They’ve all settled in nicely at Westminster and the Queen has issued her instructions.

Bit like the start of the school term. Shy rookies lost in their new surroundings, older know-alls holding forth, and the usual bullies.

Just a few thoughts about pay.

Even the rookies will get £57,485 a year – a 2 per cent rise is recommended – plus expenses, which, according to the last report in October 2004 averaged £120,000 per member – and that was only the 2002 figure.

A junior minister gets £28,688 on top of the MPs' salary. A cabinet minister receives an extra £72,862 and the Prime Minister an extra £121,437. To be fair, Wayne Rooney can make as much in a couple of weeks.

Of course all rises are recommended by a totally independent review panel – so what could be fairer? But MPs have the final say. In 1996, when inflation was 3 per cent, they awarded themselves 26 per cent. In 2001 when inflation dropped to 2 per cent, they did the decent thing and settled for a mere 7 per cent.

And then there’s the pension. For each year they pay in, MPs get up to 1/40th of their final salary. Most of the public sector have pensions based on 1/80th. Should they get the heave-ho at the General Election their tears will be wiped with a pay-off equivalent to one year’s salary.
MPs with constituencies outside London can claim up to £20,902 a year for living away from home. Many MPs actually use the money to buy flats in central London, which is allowed – but a bit frowned upon.

Haven’t finished yet. There’s unlimited travel around the constituency and to and from Westminster – rail and air travel is of course free. The car mileage allowance is based on 57 pence a mile – higher than any business or professional rate I know.

Still not finished. They can claim up to £19,315 a year for a constituency office plus up to £77,534 for researchers and secretaries. The average constituency payment per MP is around £84,000 and rising.

Tip: it’s a good idea to employ your spouse as a secretary. That aside, spouses and children get up to 19 free return trips to London per year.

I forgot to mention that MPs have subsidised food and drink, and free parking.

If you represent a Northern Ireland constituency you may well be a member of the Stormont Assembly (with salary and allowances) or even an MEP (with huge salary and gigantic allowances) and if you sit on your local council, you can claim expenses and attendance fees.

Isn’t it well they’re not doing it for the money?

17 May 2005

Winners and losers

I was hoping to give you a rest from election punditry but have yielded to the temptation to recycle some random thoughts.

If I hear the word ‘mandate’ again I shall scream. Apparently every local party has a clear one.

But I was delighted to note there was yet another wee thing our local politicians agreed on, apart from the iniquity of the proposed water charges. When they appeared on television they regularly moaned that the broadcasters weren’t quite as fair to them as they were to the others.

Kind of brings me back.

I was once accused of deliberately placing certain weather forecasters in front of the map of Northern Ireland so that it could not be seen as an integral part of our united queendom. The same source, some months later, complained that other forecasters (with malice aforethought) purposely displayed a map of our whole island and asked why Ulster people should be interested in a foreign country’s weather.

Whether the walking wounded like it or not, the final distribution of seats in our local council election, based on proportional representation, probably reflects the popular vote and therefore the wishes of the people. But the Westminster results distort the truth out of all recognition. The DUP, for example, with twice the votes of the Ulster Unionists, have nine seats in Westminster and the Ulster Unionists only one. The overall national result is ludicrous, out of step with the rest of Europe and mathematically unsound.

We are now being governed by a party, with a still-solid majority, which earned only 36 per cent of the national vote. Considering the low turnout, it means that only about one-fifth of the population actually voted in the government, by far the lowest figure since the Great Reform Act of 1832.

Those who fare best under the present system are unlikely to support any alternative which would reduce their numbers. So the more equitable PR system hasn’t a hope.

If the General Election had accurately represented the will of the people, Labour would have had to form a coalition with another party, most probably the Lib Dems. Legislative proposals would then have to go through a much more constructive process of give-and-take consultation. The voices of smaller parties would be heard. The aim would be to find and the broadest possible consensus across the country. The trade in political insults might even be reduced. Power-sharing would be the name of the game.

But hold your metaphorical horses.

That is precisely what the British main parties have been urging us to achieve in Northern Ireland for the past thirty years.

10 May 2005

It's all over

You already know the result of the General Election but I don’t because I must go to press some days in advance.

How did South Belfast go? What happened in South Down? Who won Upper Bann?

The winners must now implement their exciting manifestoes but I have a suspicion progress will be ‘measured’ – the word used to mean dead slow – and some promises will mysteriously disappear – ‘in the light of changing circumstances’.

And for Northern Ireland, we’ve a whole bunch of new Councillors – or is it mostly the same lot as before? They called at our doors, shook our hands (warmly) and actually made some eye contact. Savour the moment, because the next eye contact may be some years away.

I wonder will the manifestoes from the very minor parties fare any better? One party contested 23 seats, including Cardiff and Belfast and proposed that these two cities should develop as city states – and host the 2020 Olympic Games. Now there’s a good idea – perhaps a postcard to the International Committee will do the trick. I’m certain they will set aside the claims of Paris and London. Another party proposed to annex France so there is some scope for a joint approach.

The Official Monster Raving Loony Party insisted it was ‘preparing for Government’. Back in 1983 David Steele told his Liberal Party to do the same thing but only his friends knew he was a raving loony.

One brilliant manifesto proposed to issue a 99p coin to save on change and a method to reduce class sizes by making pupils sit closer together ­ – but surely most of the main parties have tried that before.

Hanging, said one party, should be re-introduced, but only for offences such as writing graffiti or dropping litter, but I think that idea was filched from a Tory women’s group.

At least the small mad parties produced an array of ideas while the big (mad) parties stuck mainly to those issues with immediate vote-catching potential. Blair had to suffer over his invasion of Iraq – rightly so. But what about those matters deemed to be so vitally important just a few months ago – like the proposed European constitution? I thought that issue was either going to make or break us as a nation.

What about transport? More and more of the UK is becoming gridlocked while fuel prices soar. What about global warming and renewable energy? What about our obese children? What about the real crisis for pensioners – the pensioners of the not-so-distant future – when the whole investment structure to ensure retirement income will collapse, thanks to current economic policies?

Did any of the main British parties mention our very own Peace Process?

Of course not. They’re not that stupid.

03 May 2005

The great water charge scandal

You wouldn’t believe it. But there is one matter on which all the local political parties are totally and enthusiastically agreed – the wickedness of the proposed water charges.

It would be a brave (and professionally suicidal) politician who would say otherwise. Nor am I prepared to damage the good name of this newspaper, reduce its circulation and put my personal safety at risk, by presenting any counter arguments.

May I respectfully suggest however that one or two small issues are worth a second glance.

Water falls from the sky in abundance but it doesn’t land in our wash basins and gush, sparkling clean, from the kitchen tap without a bit of organisation.

Dare I mention the loo?

Getting rid of the unmentionable is not a straightforward process either so we are talking about an extremely costly and sophisticated engineering operation.

The fact is that our primitive Victorian arrangements are in dire need of repair and modernisation and if we do not reach general European standards we shall be heavily fined. Or possibly poisoned.

But aren’t we already paying for water through our present rating system? Why should we pay twice?

Well the problem is that what we are now paying – not that any Government source will produce the actual figures – does not cover the entire costs. Money also comes from the Northern Ireland Assembly budget (remember that set-up?) which in turn comes from Her Majesty’s Treasury.

So somebody in England might argue, rightly or wrongly, that part of his income tax makes its way to Northern Ireland to help pay for our water. That same ‘average’ English person is already paying £242 per year for his own water services while the average Northern Ireland household figure is just £127. (These figures were published in a DoE consultation paper in 1998 and seem to be accepted by the Consumer Council.) Put bluntly, if our water charges were to double we would simply be paying the same as the English.

Of course ‘average’ is a difficult word. Some areas in the UK pay much more than the average and some less.

Northern Ireland’s population spread is such that the distance water has to be piped to the average Northern Ireland home – in or out – is more than twice that of Great Britain and that is a major cost factor. Forget the neglect of the past. As a region of the United Kingdom we would normally expect to have much higher-than-average costs.

The ultimate irony is that, here is a political cause on which all political parties agree. Yet it is a cause, sad to report, that is doomed to fail.