The right not to be offended


I think it is quite a good starting point that society is better if we do not go out of our way to offend each other simply to enjoy the thrill of causing offence.  I have never made an image of the prophet Mohammed because I have not particular wish to do so and (not that I have really thought about it) it clearly would cause offence if I did so.  Actually I have felt a bit of pressure to do just that after the Charlie Hebdo atrocity – violent behaviour acts as a recruiting sergeant for the enemy in both directions – but I won’t, not because I am particularly afraid but because it is not quite a good enough reason to cause offence to the many Muslims who abhor the people of violence (yet – I could see that changing if there are repeat performances).  But I was very impressed by the passionate way that the likes of Nick Clegg popped up making very clear that ‘nobody has a right not to be offended’.

Yet a couple of days ago Benedict Cumberbatch felt he had to apologise profusely because he used the term ‘coloured people’ (or actors), which is offensive, rather than ’people of colour’, which is not.  I gather that a soap star in his 70s (Ken Morley – Ed.) was sacked from Celebrity Big Brother or referring to ‘negroes’.  And we all find ourselves in high dudgeon if a UKIP candidate makes a (in my view) bizarre reference of one kind or another, say about women or homosexuals.

Where is Nick Clegg jumping in defence of people’s right to be offensive when the people being offended are the ‘liberal establishment’ (a loose term I use for those who seem to have taken on themselves a role as guardians of what a ‘decent’ person should say and think)?  Where was Ed Miliband decrying the destruction of Andrew Mitchell’s career and putting huge pressure on his home life simply for (allegedly) using an offensive word ‘pleb’, which when all is said and done is simply the mirror image of the ‘toff’ insult that Miliband himself takes such pleasure in?  When Jeremy Clarkson insults Gordon Brown’s eye condition he nearly loses his job, when a right-on liberal comedian does it he gets great applause.

I’m not muslim or ‘a person of colour’ so I can’t know whether I’d be directly offended by iconism of racist language.  As it happens I find racist language personally offensive but I don’t find images of Prophet so.  But why should that give me the right to hound someone who does the one out of their careers but not the other?  (I am gay and I get pretty fed up by the LE telling me when I should be offended and when I shouldn’t – I find UKIP’s (or rural Conservatism’s or indeed that found in some trade unions or in a LibDem who can sniff a few votes) homophobic laughable and even a bit sad and have been told I am ‘letting the side down’ by doing so.)

Let’s at least be honest. The LE has created an atmosphere in which they have the right both to offend and not to be offended.  In this mindset people primitive enough to believe in a God of their choosing deserve to be mocked and the right to offend should be defended passionately.  But that right should not be extended to anyone who dares to offend the LE themselves.  Some people do not have a right not to be offended but some do.  Let’s not be surprised if some of those denied that right feel hard done by.

Merger or takeover?

On the surface of it a merger of the backroom functions of Wandsworth and Richmond Councils looks a ‘no brainer’ as the current phrase has it.  Considerable savings by reducing the numbers of staff have been achieved elsewhere by this route, though sometimes services have suffered as well.

Yet there is something wrong when the first a Councillor hears of it is in the Wandsworth Guardian; when the Leader of the Council gives an interview in which he never mentions the word ‘Councillor’ once, let alone shows any interest in engaging the elected representatives of the Boroughs of Wandsworth and Richmond in the decision.

It sounds very much like this is going to be another example of the majority group forcing through its will without even listening to alternative views.  The best recent example was when the Finance Scrutiny Committee took a decision to investigate whether Ward Budgets worked elsewhere and whether they might be an option here for engaging people more in their local communities.  The Conservative leadership’s top priority at the next Council meeting was not to discuss closing the Battersea Sports Centre, or threats to libraries or the Tooting running track – it was to prevent the Finance Committee from even talking to other Council about their experience. I still don’t really know why they were so scared of letting backbenchers find out what others were up to – maybe the fear of finding out that Wandsworth is not always the best in the business (something which is unarguable) was at its heart.

Shared management arrangements inevitably affect the work of a Councillor on behalf of local residents.  Senior staff only spend half the week in the building.  The degree to which one council can direct officers to devote time to a particular policy is severely limited by their obligations to the other council.  Scrutiny, which is supposed to be the opportunity for Councillors to monitor and challenge the performance of the Council, becomes more complicated.  Either officers have to face two separate scrutiny functions from the two Councils (what happens if they disagree?) or there have to be joint scrutiny panels made up of councillors from both authorities. At the moment from what I can tell Richmond values the contribution that backbenchers make through Scrutiny, allowing or even encouraging them to carry out investigations into matters of importance to local people, while Wandsworth prevents councillors from doing this.  Would Wandsworth Councillors on joint Scrutiny be allowed to join their Richmond colleagues in such work or would Wandsworth seek to prevent Richmond Councillors from doing it?

Evidence from the various councils which have gone through mergers like this suggest that if Councillors are involved from the start the outcome is a more positive one than when only the politburo has any say and other Councillors are whipped into agreeing or ignored.  In most of the cases I have looked at there has been a joint group of councillors set up at the start to go and discuss with other councils their experience of such arrangements.  Any attempt by a Wandsworth Committee to do that would be crushed by the Cabinet if past behaviour is anything got go by.

This is a bad enough start.  The timing makes it worse.  Wandsworth has lost a vast amount of experience recently as senior officers have retired, including the Director of Education and his Deputy, the Director of Technical Services, the Director of Housing, the Head of Corporate Affairs, the Director of Leisure and Amenity Services.  The new structure has not had time to bed in yet.  At the same time the Cabinet has chopped the amount of time the rest of us can spend looking at services and sharing our experience by slashing the times each Committee meets from six times a year to just four and cutting one Committee altogether.  This is obviously good for the Cabinet because it gets an easier time but it is not so good for local residents.  I wonder if the dreadful failure over the freedom pass would have happened if there had been more chance to scrutinise it?

Finally, the kind of management structure needed for the future depends on our shared vision as elected councillors of what that future should look like for our Borough.  But that is a question which is of absolutely no interest to the powers that be in Wandsworth. Richmond is rather more visionary.  If this continues it is inevitable that the new structure will be more tailored to the needs of Richmond than of Wandsworth – a takeover rather than a merger.  And those needs are dramatically different – the richest local authority in the country alongside one with enduring pockets of inner city depravation.

Stephen Knight, opposition leader in Richmond, is calling for a referendum on this issue.  I am generally not a fan of referenda – we elect governments (local or national) to take decisions on our behalf based on their judgment and if we don’t like their judgment we vote them out.  The one exception is if there is a change to the rules by which we are governed.  This clearly fits the bill.  If the Wandsworth leadership remains true to form and exclude all other views from consideration then this might be the right way forward.