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Leader Conference

Series 3 Episode 2

Journalists debate with Andrew Rawnsley what leading articles about the news should say.

Andrew Rawnsley chairs a live discussion with top journalists as they debate what should be said in three newspaper-style leading articles about the top stories of the moment.

Andrew Rawnsley presents a live, studio-based debate taking the form of newspaper leader conferences. He was joined by Raphael Behr of the New Statesman; Mary Ann Sieghart formerly of the Independent; Sarah Sands of the London Evening Standard; Kamal Ahmed of the Sunday Telegraph; and Peter Montellier of the Newcastle Journal.

They drew up leaders on: the government's decision to end direct aid to South Africa; how to provide better sex education to school children; and why tedious university lecturers are a good thing.

Aiding South Africa

We consider that the diplomatic handling of the British government's decision to end direct aid to South Africa left much to be desired. It prompted understandable anger and resentment there. This is a country which has in recent months shown by its intervention in African hotspots its importance in promoting stability across the continent and protecting the vulnerable. These objectives are in Britain's interests too.

Although countries like South Africa have grown fast, the benefits of their greater wealth are unevenly distributed. Poverty there has a very long tail. Britain, having strong historic links to South Africa and still aspiring to a world leadership role in promoting democracy and human rights, needs to stay engaged with Pretoria, especially if it has doubts about the openness of South Africa's government and the probity of some of its officials.

We note the argument that the UK is, despite present economic conditions, still a relatively wealthy country and should, at a low annual cost to the British taxpayer, hold out the hand of fiscal friendship to the African continent's largest economy and democracy. Nevertheless, we think there may be better ways of helping South Africa.

We prefer business investment to direct government support. We also advocate freeing up trade to give consumers lower prices and South African businesses the chance to invest and create jobs. These would offer mutual benefits of lasting value.

Better Sex Education

Ofsted's finding that the quality of sex education in about a third of English secondary schools is not of a sufficiently high standard is disquieting and requires action.

We do not minimise the demands placed upon teachers - and parents - in a much more sexualised culture. Advertising can contain explicit imagery and young children are able to access hard core material online. But a panic about the alleged moral degeneracy of the internet would divert attention from areas where the improvement of sex education needs to be focused.

Accordingly, we propose a four-point plan of reform. First, some teaching focuses too narrowly on the biological dimensions of sex education to the neglect of relationships. Understanding the dangers of sexually-transmitted diseases is important. But mutual respect in relationships also needs to be emphasised. This is valuable in itself. It would also help, however, counteract the objectification of women which defines both pornography and its subtler manifestations in youth culture.

Second, teaching should promote confidence among school children in dealing with sexual matters. This is not to override parental preferences or concerns in this area. These should be taken account of sensitively, especially those which have an ethnic, religious or ethical component. But pupils' confidence will be best fostered by teaching that is well-informed emotionally and factually.

Third, teaching children how best safely to maintain their identities on social media is critical and can be buttressed through the technology component of the national curriculum. Finally, we believe these objectives will be best achieved by separate teaching of boys and girls.

Redeeming Dr Bohring

Jimmy Wales's obituary of the boring university lecturer, thanks to the alleged excitement of acquiring knowledge online through such portals as his own Wikipedia, is in our view premature and unwelcome.

Yes, students pay considerable sums for their courses. But enduring tweedy, dandruff-afflicted dons interminably reciting recondite knowledge in stuffy lecture theatres has been a valuable rite of passage for generations of undergraduates.

Many have learned that the acquisition of knowledge is not always simple and easy. But we also suspect innumerable eureka moments have occurred while harmless Dr Bohrings monotonously delivered their quotidian insights into metaphysics, quantum mechanics or the Laffer curve. And knowing which lectures can be skipped altogether was itself an indispensable education. It freed up time for by far the most useful hours of our student years. So "citation needed", as Mr Wales would say, for dispensing with droning dons.

Producer Simon Coates.

Leader Conference

Series 3 Episode 3

Journalists debate with Andrew Rawnsley what leading articles about the news should say.

Andrew Rawnsley chairs a live discussion with top journalists as they debate what should be said in three newspaper-style leading articles about the top stories of the moment.

In the third edition of the latest series of Leader Conference, Andrew Rawnsley was joined by Phil Collins of the Times; Mary Riddell of the Daily Telegraph; David Seymour of the Sunday Mirror; Anne McElvoy of the Economist; and Torcuil Crichton of the Daily Record.

We debated: the Queen's Speech; Sir Alex Ferguson; and Virgin Trains' new staff uniform.

Odds and Ends

The Queen's Speech has about it the quality of an Eton mess. That shouldn't condemn it; government is a multifarious set of tasks. Judging priorities among departments and managing legislation require care and skill. Similarly, the modesty of the government's programme isn't of itself a shortcoming. Much of the legislation envisaged in the coalition agreement has already been enacted.

However, we are still disappointed by the Speech. Its priority seems to be political positioning, particularly by the Conservatives, rather than tackling Britain's continuing economic malaise. Yet it presents a confused set of proposals. In particular, measures designed to appeal to voters attracted to the UK Independence Party's messages on immigration seem to us difficult to implement. GPs are not employees of the state and making them responsible for policing migrants' health care demands look impractical and unenforceable. Similarly, delegating to private landlords the vetting of housing applications may simply discourage the supply of properties onto the market and push up rents for all. We wonder if this is what ministers intend.

There are other inconsistencies too. The prime minister has said much about Europe in recent weeks and yet no concrete measures appear in the Speech. Legislation introducing the much-trailed flat-rate pension is designed to appeal to older voters. But pensioners will have also noted the reductions in councils' social care budgets.

There is certainly much to be done in the remaining two years of this Parliament. But we advocate far greater emphasis on the effective implementation of the government's existing reforms rather than the passing of more laws whose rationale, beyond trying to stymie UKIP, is unclear and whose contradictions will compromise their likely effectiveness.

Old Trafford's Magician

We sympathise with those jaded by English football's unquenchable thirst for hyperbole, but even they, we think, should pay tribute to Sir Alex Ferguson following his decision to step down as manager of Manchester United. Over his twenty-six years in charge, the club won forty-nine trophies, including thirteen premier league titles. These alone make him one of the outstanding figures not just in sport but in management generally.

Sir Alex also came up the hard way and deployed his Glaswegian background to good effect in reaching the top. He has helped ensure that football's influence has been positive on national life, even when his "hairdryer" moments have captured the headlines. While we doubt that he had a strategic master plan from the outset, his major achievement was the building of a succession of winning teams.

It is tempting to suggest that the Ferguson model is something we should freely apply to other institutions, be they the monarchy, FTSE100 companies or politics. Tempting and wrong. Managers can always be sacked - monarchs cannot. Furthermore, the autocratic methods and belligerent approach of some football managers - while arguably necessary to keep in line handsomely remunerated young footballers with highly developed egos - are hardly ones we want to see among our parliamentarians.

Let us celebrate success like that achieved by Sir Alex. But let us also remember the peculiar, highly-monied context in which it was achieved. And let us look forward to a newly competitive era in the premier league - or at least hope for one.

Business Brains?

"Business Brains Take Virgin Trains" ran the slogan. If so, we wonder if Virgin's own executives do that. Our thought was prompted by the reaction of those female employees of Virgin Trains who protested to their bosses about "skimpy" new red blouses that were issued to them.

Uniforms should be things which staff are happy to wear and we are surprised that Sir Richard Branson's outfit appears to have run into the buffers with this latest development of the Virgin wardrobe. Managers' decision to offer female staff vouchers to purchase underwear that would not be visible through the new blouses seems like an admission that the company has misjudged this new design.

We do not advocate fashion styles reminiscent of the catwalks of the Soviet bloc. But nor should female employees be demeaned - or passengers be embarrassed - by the uniforms provided to staff. This makeover terminates here.

Producer Simon Coates.

Leader Conference

Series 3 Episode 1

Journalists debate with Andrew Rawnsley what leading articles about the news should say.

Andrew Rawnsley chairs a live discussion with top journalists as they debate what should be said in three newspaper-style leading articles about the top stories of the moment.

Andrew Rawnsley returns with the live, studio-based debate series taking the form of newspaper leader conferences.

Contributions from listeners are also strongly encouraged throughout the programme on Twitter (#r4leader) and by e-mail (leaderconference@bbc.co.uk).

Andrew was joined by Jenni Russell of the London Evening Standard; Trevor Kavanagh of the Sun; Anushka Asthana of the Times; Jonathan Ford of the Financial Times; and Kevin Maguire of the Daily Mirror.

They debated: the UK economy; the Abu Qatada affair; and Britain's bee population.

Where Next for the British Economy?

The economy shows little sign of sustained growth. Those voices urging a change of course are growing louder, especially given the setbacks suffered recently by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The IMF and a second ratings agency, Fitch, have, for example, clear doubts about his strategy. We share some of these reservations.

No major industrialised economy is growing strongly. But retail sales here are particularly disappointing and the Co-operative Bank has given, as one of its reasons for withdrawing from its planned acquisition of Lloyds' branches, the weak state of the economy.

We recognise that there has been a big monetary stimulus in the UK. We also understand the concerns about borrowing money now for infrastructure projects whose effects may not be felt for years. Nevertheless, the case for quicker-acting measures―like more house-building and improving Britain's roads, bridges and railways―is compelling. June's Comprehensive Spending Review also has to take account of the poor outlook for growth or it may further erode confidence when optimism is sorely needed.

Beyond this, we want to encourage more women into work where they wish to do so. Women's unemployment is at record levels and new jobs in the private sector are going disproportionately to men. Although parents can get some help with their child care bills, these costs still eat up much of a mother's pay when she returns to work. This needs to be addressed more boldly both to help women and to boost the economy.

The Abu Qatada Merry-Go-Round

Whether the radical cleric Abu Qatada should be deported to Jordan to stand trial has taken another turn with the Home Secretary's announcement of a new legal agreement with the authorities in Amman. It seeks to satisfy judges' concerns that evidence used in court has been obtained lawfully.

We fully sympathise with the frustration felt by many that a man who faces very serious charges in Jordan has so far not been made to face them there. It is also wrong that a man who is perceived to be a threat to the UK appears to be in a legal limbo.

However, the protections which the European Convention on Human Rights provides to Abu Qatada it also offers to the rest of us. The UK rightly believes in the rule of law and for so long as it is a party to the Convention it has to accept court rulings it finds inconvenient.

We therefore oppose the suggestion, apparently made by some in government, that the UK should withdraw temporarily from the Convention―to enable Abu Qatada to be deported―and then rejoin. This seems to us unsustainable both legally and politically. While it may mollify angry MPs, it would prompt high-level resignations from the government and could not in any event be got through Parliament. Other countries that are parties to the Convention would not accept it. At least until the next election, there is no parliamentary majority at Westminster for leaving the Convention. But it has to be accepted that Abu Qatada may even then still be in British custody.

Plan Bee

We want the tragic demise of bees reversed. The prime minister has many things to focus his attention on but, as life patron of the Oxfordshire Beekeepers' Association, he will understand that bees are not only essential to the pollination of crops and plants as well as to the well-being of the planet. The precipitous decline in their numbers is profoundly alarming.

We advocate an urgent an urgent programme of research into the causes of the fall in bee numbers. Companies study this problem, but as a number of them are involved in pesticide production - which some experts suspect is part of the explanation for the slump in bee numbers - we doubt it will produce a scientifically rigorous answer.

Our plan bee is an independent study which urgently investigates the causes of the hush in buzzing bees and proposes how to restore their hum to our lives.

Producer: Simon Coates.

Leader Conference

Series 3 Episode 4

Journalists debate with Andrew Rawnsley what leading articles about the news should say.

Creating newspaper leading articles about a UK referendum on the European Union, the crisis facing NHS casualty departments, and women and Scottish golf clubs.

Andrew Rawnsley was joined by Kirsty Buchanan of the Sunday Express; Lesley Riddoch of the Scotsman; Nigel Nelson of the People; Aditya Chakrabortty of the Guardian; and Graeme Demianyk of the Western Morning News, for the live, studio-based debate series taking the form of newspaper leader conferences.

They debated: Britain and Europe; the crisis in casualty; and whether women should be admitted to private Scottish golf clubs.

Catch a Grip!

The political convulsion at Westminster over the European Union has been extraordinary. Not since 1946 has an MPs' rebellion on the Queen's Speech been so great nor, in our view, so damaging to a prime minister and his party.

Many of his backbenchers doubt Mr Cameron's claim to have a clear position on an EU in/out referendum. We strongly suspect it is questioned by the wider electorate too; in Scotland, it is regarded with mystification. For their part, Tory MPs argue they want to strengthen the prime minister's hand; they are in reality seeking to shackle him. To stop this issue from bedevilling the Conservative party yet again we think both MPs and their leader have to catch a grip of political reality and stop, in Mr Cameron's own words from opposition, "banging on" about Europe. The prime minister may need to discipline those ministers who are exacerbating the row.

We also recommend the Tories stop "feeding the crocodile" on Europe in their own interest. For most voters the economy matters much more―where the Conservatives have an edge. We doubt that there is much political advantage for Mr Miliband or Mr Clegg in emulating Mr Cameron's referendum offer; Europe is the Tories' problem.

When elected leader of his party, Mr Cameron set out to offer distinctive, more voter-friendly policies on the environment, social inclusion and welfare. He needs to recover that impulse. Meanwhile, we think that leaving the EU at the moment would be a mistake.

A&E's perfect storm

An increasingly elderly population, the deficiencies in the new 111 non-emergency advice line and the effective ending of out-of-hours care by GPs are combining to impose acute pressures on hospital accident and emergency departments.

We agree with the Secretary of State for Health in England, Jeremy Hunt, and the Foundation Trust Network that remedial action needs to be taken now―or some A&E units will face collapse. The number of patients presenting themselves for treatment in casualty has increased by four million in eight years. At the same time, waiting times in England have doubled; in Scotland they have trebled.

If the National Health Service is to serve the requirements of patients today it needs a radical overhaul. Sentimentality about the NHS has inhibited governments from grappling with structures that sometimes date back more 65 years. In addition the re-negotiation of English GPs' contracts by the last government failed to take account of the large amount of work by family doctors which was effectively done for free. That needs to be reviewed―as will the coalition's poor management of the pilot of the 111 advice line.

More fundamentally, England may have lessons to learn from north of Hadrian's Wall, specifically, in the amalgamation of health and social care functions and budgets. Scotland has found that the distinguishing feature of the patients who turn up at A&E units is that they are poor, malnourished and elderly. Ministers need urgently to investigate the possibilities of holistic, community-based services providing what these patients require―not A&E.

From fore to hole in one.

"Fore!" they shout on golf courses as a wayward ball descends on you or your property. The Royal & Ancient, the sport's governing body, should prepare for the sound of shattering glass.

Golf's hallowed clubhouses are as much a part of its unique contribution to international sport as its celebrated courses. Women as well as men should enjoy them. Sadly in Scotland the R&A is resisting calls to encourage private men-only golf clubs to admit women, describing it as an attempt to "bully" the clubs concerned.

We see it as an overdue adjustment of tradition to modernity. Private clubs may be single-sex provided they ensure guest access. But what is good enough for Augusta, home of the Masters―where former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and another woman were last year made members―is good enough for us. Muirfield, location of this year's Open Championship, should follow suit. A hole in one for sexual equality.

Producer Simon Coates.

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