Wheelchairs, buggies and buses

Doug Paulley

Doug Paulley

What a muddle we seem to have with the First Bus Company having been found guilty of discrimination when a wheelchair user (36-year old Mr Doug Paulley) was unable to board one of their buses because the single space reserved on the bus for a disabled wheelchair passenger was occupied by a lady with a buggy who refused to move because her baby was sleeping.

Now, I can understand Mr Paulley being upset because he could not board the bus. had to wait for a later one and, therefore, missed a train connection  I can also understand the lady not wishing to wake her sleeping child although, technically it seems she was occupying a space specifically reserved for a disabled passenger so one might feel she was in the wrong here.  However, why the bus company should be found guilty of discrimination baffles me.  Indeed, why the bus company should be in the dock at all baffles me.  Should the driver have stopped the bus, ‘phoned his bosses and sought instruction, thus delaying everyone?  Should the company have told him to eject the lady and her pram, using force if necessary?

Royal Courts of Justice

Royal Courts of Justice

Now First Bus is appealing the decision of the County Court and, guess what, the appeal will be heard in the Appeal Court and is expected to last three days!  I assumed Mr Paulley was on legal aid but research shows that his costs are being funded by the Equality & Human Rights Commission which still means us the taxpayer.  No doubt the bus company is having to stump up its costs from its own resources which means its fare payers.  The net result, regardless of the outcome, is that the public will bear the cost of this unseemly dispute either through the legal aid bill that comes out of our taxes or because the bus company has to foot a hefty lawyers’ bill which will come out of their passengers’ fares.  Only the lawyers win here.

Where has common sense gone in this fruitless pursuit of equality?  What would have happened if the bus had already taken on board another wheelchair user who was lawfully occupying the single disabled passenger’s spot?  Would Mr Paulley still have won his discrimination case then?  Is this about creating a larger space in every bus for disabled users?  If so, isn’t it for legislators and not judges to make this decision and to reflect on the cost of such a requirement?

I rather think that, in 99% of incidents like this, common sense would have prevailed.  The wheelchair user, seeing a sleeping baby in the buggy might well have said “don’t worry lady; I will catch the next one”.  Equally, the lady might have picked up her baby, squashed him onto a seat and moved the buggy for the wheelchair if there was space.  We seem to have had a collision of two obdurate characters here; a wheelchair user demanding the full extent of his rights and a mother unwilling to disturb her baby’s sleep.  The victim, caught in the middle, is the poor old bus company and its driver stuck between a rock and a hard place and having to pay heftily for the privilege.

A little Googling reveals an interesting side to Mr Doug Paulley.  It seems he is a regular Tweeter and has his own web site in which he describes himself as a “web designer, environmentalist, animal rights activist and a disability activist” which may explain why common sense and good manners never featured in this case. I suppose he will be out with the hunt saboteurs next and taking some farmer to court for not providing disabled access across his farmland!

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A mayor for Oxfordshire?

Mayor of London

Mayor of London

George Osborne announced on Monday 3 November that Greater Manchester is to get its own directly-elected city-wide mayor with powers over transport, housing, planning and policing.  Although we tend to think of Manchester as a single, sprawling metropolis, in local government terms, it consists of 10 separate local councils: Bolton Metropolitan Borough Council, Bury Metropolitan Borough Council, Manchester City Council, Oldham Metropolitan Borough Council, Rochdale Metropolitan Borough Council, Salford City Council, Stockport Metropolitan Borough Council, Tameside Metropolitan Borough Council, Trafford Metropolitan Borough Council and Wigan Metropolitan Borough Council.   For some time these councils have been cooperating through membership of a Greater Manchester Combined Authority which represents these 10 authorities.

George Osborne’s announcement will lead, in time, to the election of a Mayor for the area with powers over a huge transport budget including bus services and integrated ticketing for all modes of public transport. He will be responsible for strategic planning for the area and will control a £300 million Housing Investment Fund.  Interestingly, he will take on the role of Police & Crime Commissioner.

This pretty much mirrors the role of Boris Johnson as Mayor of London.  Again, we think of London as a huge and sprawling metropolis but its local government is split between 32 London boroughs – 12 inner London and 20 outer London.  The concept of a directly-elected Mayor for London has clearly worked well; accountability is obvious, particularly with a colourful character like Boris.  The underground works well; the buses are better and the congestion charge has helped to reduce congestion and to improve air quality. Boris’s Barclays Bank bicycles have also been a boon for those who cycle.

What I find hugely amusing is that we are returning to a form of regional government enacted in a stealthy manner by a Conservative government.  Traditionally and, I think, wrongly, the Conservative Party has rejected the whole concept of regionalism when it should have been rejecting Labour’s version of it in the form of unelected regional assemblies.  It is pretty obvious that functional economic areas like London, Birmingham and Manchester will only function effectively if strategic decisions can be taken quickly and delivered locally.  The only alternative to strong regional bodies that are strategic is for Westminster to try to second guess what is best for an area and that will never work as well as local planning and implementation.  London could never achieve its maximum economic performance if its governance was left to 32 disparate and pretty small London boroughs.  Equally, Manchester found the need to combine the decision-making of its 10 authorities into a Greater Manchester Combiner Authority, led by Lord Peter Smith and Sir Richard Leese – two Labour politicians. The next obvious step is to create the mechanism for a directly-elected Mayor of Manchester and I strongly suspect Birmingham, Liverpool. Leeds and Newcastle will not be far behind.

Greater London has a population of 8½ million people.  Greater Manchester has 2½ million.  Greater Birmingham is close to 3 million while the Liverpool city region is some 2 million and Tyneside has close to 1 million people.  What binds them together is that they are functional economic areas, divided into several local government areas by boundaries that ignore economic reality.  What they need is coherent, strategic planning that stretches across those boundaries and could provide for strong economic growth and the power to argue for necessary infrastructure investment. I predict they will all have directly elected mayors within five years, regardless of the political colour of the government of the day.

I would like to see this political and economic devolution go much further.  There are plenty of slightly smaller parts of the country that are functional economic areas.  Oxfordshire is one such area with a population approaching 700,000, with a university City at its heart but with vibrant market towns and strong economic linkages across its 1,000 square miles.  This economic functionality is emphasised by travel to work patterns and a good transport network of road, rail and buses.  Like the bigger metropolitan areas, Oxfordshire is divided into five district councils and there is also an upper tier county council.  While the boundaries of the latter are broadly contiguous with the mapping of the functional economic area, the district boundaries cut straight across them and make no sense.  Indeed, they present a straight jacket that is suffocating the City of Oxford.  There are really two options to make Oxfordshire’s economy hum and to improve the quality of life for its population.  Either, create a single unitary county council for the whole of Oxfordshire to plan for the single economy that lies within it or create an elected-mayor along the lines of Manchester with powers and a budget for strategic planning, transport and economic development and leave the mayor to drive through policies that will turn Oxfordshire into the economic dynamo it has the potential to be but also to remain a great place in which to live and work.

I would never have dared to suggest either of these options while I was Leader of the County Council.  The large number of dual hatters would have caused my rapid downfall as Leader for advocating unitary government and directly-elected mayors are not too popular with many councillors because they would be expected to curb their powers.  Now I am too old to consider running for Oxfordshire’s Mayor, I feel a lot more able to extol the virtues of the idea without being accused of wanting the job for myself!

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Living wage or jobs killer?

pay packetThe national minimum wage rate is currently £6.50 per hour and is uprated annually from 1 October in each year.  We have had a minimum wage in this country since 1 April 1999. A more recent development has been the concept of a living wage.  The rate is based on the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s Minimum Income Standard research, which considers what income is needed to provide an adequate standard of living.  They announced an increase in the national living wage on 3 November 2014 to £7.85 per hour, up from £7.65. The London living wage is set at £9.15 per hour, up from £8.80.

Interestingly, Boris Johnson has been a strong advocate of paying the Living Wage and there are plenty who argue that the result should be a reduction in the number of people on benefit and an increase in productivity.

There remains a fundamental problem of affordability for some business sectors and I am acutely aware of one on my doorstep.

Banbury MillAs Chairman of The Mill in Banbury, I preside over a local community organisation for which the wages bill represents almost half of our turnover.  We put on performances, live and film; we have two bars and a café; we also provide a wide range of education classes; we run exhibitions and we let out our rooms for a great variety of community activities.  Many of our activities are in evenings and weekends and our business is very volatile.  As a consequence, we have a small core of full-time staff and a long list of casual employees who we call in when trade demands.  We pay the latter the minimum wage £6.50 per hour.  However, the complexities of holiday pay means that the effective hourly rate is quite a bit more than that.  Interestingly, I see a tribunal is considering the impact of overtime on the rates paid for holiday pay and a bad outcome could see rises in real labour costs.

However, returning to the issue of a Living Wage, increasing our hourly rate at The Mill from £6.50 per hour to £7.85 per hour would represent an increase of 20% to a large part of our wage bill and I suspect it would shut us down pretty quickly.  We are not unique. I suspect it is the hospitality industry along with retailers and care and cleaning workers who are mainly on the minimum wage.  At The Mill, our choice would be stark: put up our drink and food prices as well as show tickets and almost certainly see a reduction in our sales or shut up shop entirely. So, for our community-based organisation, an enforced increase in wage costs would lead to job losses and the closure of an institution that is well used locally.  I don’t doubt our casual staff would welcome an increase in their hourly rate but I suspect they would rather have a job at the current rate than no job at all and I think that is the stark choice.

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Police in the fourth circle of hell

Blake's illustration of Dante's Inferno

Blake’s illustration of Dante’s Inferno

I always enjoy reading Dante Alighieri’s epic work called The Divine Comedy. It is in three parts, Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso.  It describes in verse the soul’s allegorical journey towards God, passing through Hell and Purgatory to Heaven.  Dante’s Inferno describes the nine circles of hell in which the wicked suffer everlasting torment.  The first circle is called Limbo and reflects Catholic theology at the time which saw pagans and the unbaptised as incapable of gaining heaven.  The remaining circles contain those guilty of lust (2nd), gluttony (3rd), greed (4th), anger (5th), heresy (6th), violence (7th) , fraud (8th) and treachery (9th).  I have a wonderful edition of the Inferno at home with illustrations by William Blake.

speed_gunWhen I drive from Nell Bridge House towards Adderbury, I am frequently greeted by the sight of a policeman with a speed camera lurking like a thief in the night in the shrubbery, doing his best to catch motorists guilty of exceeding the absurd 30 mph speed limit on this open country road and I wonder where Dante would have placed the coppers who regularly persecute motorists in this way?  I think the fourth circle of hell is about right because it is sheer greed that motivates coppers to turn out every week and to fine hapless motorists caught a bit above 30 mph on a road that looks and feels like an open country road.  It is just too easy to rake in the cash for a momentary lapse that is perfectly understandable.  And no, I have not been nabbed because I look out for these speed cops and I ensure I am driving at an absurd 28 miles per hour as I pass.  I also smile at them, remembering my mother’s advice always to “smile at the camera”!

stop & searchA recent opinion survey showed very high levels of distrust of the police among young people.  There was a time when the familiar blue uniform and distinctive helmet was a sign both of authority but also of a guardian of the law and a friend of the lawful.  I fear that image has taken a substantial battering for a whole host of reasons.  I remember a senior fire officer telling me ruefully that his firemen and women were warmly welcomed when they visited schools but the police experienced a much cooler reception.

It is not just the young who have developed a jaundiced view of the police as an institution.  There are plenty of motorists nursing eight points for speeding on their licence who resent the way in which a momentary lapse has left them with a fine and a worry that another could cost them their licence.  Middle class home owners who suffer a burglary or anti-social behaviour and who wait weeks for a visit and then simply get sympathy and little else no longer feel they have the support they expect.  The farce at the entrance to Downing Street and the subsequent antics of a small number of politically motivated police officers which cost a Cabinet member his job have not helped.  Neither has the institutional failure over abused young women done anything to maintain confidence in the police.

Dixon of Dock Green

Dixon of
Dock Green

At a different level, the virtual disappearance of the bobby on the beat and the dumbing down of their uniform has not helped.  I recently observed a police car in the centre of Banbury which had clearly stopped a van with a couple of occupants to question them.  Looking at the group of figures around the van and police car, it was impossible to distinguish the police from the suspected villains. They were all wearing dark, short-sleeved T-shirts, scruffy trousers and dirty boots. Were it not for the presence of the police car, they could all have been workmen, van drivers or off a building site.  A very close look might have identified handcuffs suspended from the police officers’ belts but that was theonly visible sign of authority, lawfulness and trust.


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Fashion and feminism

fashion paradeI have always enjoyed clothes but could never claim to be in the least interested in fashion.  I love dressing up and I deplore dressing down.  Give me a chance to wear a dinner jacket or tails and I will be there. Ask me to wear jeans, plimsolls (called “trainers” by many) and a T-shirt and I will quietly decline.

shapeless blokeJeans may be good to wear for gardening, plumbing or plastering but certainly not for going out to dinner or the theatre. Plimsolls are shockingly bad for the feet.  I am totally the wrong shape for a T-shirt and why men – and, increasingly, women – choose to expose a beer belly to the world when a good jacket would conceal it a little baffles me.

tattoed womanWhile I enjoy a rant about dress sense and modern tastes, I need to add my total revulsion to tattoos and to ironmongery planted in the face.  The growing number of women sporting tattoos stupefies me.  Not so long ago, tattoos were confined to sailors, soldiers and slags.  Clearly the world has changed but I am not convinced it is for the better. When I have to go shopping and, thank goodness, the internet makes this challenging experience increasingly rare, I positively avoid a check-out sporting someone heavy with facial ironmongery.

imageHaving said all of that, let me return to the news item that sparked off this blog.  I see our Prime Minister is in trouble for refusing to don a T-shirt bearing a feminist logo.  Well done, DC!  I don’t often agree with your (frequently tieless) dress sense or your modernising political views but, in this case, I think you have got it dead right.  I support the right of women to equal pay and to equal opportunities and I have consistently promoted this view while in public service.  However, I strongly oppose positive discrimination which is frankly insulting to women and to men and I dislike the in-your-face style of arch feminists like Harriet Harman ( or should it be Harperson?).  Having said all of that, the joke appears to be on Messrs Miliband and Clegg who agreed to wear the feminist T-shirt only to learn that it is manufactured in some dreadful foreign sweat shop by workers who are paid a pittance!

Gay PrideIt is the same with the gay rights brigade.  I am not greatly interested in a person’s sexual preference but I do dislike the in-your-face style of the more vigorous campaigners for the so-called LGBT community (which I think means “lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and trans-gender”!).  You will certainly never see me on a Gay Pride march and certainly not sporting a T-shirt, jeans and trainers.

Ladies who lunchSo let me address a rumour that has been put about that I have a misogynist attitude to women in high office.  This could not be more wrong.   In my eleven years as Leader of the Council, I enjoyed a first class professional working relationship with my Chief Executive, Joanna Simons. I was delighted to have been involved in nominating her for her CBE which she richly deserved.  I also had a first class working relationship with senior council officers who happened to be ladies as well as with Sarah Thornton (Chief Constable), Janet Beer (Vice Chancellor of Brookes University), Sally Dicketts (Chief Executive of the Oxford & Cherwell College where I was a long term governor) and Debbie Dance (Director of the Oxford Preservation Trust where I was a trustee).  To suggest that I am adverse to women aspiring to the highest rank is a total nonsense and I resent the suggestion.

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Ten questions for the hopefuls …

Sir Tony Baldry MP

Sir Tony Baldry MP

The rumour mill suggests there will be over 100 hopefuls applying for the Banbury Parliamentary seat to replace Sir Tony Baldry MP who has announced his decision to stand down at the General Election in 2015.  Selection is likely to take place in the next few weeks and will be followed by an extremely short run-up to the General Election in May 2015

Below are a few questions I would like to put to them if I had the chance.

Q1   Please list the jobs you have held in the real world since leaving full time education.  You should exclude working for the Party, for MPs or for PR agencies.

Q2  Please list the campaigning activities you have carried out for your own Constituency in the last year.  Be specific.

Q3  Have you ever stood for election as or served as a local councillor?  If so, give details; if not, why not?

Q4 What have you done to support your own Constituency Association in the last year? I do not mean organising social events (important as they may be) but making the Association more politically effective.

Q5  If selected and elected, name your three top priorities as the Member for Banbury.

Q6  If negotiation fails to reduce in any way the right of free movement of labour within the EU, how will you vote in the In-Out EU Referendum?

Q7  Do you support the repatriation of human rights laws to the United Kingdom?

Q8  If it is a choice between cuts to our defence budget or international aid, where do you stand?

Q9  How would you work to reverse the decline in membership of mainstream political parties and, particularly, the Conservative Party?

Q10  Name your three political heroes, one from the 20th century; one from the 19th and one from much older history.

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Scruffy and angry

Scruffy Banbury_1Well, well what a reaction Scruffy Banbury seems to have created!  I do not know where I suggested the litter louts in Banbury had a working class background.  They may well be working class, middle class, upper class, aristocracy or they may be from the never-worked class.  I really do not know.

If those who attacked my blog support the practice of dumping litter in the town centre, they need to say so.  In my view, people who do it are scruffy, dirty and – yes – they are oiks, whatever their social class or ethnic origin.

So come on you lefty liberals, admit you support having a town centre that looks like a rubbish tip or join with me in condemning everyone who drops litter, cans, fag ends and other detritus for others to clear up.

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