Monthly Archives: May 2016

Nudge, Nudge: Behavioural Problems?

Who remembers the Nudge Unit? It was all the rage and Cameron’s favourite “think tank” in the early days of the 2010-15 coalition government. Originally part of the Cabinet Office, it was privatized in 2014 and now goes under the name The Behavioural Insights Team. Its aim is still broadly the same: to use psychology and behavioural economics to inform policy making.

Citizens Advice logoI was interested to note that Citizens Advice has commissioned this Team to produce a report, published last week, called Applying Behavioural Insights to Regulated Markets. I was keen to read their analysis and recommendations. It covers much the same ground as my blog post Cat and Mouse published last September. The new report is wider in scope than my post, covering energy (gas and electricity), telecoms, personal finance and pensions.

The Two Fallacies

I explained in my earlier post Two Castles (Part 2) that free market fundamentalism – the guiding economic policy for over 30 years – is fatally flawed by two false assumptions:

  1. The only motive guiding human behaviour (in buying decisions) is the pursuit of material self-interest;
  2. Consumers always make rational, well-informed decisions.
two castles
Two Castles

It was encouraging to see the BIT report fully recognizes the second of these two points. The report says: “there is compelling evidence that consumer decision-making systematically strays from what would be expected from a ‘rational actor’ within economic theory. These systematic deviations, termed ‘behavioural biases’, can result in ‘behavioural market failures’, leading to poor outcomes for consumers.”

The Good Bits

The report gives “compelling evidence” of these failures:

  • Mobile phone contracts overcharging by £355m a year;
  • Energy consumers paying, on average, £300 over the odds;
  • Loss of pension income of between £230m and £1bn over the life of a pension, with 80% of private pensioners missing out on the best deal.

The report also quotes insights from psychology, using the terms “type one” and “type two” thinking. This approximates to the decision making processes in each half of the human brain. It includes an analysis of the different types of “behavioural biases”:

  • Status quo (inertia)
  • Anchors (behaviour affected by suggested examples, e.g. suggested amounts on charity donation websites)
  • Choice overload (brain switch-off when presented with too many options)
  • Framing effects (how offers are positioned / described)
  • Present bias (up-front saving v. cheaper in the long term)
  • Timing (consumers more likely to act, e.g. switch supplier, at a key event, e.g. just before going overdrawn)
  • Overconfidence (optimistic assessment of ability to pay in the future)
  • Vulnerable customers (scarcity mindset: day-to-day scrimping leaves insufficient mental energy to make good decisions)

The report also goes on to make some useful recommendations about the actions regulators can take to address these problems. One example is in consumer education, what the report calls “simple heuristics”. These are simple rules of thumb to aid consumer decision making and which are likely to lead to a pretty good outcome most of the time.

The Black Hole

But there is one glaring omission throughout the report’s 62 pages. It basically assumes that free markets are the ideal paradigm in all cases. Much of what is recommended is about changing human behaviour to make markets work better. That sacred cow has not yet been slain. Which is a shame – and an opportunity lost. Five out of ten, at best then, Behavioural Insights Team.

black hole
Black hole

So we must turn elsewhere. Interestingly, the IMF has just published a paper, Neoliberalism: Oversold?, which is the second publication from them casting doubts on the great god of free market fundamentalism. (I wrote about the previous IMF paper in an earlier post: Inequality Damages Your Wealth.) I’m off to read the new report; it may be worth a future post…

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A Headful of Ideas

… that are driving me insane

brain overloadIt’s now a year since I started this blog – time for a little reflection.

It started as an act of catharsis following the Tories’ shock win in the general election. But it’s kind of turned into a form of therapy. My wife* mocks the fact that there are very few followers I’ve been able to attract so far. One of my Twitter followers is a cat – and a cat I’ve already met!

In the early days, without much experience on social media, I felt I just needed to find the right topics and, with a bit of effort, I’d begin to get into a dialogue with like-minded people and, more importantly, those who disagreed with me. That way, ideas can be refined and built upon. All very enlightened. It hasn’t really happened yet.

Rightly or wrongly, I try to vary the style: some deadly serious, some attempts at humour or, at least, whimsy. This may attract certain types of folks and put others off – who knows? Sometimes, I have a headful of ideas in draft at the same time – at other times, I dry up.

As a committed non-believer, it’s an easy temptation to mock people of faith as self-deluded – I do try to avoid these thoughts. Humans are the only species on the planet aware of our own mortality. So, simply getting out of bed each day requires a measure of self-delusion too! But the fact that you’re still reading this is your evidence that I too succumb to a measure of self-delusion. In this case, about the impact this blog will have on the world.

So, as you’re still reading, send me a comment, tell me what you think so far; better still, text a friend with the link, whatever!

Still, maybe tomorrow, that next post will go viral…

*(It’s a shame the way she makes me scrub the floor…)

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EU and Hitler “By Different Methods”: A Dangerous Misjudgement

Boris Johnson’s drawing a comparison between the European Union and Adolf Hitler shows a dangerous level of misjudgement. He asserted that Napoleon, Hitler and “various people” attempted to recreate a mythical Roman “golden age” of European unity and that the EU is another such attempt “by different methods”.

Let’s unpick those last three words with an analogy.

Relationship Counselling Equals Murder?

Jack and Jill have been married for ten years. Both are in their late middle age and were in long-standing relationship with other people before they met. Frankly, the marriage is in the doldrums. Each came to the relationship having accumulated a range of habits and personality traits developed over several decades of adult life. They are finding that, all too often, they rub each other up the wrong way. They get irritated by each other, they argue and quite often find themselves on barely speaking terms for a day or two.

Jack and Jill
Jack and Jill

Both agree they can’t go on like this. They agree they have a common aim: to eliminate, as far as possible, the opportunities for friction between them. Deep down, Jack has pretty much made up his mind that he wants a divorce. The only problem is that Jill, for deeply held religious reasons, doesn’t believe in divorce. She suggests they try relationship counselling. After a few sessions, they seem to have made little or no progress. They discuss whether to continue the sessions. The discussion builds up into a blazing row. Jack takes a kitchen knife and stabs Jill to death.

In the subsequent court case, Jack uses an unusual argument in his defence. In trying to justify his actions, he makes the following statement: “We had both agreed we needed to stop irritating each other. She wanted counselling sessions to achieve this. That’s no crime. I ended up stabbing her. It achieved our agreed aims, but by different methods”.

Reckless and Ill-judged

OK, analogies can’t be stretched too far. But those three little words, “by different methods”, make both Jack’s and Boris’s statements meaningless. Genocide and reconciliation between Jews and Arabs are both ways of bringing peace to Palestine, by different methods. Talking without preconditions or striking can settle the junior doctors’ dispute, by different methods. The Good Friday Agreement and dropping bombs are ways of addressing systemic discrimination against Nationalists in Northern Ireland, by different methods.

These examples are essentially variations on a theme. The different methods are either harming, killing or shouting at each other or sitting down, talking and listening to each other to try to reach a mutual understanding. The different methods are, necessarily, the point. The EU is, above all, an institution for people from different countries to come together and thrash out their differences verbally, rather than violently.

Johnson nazi salute
Heil me!

For Johnson to take such a line of argument shows the emptiness and desperation of the leave campaign. It shows a dangerous lack of judgement on his part. What makes things worse is that I have a strong feeling that Johnson doesn’t really care either way whether the UK leaves the EU or not. His decision to join the Brexiters was, as ever, about his own personal interests and, in particular, his Prime Ministerial ambitions. This demonstrates a breathtaking recklessness with the future of this country just to pursue his own selfish aims and to continue a long-running feud with one of his Eton contemporaries. You can’t play games with the national interest.

I note that Nigel Farage has just come out and said Johnson should be the next PM. So that’s two good reasons why Boris must never, ever succeed in that ambition.

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Human Imagination: The Ultimate Time Machine

Occasionally I wake up in the morning – or the middle of the night – when I’ve had a really weird dream. Sometimes it takes several minutes to shake off the sense that it was real. And I think about it and say to myself: “Wow! Where did all that come from?” The situations, characters and story lines can be far removed from my life’s experiences. Dreams, of course, are some of the most mysterious aspects of that thing of wonder: the human imagination.

turner seascape and steve bell cartoonThe imagination, of course, plays the central role in works of art, used in the widest sense. From the impassioned brush strokes of J M Turner to the incisive pen strokes of a Steve Bell cartoon. From Antigone, King Lear and Hamlet to Harry Potter, Hard Times, Hobbits and Discworld. From Bach, Berlioz and Beethoven to the Beatles, Brel and Bowie. Experiencing the results of another person’s imagination is part of what binds us together as human beings and makes life rich and fulfilling.

Out of Time

But the idea I’m exploring here is how one’s imagination can take us out of our own time – and space. We use our store of memories, tidied up and altered in ways it’s difficult to assess, to analyse and reminisce over past events . We can engage in thought experiments to imagine some planned – or unplanned, hypothetical – future event. By imagining possible futures, some of our best and worst hopes and fears can be played out. When deep in our own thoughts thus, we are – literally – out of time.

His Master’s Voice and Where’s My Nuts?

So what makes human beings unique? It’s clear that other creatures have some sorts of memory. Dogs and cats recognize their owners. Any number of territorial creatures can recognize smells associated with marking out their territory. There’s some evidence, but the jury’s probably out on whether squirrels can really remember where they buried their nuts. But only humans seem likely to be able to put together a cogent narrative about past events.

squirrel and nuts
Nuts

There’s nothing unique to humans about the lived experience of consciousness: living in the present. So that just(?) leaves awareness of the future.

I Have Seen the Future

This, I think, is where human beings come into their own. To give a really bad, but current, example. The “debate” leading up to the EU referendum vote next month seems to consist almost exclusively of two rival speculations about the future. Person A says the sky will fall in if we leave. Person B says it won’t. Person X says we’ll be miles better in some respect if we go. Person Y says we won’t. And so on, and so on. It’s tedious and ultimately fatuous. One person’s “project fear” is another’s wise cautionary tale. But it is all, at heart, just competing narratives about the future. No other species on the planet could communicate in this way.

People do actually like to be told about their future, even when they know, deep down, what they’re being told is utter nonsense. I’m thinking here about fortune tellers, horoscopes, séances and such like. These rituals seem to satisfy some half-buried need for reassurance.

And It’s Murder

So from reassurance, I think it’s high time – indeed inevitable – that we talk about death. (Not about taxes today: sorry, Benjamin Franklin.) There is a generally, if not universally, held view that only humans have a concept of the inevitability of their own future death. There are some interesting discussions in the New Scientist and NY Times about other species’ understanding of death and use of rituals. A long discussion can be read in a US blog Rational Skepticism expressing a variety of ideas along the same lines. A really thought-provoking item in Wray Herbert’s We’re Only Human blog extends the discussion into more dangerous territory. It explores the reasons behind why humans are the only species prepared to commit murder and genocide on the basis of differing philosophies or world views, including religious differences.

Clash of civilizations
Clash of Civilizations

The Time Machine

time machine
Time Machine

There are a great many other avenues of thought to explore from the discussion so far – perhaps for a future blog. But my central point today is that it is our ability to think out of time and, above all, about the future that marks us humans out from the rest of Earth’s inhabitants. So I finish with a salute to that extraordinary product of evolution: the human imagination. It’s a source of our joy, our sorrows, our hopes and fears, and, inside our heads at least, it’s the ultimate time machine.

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The Luckiest People in the World

One of the dominant themes in the debate leading up to the EU referendum is that of immigration. There is much talk of this “problem” and repeated references to “controlling our borders”. There’s more than a whiff of seeing foreigners as some kind of invading pestilence from which we must be protected. The depressing old “taking our jobs” argument keeps resurfacing in one way or another. I can only repeat that those making such an “argument” simply don’t understand how national economies differ from household budgets.

But my point is this: there’s a whole, better way of discussing the subject of immigration and which needs to be presented in a positive and uplifting way.

The Way We Were

I was a young child in the 1950s. Looking back now on old black-and-white film clips from the time, the past, in the words of L P Hartley, “is a different country”. The landscape and the people have a uniform monochrome appearance – in more than one sense of the word. It was a world of deference, of knowing your place and never challenging authority. The moral certainties of the former Empire were still largely intact, although crumbling at the edges with shocks like the loss of India and the Suez debacle. Frankly, it looks pretty boring!

women in smog
Smog in the 1950s

The World Comes to Leicester Square

Let’s move on – to the late 1990s. I was waiting outside Leicester Square tube station for a friend in the early evening. I’d arrived early and had about half an hour to wait. I stood watching the people as they poured in and out of the station entrance. I’d obviously chosen a popular meeting point to stand. What struck me was the sheer range and diversity of the people I saw: in age, ethnicity, style of dress and so forth. They were meeting and greeting each other – with smiles, with hugs and kisses and with an overwhelming sense of people happy to see each other. It was just people meeting people, from all walks of life and from who knows where.

people greeting
Hello!

Different Cultures, Fresh Insights

I spent several years on the committee which interviews and appoints candidates for the magistracy. As is common in public sector appointments, we were expected to follow a fairly structured and common list of interview questions. After a while, a certain pattern often emerges in the answers given to particular questions: a certain air of predictability. One candidate was a Nigerian-born man in his 40s who had arrived in the UK around the age of 20. When the interview was over, the three of us on the panel turned to each other and together said something along the lines: “Hey, what did you make of his answer” to a particular question. We all agreed it was a fascinating new insight into the issue that none of us had ever considered before.

Economists are pretty much unanimous that immigrants bring a net boost to an economy. But here was an example of something much richer than just the numbers: this man’s cultural heritage brought a new and refreshing way of thinking about an issue. The benefits of the interactions between people in a diverse population are obvious in creative fields such as music, dance and art. But here was a further example from the rather more formal world of the administration of justice.

Doing the Crap Jobs

Bedfordshire has a long tradition of brickmaking: it’s to do with the type of clay. The social history of the brickworks is a fascinating story. Different waves of immigrants, principally (and chronologically) from Italy, Poland and Bangladesh, have come to work there, prepared to do the dirty and physically demanding jobs that longer-standing residents would rather not do. As each immigrant group matures, they and their children move on to a more varied range of occupations, become more middle class and integrate into the community. This appears to happen typically over a period of around 20 to 30 years. There’s then the need for a fresh wave of immigration to keep the kilns firing.

bedfordshire brickworks
Bedfordshire Brickworks

Celebrate!

Partly as a result of the brickworks, the nearby former county town of Bedford is surprisingly diverse for the area of “middle England” in which it sits. By some accounts, around 100 different nationalities are represented. I’m proud and feel really privileged to be Chair of Governors at a school which positively celebrates the diversity of our students. We have kids with around 45 different nationalities. We encourage all to value, explore and celebrate the diverse histories and culture that enrich school life. It’s a joy to watch as, for example, a deeply traumatised and diffident child whose family escaped war-torn Afghanistan blossoms over a few months into a motivated, more confident and welcome member of the school. We don’t give up on the ones with more challenging behaviour, either: we haven’t expelled a child for over 8 years. It’s great to play a small part in the development of the next set of enlightened, confident and well-informed citizens.

Yes We Khan

All of which brings us quite nicely to the welcome result in the election for Mayor of London. Congratulations to the voters of our capital city for rejecting the mean-spirited, racist campaign of Sadiq Khan’s main opponent. Even the former chair of the Conservative Party, Sayeeda Warsi, has raised the spectre of the “Nasty Party” label again – and rightly so. With London now the most diverse capital city in the world –  40% of Londoners were not UK born – the town is a living example of what can be achieved if people live and work together in an attitude of mutual respect.

sadiq khan
Sadiq Khan: New London Mayor

This positivity is a welcome antidote to the other side of the coin. Large sections of the Tory party embody the mean-spirited values of the xenophobe. Cameron’s grudging concession on allowing a paltry number of unaccompanied refugee children from Syria and Britain’s opt-out of the arrangements to share immigrants between EU members are examples of this aspect of modern Conservatism. Is this what they mean by “British Values”?

neil and christine hamilton
Did the Welsh Really Vote for This?

But the pinnacle (is that the right word??) of this mean-spirited, ill-informed negativity has to be UKIP and all its works. I find it deeply depressing if I try to imagine what it must be like to live your life holding such negative, soul-destroying attitudes to our fellow human beings. Yuk!

People Who Need People

“Ah!” some may say, but how can we afford to build the extra school places and other items of infrastructure needed for new immigrants? The short answer is that we can if we choose to. Austerity is a political choice, not a necessity. We could choose to tax the rich more and to change our spending priorities – who needs a new aircraft carrier with no aircraft?

But my main point has nothing to do with economics. It’s all about people – people needing and welcoming other people. They’re the luckiest people in the world.

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Getting a Good View of the Road Ahead

In 2000, I had a holiday visiting British friends then living in Colorado, USA. Whilst there, I hired a car and took myself off for a few days exploring the National Parks in Utah. Distances were long and driving alone gave me time for reflection. (In those pre-USB port days, the only radio options in that part of rural USA were country and western or Christian stations. So no radio, then.) I began to realise that I was spending quite a lot of my time driving with a slight sense of unease. It wasn’t just the unfamiliar car. Nor was it just driving on the opposite side of the road. Then it occurred to me. I seemed to be spending more time than normal driving without a clear view of the road ahead.

monument valley
Monument Valley: Part of My Driving Tour

On reflection, it seems only natural that one feels more comfortable driving when there’s a clear, unimpeded view ahead. This will be either when there is no vehicle in front of you or, if there is, there is still a clear view through the rear window and the windscreen to afford an almost full view of the road ahead. This is the case for most of the time when I’m driving in the UK. What was different here was that I was in an average-sized family car, much like I’d be driving at home. But what was different was that, most of the time, the vehicle in front was bigger – taller – than mine and I couldn’t see through the tailgate.

view and no viewSo, I concluded, the folks here drive around in much larger lumps of metal on wheels than we do back home. Even my friends, who, in all other respects, were reasonably liberal and considerate people, had one of these great gas-guzzling beasts for day-to-day driving, for no apparently good reason. The physical laws of the universe require that moving such vehicles around consumes more fuel. It seems all part of the Great American Myth of the open western frontier and limitless resources.

A Friends of the Earth study from 2009 showed that the average American consumes twice as much of the Earth’s resources as the average European. That’s also nine times as much as the average African. There’s simply not enough Earth to go round if everyone on the planet adopted a European lifestyle, let alone an American one.

A Very Brief History

Oil was discovered in the USA in the 1850s and by the First World War the US was extracting two-thirds of the world’s crude oil supply. It’s now the third largest producer of crude in the world, after Saudi Arabia and Russia. The USA was self-sufficient in oil up to the 1950s and has been a net importer since. Imports currently account for about one quarter of consumption: a rapid fall after peaking at over half of consumption in 2005. If only Americans had consumed at the same rate as Europeans over the years, they would have remained self-sufficient.

There’s a direct link between this need for imported oil and international Islamic terrorism. A potted history follows.

Abd-al-Wahab proposed an extremist “back to basics” form of Islam in the late 18th century. A tribal leader Muhammed ibn Saud made a pact with al-Wahab: they would together bring the peninsula Arabs back to the “true” religion. The House of Saud remained just one of many Arab tribes until the fall of the Ottoman Empire after World War One. Britain’s and France’s “divide and rule” policies of the 1920s brought British recognition of the Saudi King’s right to rule the whole of what is now Saudi Arabia. British and US rivalry over oil discoveries in the region led to US recognition of the Saudi regime in 1933, 6 years after the UK. Oil was discovered there in 1938.

After WWII, increasing Western dependence on Saudi oil led to governments overlooking the abuse of human rights in Saudi Arabia. (Saudi is ranked equal bottom with 6 other countries in a list of 205 countries published by Freedom House. The comparison measures political rights and civil liberties.) This was of no great international importance until the 1973 oil crisis which led to a five-fold increase in the price of a barrel of crude oil. Saudi Arabia started to accumulate a financial “war chest” of petrodollars. Part of this pile of cash was then spent on spreading their warped form of Islam by funding madrasas and other means of radicalising Muslims throughout the world. For 30 years, the west continued to turn a blind eye to this international indoctrination: we needed their oil.

Twin TowersAnd then along came 9/11, all but two of the perpetrators being Saudi nationals. Still not much happened to the west’s attitude to the Saudis – at least in public. The various groups have now morphed and re-morphed into ever more extreme versions of their predecessors and funders: Taliban, Al Qaeda, Daesh (Islamic State). In its most mutant form, Daesh is even now biting the hand that (historically) fed it and the Saudis must be privately wondering what monster they have unleashed. (My earlier post Fairy Tales of Syria give a fuller account of all this).

And so, joining the links in the chain, US energy profligacy leads to terrorism (with a little help from the Saudis on the way).

Climate Change, Too

What’s worse is that part of the linking mechanism is a fossil fuel: oil. Along with coal and natural gas, the developed western countries have been burning the stuff on a significant scale for about 200 years. Climate scientists now reckon that, cumulatively, we’ve burnt almost the maximum amount we can without catastrophic rises in global temperatures. I could stretch the “links in the chain” argument here to blame James Watt and his boiling kettle for global warming. Although this does seem to me to push the argument rather too far: the science did not exist in Watt’s time to know the climate effects of greenhouse gases.

alberta wildfire
Alberta Wildfire

This may seem a strange thing for an atheist like me to say, but there does seem to be something of the divine retribution in the devastating wildfires raging across northern Alberta. The fires are close to the area of extraction of fuel from tar sands – probably the most damagingly insane energy activity right now in relation to its effect on the global climate. The extraction process is grossly polluting to air and water supplies and the only sane policy is to leave the stuff in the ground. If not divine retribution, there are echoes of the Gaia principle, popular in the 1970s. Mother Earth fights back to save herself.

Look At the Road Ahead

All of which brings me back to my starting point. Hindsight is a wonderful thing. But if, at any stage in the sorry tale which got us to this point – with its dual threats of terrorism and climate change – we had considered the consequences of our actions (or inactions) we may have given ourselves a less bumpy ride on the road ahead.

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The Careful, Compassionate State

I recently attended an inquest at the Coroner’s Court in Warrington. No, it wasn’t the one looking into the Hillsborough disaster. This inquest was following the sudden death, in a road traffic collision, of a close family member. More on this shortly.

Is the Legal System a Villain?

David Conn is a Guardian sports journalist and author, specializing in football. It was an article of his in 2009 which prompted ministers Andy Burnham and Maria Eagle to take action which led to the quashing of the original “accidental deaths” inquest verdict and the setting up of the new inquest which ended last week. A lot has been written since then heaping criticism on the South Yorkshire Police and the ambulance service. But what led to the suspension of the SYP Chief Constable was the alleged insincerity of the apology he gave in 2012.

Charges of insincerity relate to the way in which lawyers acting for the police and individual officers cross-examined inquest witnesses. They made repeated accusations based upon the discredited lies published in 1989 as “The Truth” in the Sun. These lies included the fans’ drunkenness, stealing from the bodies of dead victims and urinating on the police. One estimate is that the second inquest (which lasted nearly two years) could have taken half the time and cost much less if this line of cross-examination had not occurred. The extra distress and grief to the family members would have been avoided, too. (Incidentally, SYP’s bill for lawyers has cost taxpayers £25m, 80% paid by the Home Office and the rest at £12 per South Yorkshire household on their council tax bills.)

Hillsborough 96 victims
Hillsborough 96

David Conn’s latest piece on Hillsborough makes an interesting new point. He states that the legal system itself is part of the problem. This led to the families of the dead fans waiting so long for justice and enduring an unnecessarily long and painful experience in the coroner’s court. He levels criticism at the coroner, John Goldring, for allowing lawyers working for the police to subject witnesses to hostile cross-examination based on the lies described above. It is the detachment of members of the judicial establishment (judges, coroners) which contributes to this problem. In Conn’s view, it is part of the way elites exercise power over “lesser folk”.

My Day in Court

My personal experience was rather different. The coroner’s Court followed due process, with the formality I expected from a court of law. We were all required to stand when the coroner entered the court. Formal titles were used in addressing all witnesses. The coroner sat on a chair which was a little raised above the rest. He took great care to explain to all present what was going to happen at each stage. He took special care to avoid open display or discussion in court of any details that might cause distress to the close family members.

Two officers of Cheshire Police force were present. One, the family liaison officer, has done an excellent job in supporting the family through the various stages, from the initial breaking of the news to support in the coroner’s court – and much in between. His care and compassion were very apparent. His job role is to speak to newly bereaved people, breaking terrible, shocking news and dealing with the inevitable questions and emotional reactions. What a day job! Someone has to do it. The other officer was an expert witness to the inquest. He reconstructed the “mechanical” details of the collision, vehicle speeds, angles and distances. His very clear explanation helped me enormously to finally get a full picture of what had happened. It also made it clear there was no blame to be attached to any of the parties involved.

I was grateful to have the opportunity to thank both officers for an excellent job done. There was also an opportunity to speak to the driver of the other vehicle, reassuring him that no one was blaming him in the least for what had happened. I know he has had a bad time since the accident: I hope that his chance to meet with us will help him recover from the experience and move on with his life.

Warrington town hall
Warrington Town Hall: venue of the Coroner’s Court

Overall, I took comfort from the whole proceedings. The care the coroner took to avoid distress was obvious. But I also found the formality comforting. I put this down to the fact that it was a living demonstration of the state making it clear that this was an important occasion and that the facts would be examined thoroughly and with due deliberation. There would be a danger of trivialising what had happened if the proceedings had been more casual. Even the “all rise” moments I take positively. All present were standing to show due respect to the law, as symbolised in the person of the coroner, sitting a little above us all. We are all subject to the law, and rightly so.

Why the Difference?

So, how do I explain the difference between David Conn’s accusation of cruel indifference and my own, more positive, experience? Well, some of it is easy. The two cases are hugely different. There was a vast amount of controversy surrounding the Hillsborough case. Various parties, primarily the South Yorkshire Police, took a stance to defend the indefensible, for which their reputation has been reduced to tatters. There were no disputed facts or major conflicts of interest in our own case. So the potential for adversarial debate was absent.

More worrying is the risk that David Conn’s assertion, although well intentioned, risks patronising the determined, brave group of relatives who were resisting the police’s lies, at the cost of further personal agony to themselves. My praise of the two Cheshire Police officers also has some counterparts at Hillsborough. The hearing was peppered with heartwarming tales of individual police officers who acted with bravery, compassion and integrity on the day of the disaster.

I had formulated in my mind the idea for this blog post before I read Conn’s article. I have retained the originally intended title, without question or ironic intent. My original point was to say that, despite the mind-warping distortions of thirty-plus years of free market thinking in Westminster and Whitehall, there are still parts of the public sector – in this case the Warrington Coroner’s Court – who act with integrity, humanity and compassion. In other words, they act using the best principles of public service values. I stand by this claim. But I do worry that the judicial system will still have a tendency to close ranks with fellow professionals, i.e. the police, when the chips are down.

What do you think?

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