Monday, 22 May 2017

Cyber threat highlights why public sector must work with private firms - my Catholic Universe column

Fifteen years ago I was working for a local authority in the north of England. I managed that council’s Council Tax and Business Rates department and at the time our computer system was on the verge of becoming obsolete.

It transpired that prior to my arrival at the council our then suppliers had contacted the authority to give them contractual notice that at a certain date they would no longer be supporting the software and that either they could continue using it without support, and more importantly a lack of updates following legislative changes, or they could buy a new and in all likelihood far more expensive system.

To all intents and purposes upon my arrival the council had been sitting on this information for a number of months and I had no choice but to recommend that we go to the market to buy new software as a matter of urgency.

We soon discovered that there were three or four suppliers of this type of system in the market and that, for a district council, the packages were inordinately expensive running over a few years into hundreds of thousands of pounds. Nevertheless with changes to legislation on their way we had to have one.

After a short procurement period we chose our supplier and awaited our new system.

During the period of time between ordering our system and the go live date a strange thing happened to me. A representative of the computer supplier said to me one day “we really like the way you operate, why don’t you come and work for us?” With an attractive package on offer I found it very difficult to say “no”, so I didn’t.

After working my notice period a few months later I started work at the IT suppliers. I worked in the ‘services’ department and within a very short period of time I was told that my role was two fold. I had to help our customers, the council's that we worked with, to get their computer systems up and running. My second task was to sell “services”.

You might ask what “services” are, I certainly did, and the answer was very, very simple. Anything that wasn’t in the contract that the council had signed.

Local authorities, I was told, commonly would sign what they thought were comprehensive agreements when in actual fact everything that they received was very clearly stipulated in the legal contract.

I was a little shocked at this at first. Was this profiteering? Was this why, as I kept being told, the private sector should have no place in public services?

I asked a senior manager who made what must have been an oft-repeated argument to me: ‘Our customers get everything, everything their contract stipulates. It is not the responsibility of this company to handhold local councils nor is it our problem that as a whole the are tremendously awful at contract management.’ Of course that last quote isn’t a direct one but it is very much along the lines of what was said.

And, of course, that Executive was absolutely right. There are some things public bodies are outstandingly good at; looking after sick and vulnerable people, teaching our children, processing benefits to name but a few; but there are others where they, not to put too finer point on it, are inept.

After having some experience in the field I wouldn’t trust many public bodies with negotiating a contract, or managing a project, or running an IT system.

Simply put too many public sector administrators do all of those things in addition to their day jobs and there are people out there, most in the private sector, who can carry out those roles more effectively and efficiently in the long run saving taxpayer money.

The reason I raise all of this is the news last week of cyber attacks on the National Health Service.

Last week, around 48 NHS organisation's found that they had lost access to their computer systems as a result of them becoming infected by a piece of software known as ‘ransomware’.

Using flaws in systems criminals are effectively able to take over computers, encrypting the information stored on them. These cyber attackers will only release the data when a usually fairly modest ransom has been paid using an all but untraceable, but very real, online currency known as Bitcoin.

The effects on the National Health Service were significant. Some General Practices were unable to access patient records, automated fridges for dispensing blood shut themselves down and in one incident an MRI scanner stopped working with an anaesthetised child inside it.

The attack on the NHS was by no means isolated, it was reported to have affected companies including Nissan and Renault as well as German train operator Deutsche Bahn and global logistics giant FedEx. In total 99 countries were reported to be affected.  

But the attack had probably it's most notable, if not potentially most severe, impact on parts of our health service. We are still not absolutely clear whether patient records were put at risk or not.

It transpired that the attack had been made on computers running the long obsolete computer operating system Windows XP. You won’t have seen this operating system on a home computer in many years but still, on a relatively large scale and despite warnings from government, some NHS organisation's continue to use it.

There are a plethora of reasons why this may be the case. It could be that some applications still in widespread use don’t work well with later versions of the operating system; it could be that existing and often expensive hardware and medical equipment doesn’t support newer software; it could be because IT support is inadequate; and patently it might be that trusts have prioritised resources in other directions.

But whatever the reason patients have been jeopardised as a result of IT failings.

It is impossible for any government to mitigate all risk. No one can say with certainty that they could have prevented last week's cyber attacks.

Similarly it’s impossible for any government to be immune to criminality and events which take place outside of their control; look no further than the mooted ban on laptops and tablet devices on transatlantic flights which we are told, given terrorist advances in explosives, is an inevitability.

But we must keep sight of the fact that whether it’s the procurement of a computer system or cyber and terror attacks any government would be remiss in assuming that there is no benefit in working closely, even delegating authority to, the private sector.

Yes private companies are there to make a profit but they are our friends and our co-workers.

Sometimes they are better placed to have the skills that our public services rely on.  

Coalville cannot be stuck in a past which no longer exists - my Coalville Times column

As a child growing up in the 1970’s there was nothing finer than being taken by my mum to, in my memory at least, the gleaming and large New Broadway shopping centre in Coalville to spend my saved up pocket money at the rather wonderful Geoff’s Toys.

I often think back to those visits where I would hand over pennies for a brand new Matchbox car or MB board game; never Action Man or Star Wars figures mark you – it seemed every boy my age had an ‘aunty’ who worked at Palitoy.

I remember the shelves seemingly tightly packed with Scalextric race cars and Hornby train sets all the way to the ceiling and in my reminiscences how dark the shop was as a result of windows being blocked out by countless Spirographs and girls toys I had absolutely no interest in.

And now after all those years Geoff’s Toys will soon be gone. A part of my childhood and the early years of countless Coalville children has died.

We all know how Coalville has suffered. Over the years we’ve seen great independent traders, look no further than the wonderful Cayman Reef, disappear. As the fortunes of national chains have varied we’ve seen the departure of Woolworths, Farm Foods, Greenwoods and soon NatWest leaving our beleaguered town.

Thanks to hard work by traders, landlords and yes, even the council often those empty shells of buildings have found new businesses to fill them. But not often enough. How many times have all of us bemoaned or heard about the death of our town?

We’ve all lost count of how often we complain about the dearth of charity shops or discount retailers.

We claim that Coalville is a special case. That Ashby doesn’t have it as tough. That if only the powers that be bothered.

But we’re wrong.

Coalville isn’t any different from countless other small towns that have seen years and years of decline. And the truth is that the problems go much, much deeper than any one organisation has the power to change.

If you have ever been lucky enough to visit the United States, whether it’s New York or Orlando or any other town of any size you will have visited Macy’s.

Macy’s is a giant of retail owning hundreds of anchor stores in virtually every mall around the country. If that isn’t enough the company owns the upmarket Bloomingdales to boot. Yet last week the company reported like for like sales as being 4.6% down on last year’s first quarter.

Over the past year Macy’s have announced the closure of over 100 huge department stores, some that have been trading for more than 60 years.

Macy’s are not on their own. Sales at other long established chains are plummeting. Kohls, Nordstrom, Saks Fifth Avenue and Sears, all massive players in US shopping, are consistently down.

And the explanation that comes forward again and again? The internet.

Last week the BBC reported Jeff Gennette, the Chief Executive of Macy’s as saying “These are unusual and challenging times for retail…we know that these changes are…not cyclical.”

In America NBC news recently put the plight of retailers even more succinctly: It’s “all really just a fancy way of saying “Amazon.””

I’m certainly not saying internet shopping in general or Amazon in particular are bad; I use internet shopping as much as the next person.

The problem is very nearly all of us do, it’s convenient and cheap; who can blame us? But we can’t have it all. We can’t have the advantages of the web and a thriving, vibrant town as we once did. Our expectations must be realistic.

There’s no reason why we can’t have great independent traders or seek to attract national chains. But in the future why will ever need the sheer number of retail units that we once had? How can we expect to sustain book shops, record or even toy stores when the way we shop has changed so significantly?

There’s absolutely no reason that Coalville, or any small market town for that matter, can’t be a success; but we have to base our expectations on reality rather on a past that no longer exists anywhere.

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Just who leaked Labour's manifesto? A theory

In general I’m not one who subscribes to conspiracy theories. All the reasoned evidence points to President Kennedy being shot by a lone gunman; Princess Diana being killed as a result of a tragic accident; and no, Elvis isn’t working in any fast food outlet in the north west.

But then this morning I seem to have changed the habit of a lifetime and want to posit one such theory to you.

It’s an accepted fact, one that certainly hasn’t been denied by the Labour Party itself, that yesterday copies of the party’s draft election manifesto were leaked to three media outlets; The Daily Telegraph, Daily Mirror and BBC.

It’s also an accepted fact that draft document contains an offer to the electorate further to the left of the political spectrum than anything since 1983: renationalisation of rail, buses, energy and mail; creation of a National Education Service with the promise of free higher education; massive public spending and tax rises to accompany them.

In some ways it’s refreshing to see an agenda so different from anything promised by any aspirant party of government for nearly thirty five years; in others, if received wisdom get anywhere near meeting reality, it guarantees Conservative government for at least the next decade.

But the question today has to be ‘just who leaked it?’

And this is where my conspiratorial mind comes into play, I just can’t believe it’s anyone other than someone from the office of Jeremy Corbyn himself, either with his explicit or implied blessing.

Anyone who has watched how Labour operates over the past two years would be able to tell you that the party machine hasn’t been, how shall I say this, the most effective PR unit you’ve ever seen. How many times have important news stories happened and the leader or his team have gone AWOL? Who can forget THAT walking holiday during the 2016 Conservative Part Conference?

And yet this morning? Labour spokesmen were primed and ready to go for the morning round of news programmes.

Don’t underestimate how impressive a feat that was. In at most twenty four hours, and in all likelihood far less, since becoming aware that newspapers had the document the party machine was ready to put up a defence far more coherent than senior figures, see Ms’s Abbott and Raynor, have managed time and time again during this burgeoning campaign.

If one were cynical you might suggest parts of Labour high command were prepared to respond? Surely not?

But take it one step further.

Who benefits from the leak in the longer term?

If, as many believe, Mr Corbyn and his inner circle have already given up on winning the coming general election there’s a strong argument to be made for their hard left agenda becoming public prior to adoption by the party itself.

Any watering down of that agenda will see blame being placed squarely on the shoulders of moderates.

Corbyn supporters will argue, as is their wont, that the eventual published manifesto was once again ‘Tory lite’.

There will once again be a ready-made set of enemies to be coalesced against in an almost certain leadership challenge; figures to blame; what might have beens to be asserted.

And of course moderates attending the upcoming Clause 5 meeting, the body which will ultimately confirm the Labour manifesto, know it too. They know the implications of seeking to add a dose of common sense to the manifesto, many will believe they have the first shot being fired in the next leadership battle.

Corbyn and his acolytes are not going to give up easily; they know how to win internal party elections and if that is their primary aim it’s ever so convenient for them that their draft manifesto has been made public.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Community group angered by vandalism at local beauty spot

Potentially irreperable
A local community group has expressed their anger after a bench at a village beauty spot, that had been paid for and provided by their members, was vandalised.

Friends of Thringstone, a nationally lauded community group, had installed the bench at the entrance to 'Bob's Closs', close to the nearby village green.

Sadly at some point between Monday lunchtime and Tuesday morning potentially irreparable damage was caused to the piece of street furniture.

Damaged bench
Chairman of Friends of Thringstone, Nita Pearson, said that she was "absolutely fuming" and that the matter had been reported to the police.

Friends of Thringstone is a group who carry out voluntary work for the enjoyment of all village residents. It is hugely disappointing for them when a thoughtless few cause damage to the detriment of ordinary villagers and those committed to making Thringstone a better place to live.

If you are able to assist with  repairs or replacement of this damaged bench then please contact Friends of Thringstone through their website.

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

I shall try and show you how reliable opinion polls are - my Coalville Times column

It’s fair to say that my political journey from leader of the labour group on the district council to conservative party activist has been a well-documented one, not least in the pages of this newspaper.

Although I maintain that my own personal politics haven’t changed that significantly, there is after all not much of a step from centre left to centre right on the political spectrum, there is little doubt if opinion polls are to be believed a great many others will be making the same electoral journey as me both in this week’s county council elections and on June 8th when we select our next Prime Minister.

Whenever I speak with people about opinion polls, I know I need to get out more, one thing I hear again and again is that ‘you can’t believe them, they are always wrong.’

So this week I should like to put to rest the notion that these surveys, carried out by professional pollsters and reported on so widely in the media, are usually inaccurate. In fact, quite to the contrary, I shall try and show you how reliable they really are.

First things first. Opinion polls are not the same as the start of every question on Family Fortunes. Pollsters do not simply ‘survey a hundred people’ at random.

Opinion polls aren’t the same as a phone vote on ‘This Morning’; for a start there is nothing to stop you phoning and voting on those things more than once and, let's face it, it is quite possible that This Morning viewers are not necessarily  representative of the wider population. There probably isn’t too many office and factory workers amongst their daily viewers, is there?

No, opinion polls, are weighted by pollsters to reflect the wider population. Companies like Ipsos MORI and ComRes will seek to ensure that they include the right number of men and women, rich and poor, black and white to reflect the wider population. The theory being that the responses of ten or twenty middle aged men with similar incomes and backgrounds working in factories will tend to be representative thousands who share a similar background. It’s a remarkably accurate way of predicting outcomes.

Now pollsters know that their samples aren’t always perfect and so they recognise that there is usually ‘a margin of error’. Maybe, they haven’t been able to sample enough retired people to be representative?

It’s that margin of error that tells you within a few percentage points what results are likely to be.

So when I hear that the pollsters got it wrong on last year's referendum go back and look at what the polls actually said. Yes most suggested that we would vote Remain but nearly all of them had the actual result in their margin of error. With the referendum it wasn’t that the polls were wrong but we weren’t understanding what they were trying to say to us.

There has been in living memory two times when opinion polls in the UK did get things wrong, the 1992 and 2015 General Elections. In both of them wins were predicted for Labour when in fact in both of them the Conservatives won comfortably.

After both elections pollster tried to figure out what went wrong and they came up with similar answers both times. Some people wanted to say they were voting for the ‘compassionate’ option of Labour but once they got in to the privacy of the polling booth they took the ‘competent’ option of voting Conservative. There’s even a name for these people, they’re called ‘shy Tories’.

Now all of this matters because it tells us something about the upcoming general election.

In all polls so far the Conservatives have a commanding lead well outside the margin of error and there is absolutely no precedent for their vote being overstated, in fact because of that shy Tory issue it could well be significantly more than what the polls suggest.

In truth opinion polls are pretty accurate, real polls far more so. Over the next day or so we will know the results of the County Council elections. If the Tories pick up seats here in North West Leicestershire and South Derbyshire, if they win the West Midlands mayoral contest and maybe even take control of Nottinghamshire be prepared for a very big landslide come June 8th.

Simply put Labour supporter can’t really place in faith whatsoever in the current opinion polls being wrong and the true result being in their favour. The only way they win next month is to start turning them around.              

Monday, 8 May 2017

Stealth: A great Whitwick business - my Community Voice column

By the time you read this column I will no longer be your County Councillor. It’s been one of the great honours of my life to represent the people of Whitwick and Thringstone at County Hall; a privilege I will never forget. Thank you.

In looking back over the past four years I’m mindful of things achieved and disappointments of things not. I’ve been fortunate to visit Buckingham Palace, have dinner with inspirational servicemen and women and visit treasures in our county, like Castle House, which many don’t even know exist.

But as I look back, this column isn’t a place for politics, I am reminded of one night in particular.

About two years into my term of office at County Hall I received, out of the blue, an invite to be the guest of honour at a martial arts school annual prize giving. I spent a thoroughly enjoyable evening watching talented young people taking chunks out of each before going on to a rather raucous disco sadly interspersed, I’m sure for the students at least, with short bout of me ceremoniously doling out medals.

It was the first time I had ever been a ‘guest of honour’ and the poor kids who were receiving their trophies from me must have though ‘who the heck is this guy?’

But I learnt that night Stealth Black Belt Academy, based on Stephenson Industrial Estate, do things a little differently.

Stealth is the brainchild of Craig Smith, a man born and raised in Whitwick and who chose to return here with his family following a 12 year career in the Royal Air Force.

Craig wanted to do things differently though. Yes, Stealth was going to be about martial arts and physical fitness but it was also going to be fun so it shouldn't have surprised me when just a few days ago I caught up with Craig to hear about Stealth’s latest adventure.

I had already heard about the endurance challenges and fight nights that members undertook so I was somewhat surprised when Craig told me of his and his members next challenge. Strictly Come Dancing is coming to Coalville.

Over the past year Stealth members have taken it upon themselves to raise £5,000 for MacMillan Cancer Support and with just a few weeks to go look set to be breaking that barrier comfortably as they don sequins and Lycra for a night of quick steps and rhumbas.

As you might expect from a group of exceptionally fit martial artists these men and women are not taking the challenge lightly.

Craig tells me that with the demands of running a business he is only managing about sixty minutes of training a week whilst some of the competitors are putting in hour after hour to take part in group and show dances.

Judges have been arranged from local dance schools, a compère ‘the spitting image of Sir Bruce Forsyth’ will be on hand to make sure things go smoothly and exceptionally tight costumes have been ordered ‘and that’s just for the men.’

I ask Craig will the fundraising go on after the target has been raised? “Of course, we will be having our Queen’s Garden Party in June. It’s part of the ethos of Stealth: we want the business to be successful, we want to teach and help adults and children improve their fitness but we also want to have fun and give back to charity as well.”

It seems to me that isn’t a bad ethos for running any business. Isn’t it great when that kind of success story, that kind of dedication, stems out of our community, the one I've been so proud to represent?