December 15, 2010
The NHS: this will hurt

I was glad to see, in Sam Knight’s cover story (December), that health secretary Andrew Lansley has come finally clean about his plans for a top-down reorganisation of the NHS. In doing so, however, he reveals not only the government’s readiness to break promises on the health service, but also his own tunnel vision in the face of widespread criticism from patient groups, professional bodies and health experts. And it’s becoming increasingly clear that he is working in isolation from his colleagues in cabinet and elsewhere.

At a time when our health service is showing signs of strain, the reorganisation he has set out is high risk, high cost, a danger to the commissioning of key health services, and an unnecessary distraction from the need to find efficient services. The last Conservative health secretary, Stephen Dorrell, now chair of the health select committee, has recognised the latter; Oliver Letwin, meanwhile, has been tasked with reviewing Lansley’s plans—a decision that anybody concerned with the future of the NHS should welcome.

John Healey MPShadow Secretary of State for Health

Can we teach parenting?

There is much that I agree with in Yvonne Roberts’s article (December), even though she claims I am “wrong about what will most help struggling families.”

Roberts says that public schools have long recognised the importance of investing “heavily in character, education and life skills.” She must know, from all that I have written over the years, how important I too think character is, for both the individual and the wider society. She has also misread my proposal for teaching parenting and life skills in schools. She is right that there should not be a ghetto subject for “girls deemed dim.” The plan is to teach parenting and life skills through all subjects in the national curriculum, where relevant. Learning about how a baby’s brain develops is surely as relevant to the science course as much of what is already taught.

Young people ought to be able to choose options at school to build up their parenting and life skills. This was what 15- year-olds in Birkenhead and Manchester told me they want from school. And it will be pupil pressure that delivers this reform.

Frank Field MP

Listen to Frank Field and Yvonne Roberts debate this issue Why fees won’t work

While purporting to be “progressive,” the government plans for higher education will triple the burden of debt for most students. They will offer free tuition for poorer students—to study courses that have had their teaching grants wiped out. They will offer increased maintenance grants for others to study at universities which will struggle to fund the quality of teaching that makes higher education worthwhile. This is an attack on aspiration, and we must fight it.

Lincoln Hill Chair-elect, Oxford University Labour Club

A Russian World Cup

It is widely assumed that Fifa did itself no favours by granting Russia’s bid to host the World Cup. The more interesting question, though, is whether it has done Russia a favour. Might the tournament prove a catalyst for much-needed change?

Change is needed not only because of the decrepit condition of Russia’s infrastructure, but because of the cause of this decrepitude: the model of “civilised relations between business and the state.” Today it is normal practice for contractors to submit grossly inflated bids and divide the proceeds with those who regulate them, which means road construction is sclerotic, maintenance funds are depleted and the cost of permits and licenses is exorbitant. Might the pressure of delivering a World Cup on time strengthen the strains on this system, and the pressure to clean it up?

What effects, also, will the cup have on a level of football racism that is not only more virulent than in Britain, but supported by the police and courts? Will international scrutiny and censure alter this malign balance? If, as Russia’s reformers now allege, the status quo is unsustainable, a Russian World Cup might well make their case.

James SherrSenior Fellow, Chatham House

Afghanistan: reasons to stay

The coming year marks the tenth anniversary of the beginning of the Afghan campaign. Each year is tediously claimed to be the “crucial year” in the war; the same was being said back in 2007 when I first served as a British captain there. But 2011 might well be such a year. The key Nato contributing nations are financially and politically squeezed, the Dutch are being followed out by the Canadians and potentially the Poles, and now Britain is floating the start of a drawdown of troops by the end of the year.

This could be a mistake. Yes, support for foreign troops there is low, and trust in the Karzai government lower. But there are causes for cautious optimism. The Afghan national security forces grow apace: more than two thirds of the violence occurs in just four of the 34 provinces, and in those regions the hugely increased troop numbers are making a difference. And Afghanistan’s economic fortunes are rising—GDP growth is up 20 per cent, with continued double digit growth forecast for next year, infrastructure projects starting to bite, 5m children in school compared to only 1m in 2002, and poppy cultivation at its lowest since 2005.

With things so finely balanced, western states need to hold their nerve. 2011 could be decisive either way, but a race for the door would be catastrophic.

Patrick HennesseyAuthor of “The Junior Officer’s Reading Club”

English is easy

It never ceases to amaze me when people (usually English) claim the English language is hard to learn. Many for whom English is a second language have not found it so. As there are so many people born and brought up in England who are still unable to speak their own language, I assume Viv Groskop (December) is referring to them?

Inger CollingridgeExeter

An idea to celebrate

It has been covered at length in Prospect and elsewhere, but, having written a book on the topic, I still think the most interesting idea of 2010 was the Big Society, which brilliantly redefined the centre ground in British politics.

Why? First, because it criticised left and right alike, tapping into public unease about the extension of the state, the erosion of human values, the rise of political ideology and partisanship, and the malign effects of market fundamentalism. It talked about hope, teamwork and looking after each other—the values of adversity and success alike. Second, because it clearly came from somewhere intellectually respectable, blending the sympathy of Adam Smith with the free institutions of Edmund Burke, the civility of political philosophers like Michael Oakeshott and the focus on human capability of thinkers like Amartya Sen.

And finally because, like Ann Widdecombe and almost uniquely in the political lexicon, it will never be reducible to a sound-bite. Reason enough for celebration.

Jesse Norman MP A Stoical response

Hailing from the birthplace of DEMO-cracy, and the home of such early politico-philosophical and THEO-logical think-tanks as the Academy and the Peripatetics, I imagine Messrs Plato and Aristotle would be less than impressed to hear that British think tanks like Demos and Theos are now to be grouped as “those with Latinate names” (as they were by James Crabtree, December). Still, I try not to let the dwindling awareness of the Greeks’ contribution get me down—in the face of yearly cuts to classics funding, you’ve no choice but to be pretty Stoical about it all.

Harry BradwellLondon NW5