Backward Motion

What on earth is that about?

In the face of criticisms from teachers about a lack of consultation regarding planned education reforms, the government responds by giving notice of a parliamentary motion congratulating itself precisely on how much it’s consulted. Rubbing salt in the wound, some might say. Especially when the teachers union GTA/NASUWT says that 86% of teachers who took part in an online survey felt there had not been enough consultation over the relocation of new schools and 79% were of the same opinion in relation to the refurbishment of existing school buildings.

On the other hand the government may have been reacting to political, rather than professional, pressure. The day before the wording of education minister John Cortes’s motion was published we had the rare spectacle, these days, of the opposition speaking with one voice. The GSD and its erstwhile colleague Marlene Hassan Nahon issued a joint statement calling for “full and proper consultation of teachers at all levels”, while the other independent MP and former GSD member, Lawrence Llamas, published the first part of an extensive survey in which he claimed that 82% of education professionals who took part were dissatisfied with the level of consultation.

For its part the government claims there has been, and will continue to be, extensive consultation. This has been mainly with head teachers and senior staff, whom it describes as “the legitimate line of communication”. Not every individual staff member may be consulted directly, but all are welcome to express their views and the government says it strongly encourages them to do so. Working groups that include teachers at all levels have been set up to study the impact and likely consequences of the wide-ranging reforms.

My concern here is not about who’s right or wrong. In fact, it may simply be a case of each side seeing things from their own perspective with the truth residing somewhere in the middle.

What vexes me is that seventeen grown-ups should waste parliamentary time debating an utterly unnecessary and, in my opinion, frivolous motion. Of what meaningful value can it be for the government to commend itself “for the open and transparent process of discussion which it has already engaged in with the teaching professionals and support and administrative staff”? And how can the government already know, as the motion asserts, that parents and pupils “will be delighted to see the advanced plans being developed for the exciting new school projects”? To borrow a phrase from Star Trek Captain Jean-Luc Picard, will the mere act of carrying the motion “make it so”? With its majority the government could pass a motion that says black is white and day is night, but how ridiculous would that be?

When Joe Bossano was awarded a knighthood in the 2018 Queen’s New Year Honours List I suggested in this column that his ennoblement might serve to elevate the tone and dignity of parliamentary proceedings. I cling to the hope that this still happens, if not at the next meeting maybe the one after.

In Memoriam

From a very young age I loved reading.

I’m not sure which happened first, but two of my most vivid childhood memories involve books. One was the excitement I felt on opening a large black metal box my parents gave me when I was six or seven and finding it chock-full of all sorts of wonderful hardbacks on subjects ranging from science to history. Two in particular captivated me: an illustrated guide to the age of the dinosaurs and a collection of Greek myths – Theseus and the Minotaur was my favourite. Meanwhile, an early 20th century popular science book provided the answers to fascinating questions that I’d never myself thought of asking. Why is the sky blue, for instance? Or why can’t an insect fly into the pupil of your eye?

The thrill of exploring that treasure trove was matched only by my first visit to the John Mackintosh Hall library. Never had I seen so many books under one roof! It took me ages to choose just one and I eventually settled on The Arabian Nights. I was hooked, and would be a regular Saturday morning library goer for years.

Thursday is a nondescript sort of day, but it was special for me: the comics arrived. I’d collect mine after school from a kiosk on the Main Street side of the Piazza. The Beano and the Dandy at first, Eagle and Tiger when I was older. At Christmas my aunts would have to compare notes to make sure they each got me a different Annual, which was what I’d invariably ask for.

Object of desire

As my sixth birthday approached I learnt that my grandma’s present was a children’s encyclopedia I’d had my wishful eye on for ages. What’s more, the coveted tome was already at home somewhere.

Well, I found it!

For the next few weeks when no one was looking I would take the book out, avidly read an entry or two, and return it to its would-be hiding place before anyone noticed. I reckon by the time I legitimately opened it I must have been familiar with half the encyclopedia’s contents.

In a convoluted way this brings me to what I really wanted to say this week.

No one ever did more to nurture my love of literature and English in general than Derek Panayotti, who died late last year. As my ‘O’ Level teacher he succeeded in making me properly understand the rules of grammar, so casually derided by some educationalists these days, and introduced me to the likes of Shakespeare, Dickens, Orwell and Eliot. Sadly Derek fell ill soon afterwards and my classmates and I were deprived of his continuing guidance at ‘A’ Level.

One of the teachers who stepped into the breach was Charles Durante. In an obituary in this newspaper he said his late friend and colleague acquired an unrivalled knowledge of English literature, and described him as generous, gentlemanly and unassuming. I agree with his every word, and would only add that, to me, Derek Panayotti was inspirational.

On Nettles and Shy Ministers

Well done to health minister Neil Costa for grasping the nettle and announcing significant reforms in the Primary Care Centre.

If you missed the story, an evening clinic between 6pm and 8pm, Monday to Friday, will be introduced. Patients will be informed of routine clinical results by telephone, saving them undue anxiety and eliminating the need to see the doctor again. More GPs will be recruited to develop a “see and treat” minor illness service to develop further the walk-in clinics that are already in place. And the length of time for which a sick note may be requested by phone has been increased from two days a quarter to a maximum of five days.

The one reform that may prove less popular is an increase in house call fees for patients less than 65 years old from £10 to £15, but considering the fee has not gone up in nearly 20 years it would be churlish to criticise it too much. Patients over the age of 65 will continue to pay just £5 and those who are exempt for social reasons will remain exempt.

Another welcome initiative is a planned increase in the number of same-day appointments. I know from personal experience how frustrating it can be to call in at precisely 8.15am when the hotline opens, be told through a recorded message that there are more than 30 callers on the line, wait your turn patiently for up to 10 minutes, and finally be informed that there are no more slots left for that morning. Try again in the afternoon or take your chances with the walk-in clinic.

Luckily when I needed a GP’s services last month, for the flu, there were just twenty people ahead of me in the queue and I was able to see the emergency doctor. Having extra appointments available should make things easier still. Congratulations to minister Costa and the GHA.

OH PENNY!

I was amused to read in the Sunday Times that Penny Mordaunt, the new international development secretary, has let it be known that she’s had “leadership training”. This in the context of a supposed plot to topple the prime minister, Theresa May, and install a ‘dream team’ of Brexiteers led by the foreign secretary Boris Johnson with environment secretary Michael Gove as his deputy.

I don’t know when she went on her course, but I saw little evidence of Ms. Mordaunt’s leadership qualities when I covered for GBC her familiarisation visit to Gibraltar as the recently appointed minister for the armed forces in August 2015. It was a time of repeated Spanish incursions into British Gibraltar Territorial Waters.

A tight-lipped Penny Mordaunt arrives at No. 6…

As she arrived at Number Six Convent Place for a meeting with deputy chief minister Joseph Garcia the minister refused to answer my questions, or even speak. With the media waiting outside, she sent word that she would not be making any public comments.

…but eventually speaks to camera

Imagine how that’s going to go down with public opinion here, I said. She must have had a change of heart, or received instructions from higher up, because she did eventually emerge and speak to us on the record. Maybe it was her trip to the Rock that caused the penny to drop that a little leadership training might not go amiss.

Smuggling: No Thanks!

A video on Facebook of suspected smugglers loading a small boat with boxes of tobacco brought back unhappy memories. It was posted by opposition MP Trevor Hammond, so I suppose it wasn’t an entirely politically neutral move on his part. Still, I found it unsettling. Mr Hammond says the recording was made in the middle of the afternoon, in broad daylight, and with children playing in the area.

The incident took place on the quayside north of Waterport Terraces, and does not appear to have been a one-off: someone else on Facebook put up a photo with a mocked-up road sign dubbing it “Smugglers Lane”.

Mr Hammond says he’s been told there’s also regular smuggling activity at Eastern Beach and wonders whether a blind eye is being turned. For Gibraltar’s sake I hope it isn’t. We learned the hard way over twenty years ago that if we tolerate this sort of thing it will only get worse.

Smuggling has always gone on of course, but its exponential rise in the mid 1990s created huge social problems for the Rock. Teachers reported half-empty classrooms and many sleepy faces among those who did turn up. The suspicion was they’d been up half the night seduced by the lure of easy money, helping to load up the fast launches or acting as lookouts for their pilots. Why bother putting yourself through GCSE and A Level exams when you can earn far more right now than you’re likely to when you eventually return home as one more university graduate looking for a job? Gibraltar was awash with stories of young men showing up in car showrooms and offering to buy the swankiest models in cash, with thick wads of notes they would produce with a flourish from stuffed pockets.

And not only was it lucrative, it was also glamorous. Apart from the expensive cars, the hallmarks of the ‘Winston Boys’ were the blingy jewellery they wore and the air of impunity with which they swaggered about town.

One Saturday morning I pulled up behind stopped traffic on Engineer Lane. No one was blowing their horn so I assumed there must be a good reason for the hold up. An accident perhaps, or an ambulance call out. Eventually curiosity got the better of me and I walked down to see what was going on. There, outside the Napoleon Menswear shop, were two cars side by side in the middle of the road obstructing traffic in both directions. The gold medallion-laden drivers and their girlfriends had got out and were having a good old chinwag while everyone else waited. Not a policeman in sight to move them along, nor anyone, including me, with the guts to challenge them.

Please, please let’s not have a return to those bad old days. It’s terrible for the moral fabric of our small nation. And it’s suicide for politicians too. The GSLP, who lost the 1996 election despite having secured a historic 73% majority four years earlier, know it full well. Their 2007 and 2011 manifestos pledged there would be no return to the fast launch activity. Let’s hope the absence of this commitment from the 2015 GSLP/Liberals manifesto isn’t a bad omen.