Class action

Michael Gove needs to find some better advisers fast.

Do you believe in magic? If you give a damn about politics -- and you're reading The Staggers, so it's a fair bet that you do -- then you will probably have spent a lot of time asking, "Yes, but what does this actually mean?" Public services aren't delivered by pixies casting spells, but through a complex set of arrangements that only start in Whitehall. You wouldn't know it, but the public sector was undergoing significant change long before the banking crisis woke the politicos up to the Budget deficit.

What I will try to do here is draw the strands together and define the multidimensional chess game that is UK government. I'm going to bring together the connections between local and national politics, Whitehall civil servants, local officers and business.

It just keeps getting worse for the Education Secretary, and what started out as a little local difficulty may ultimately do for the coalition. Michael Gove started with a difficult wicket, fumbled the delivery and now has the lawyers waiting in the outfield. His error-strewn, multiple lists of cancelled school building projects mask a deeper and more complex row. And his two grovelling apologies, one to parliament and the other to councillors, weren't his first. He had to say sorry to councils after pledging to "set schools free from local authority control". Councils haven't run schools for years, but they are critical to such things as excluded kids and special needs education. Ooops.

To start, let's follow the money. The £55bn Building Schools for the Future programme was delivered by the Partnership for Schools quango to education authorities run by local councils. The aim was to build schools that are specific to local need, with long-term lifespans beyond 30 years.

The school found sponsors and contractors and cleared its bid with the education authority, which sent it on to BSF, which then sent the cash to the school. But Gove has argued that the process was cumbersome and time-consuming, and the procurement process too expensive. He has a point: Skanska spent £5m on its failed bid for contracts with Essex County Council. But bidders don't get compensation.

Labour had sent through a final pre-election tranche of school contracts, and Gove wanted to stop a fresh wave of deals from adding to costs. But he failed to see just how much chaos and anger it would cause -- even among councils on his own side. Figures from the Local Government Association showed that 67 councils have spent at least £160m doing the legally required paperwork for their now-axed bids. Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council and Nottingham City Council have already signalled that they will mount legal challenges.

Others may follow. Kent County Council -- one of the top-performing Conservative authorities -- is also reviewing its options, as is Wigan. An early cost estimate for legal fees doing the rounds is £100m if every wronged council steps up. And that's before the parents get involved.

Although it's about schools, many of the BSF projects are hubs for regeneration projects that will lever long-term job creation into local economies. That double-dip recession is now a step closer. And the actual government exposure could be as low as £1bn, depending on how you calculate it. Gove's hope to find savings will also be scuppered by the crushing demand for more school places.

Most urban councils have experienced a significantly increased birth rate. Newham Council in east London is predicting that, for the 2012/2013 intake, it will have put in place 32 more reception classes than it had in 2007 -- an extra 3,000 places. Gove could crowbar more kids into existing schools, but that would be political suicide. Added to this, rural Conservative councils are arguing that education funding is unevenly weighted against them. Devon County Council is campaigning for a bigger slice of the pie.

And there is the political pressure on the coalition; the Lib Dems' leader in local government, Cllr Richard Kemp, has described BSF as "the straw that will break the camel's back". Even when the national media row dies down, local papers will have a field day and individual MPs will do what they always do: complain about the disgraceful spending and then lobby to save their own schools. Brass plaque fatigue will also turn grass-roots supporters against the cuts: long-serving councillors getting to hear about the scrapping of the Vera Baggins Wing, named in recognition of their years of sitting in dreary meetings, will bring howls of outrage.

Gove's decisions will hit just in time for local elections next May, and the Conservatives admit privately that they are at an electoral high-water mark. This will add to their losses. Then there are the "unknown knowns" of overspends on the projects he greenlights: the nasty surprises, such as asbestos, that the builders will find when they overhaul a 40-year-old building. Cost overruns are inevitable.

So, what options does he have? He could free up local authorities to find funding on the open money markets. They have an excellent AAA rating and all that would be needed is a small change in the law, but the Treasury isn't keen. He could tell councils that what they cash they can have, but that smashes to pieces his claims of driving localism forward. To be fair, the Education Secretary has halted a programme, which is a world away from a vow never to build another school again.

But there will be losers. And he did not communicate what the alternative would be. He will have to explain why he has decided that individual projects are unviable. That is when the lawyers will step in. Gove needs to find some better advisers, and fast, or listen more carefully to what his departmental officials tell him. When you're in a hole, stop digging.

Chris Smith is a former lobby correspondent.

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Boots sells lots of products used inappropriately – the morning after pill isn't one of them

The aisles are filled with items to “fix” women's bodies, but somehow preventing pregnancy is irresponsible.

As a teenager in the early Nineties, I had a favourite food: Boots Shapers Meal Replacement Chocolate Bars. There was a plain milk version, one with hazelnuts, plus one with muesli which somehow seemed healthier. I alternated which one I’d have, but I’d eat one every day. And that was all I’d eat.

Because the packet said “meal”, I told myself it was fine. Why bother drawing fine distinctions between the thing in itself and the thing in itself’s replacement? Boots sold other such dietary substitutes – Slimfast, Crunch ‘n’ Slim – but the chocolate bars were my go-to lunchtime option. I was severely underweight and didn’t menstruate until I was in my twenties, but hey, I was eating meals, wasn’t I? Or things that stood in for them. Same difference, right?

I don’t blame Boots the chemist for my anorexia. The diet foods and pills they sold – and continue to sell – were not, they would no doubt argue, aimed at women like me. Nonetheless, we bought them, just as we bought laxatives, high-fibre drinks, detox solutions, anti-cellulite gels, bathroom scales, razor blades, self-hatred measured by the Advantage Point. Boots don’t say – in public at least – that their most loyal customer is the fucked-up, self-harming woman. Still, I can’t help thinking that without her they’d be screwed.

Whenever I enter a branch of Boots (and I’m less inclined to than ever right now), I’m always struck by how many products there are for women, how few for men. One might justifiably assume that only women’s bodies are in need of starving, scrubbing, waxing, moisturising, masking with perfume, slathering in serum, primer, foundation, powder, the works. Men’s bodies are fine as they are, thank you. It’s the women who need fixing.

Or, as the company might argue, it’s simply that women are their main target market. It’s hardly their fault if women just so happen to be more insecure about their bodies than men. How can it be irresponsible to respond to that need, if it helps these women to feel good? How can it be wrong to tell a woman that a face cream – a fucking face cream – will roll back the years? It’s what she wants, isn’t it? 

Yes, some women will use products Boots sells irresponsibly and excessively, spending a fortune on self-abasement and false hope. That’s life, though, isn’t it? Boots isn’t your mother.

Unless, of course, it’s emergency contraception you’re after. If your desire is not for a wax to strip your pubic region bare, or for diet pills to give you diarrhoea while making you smaller, but for medication in order to prevent an unwanted pregnancy, well, that’s a different matter. Here, Boots have grave concerns that making such medication too cheap may be “incentivising inappropriate use”.

I am wondering in what instances it may be “inappropriate” to want to stop the implantation of an unwanted embryo in its tracks. I’ve wondered and wondered and wondered, but I can’t think of anything. I’ve used emergency contraception five times (twice from Boots, following the third degree from an embarrassed pharmacist for no reason whatsoever.) On no occasion have I particularly felt like it.

I don’t get high on nausea and heavy, gloopy periods. I took emergency contraception because in the context of my life, it was the responsible thing to do (by contrast, the most reckless thing I’ve ever done is have a third baby at age 40, even if it saved me £28.25 in Levonelle costs nine months earlier).

Clearly Boots don’t see things the way I do. There may be women who use Adios or Strippd inappropriately, but what’s the alternative to making these things easily available? More women getting fat, or fewer spending money on trying not to get fat, and such a thing would be untenable.

As for the alternative to accessing emergency contraception ... Well, it’s only a pregnancy. No big deal. And hey, did you know Boots even sell special toiletries for new mums, just so you can pamper yourself and the baby you didn’t want in the first place? See, they really care! (But don’t go thinking you can then use your Advantage Points to buy formula milk. Those tits were made for feeding – why not spend your points on a bust firming gel for afterwards?).

I get that Boots is interested in profit and I get that pretending to really, really care about the customer is just what you do when you’re in marketing. I also get that Boots isn't the only company which does this. They all do.

But making it harder for poorer women to access emergency contraception just so you won’t offend the customers who’ll judge them? Really, Boots? Isn’t that making this whole charade a little too obvious?

Commenting on what another woman does with her body should not be off-limits (if it was, no one would have ever identified and treated the eating disorder that was killing me.) Even so, it’s instructive to look at the things we see fit to comment on and those we don’t.

Want to inject your face with poison? Augment your breasts with silicone? Have your vagina remodelled to please your husband? Go ahead. Your body, your choice.

Want to control your reproductive life? Avoid the risks and permanent aftermath of childbirth? Prevent the need for an abortion down the line?

Well, that’s another matter. We’re just not sure we can trust you. Forget about those pills. Why not have some folic acid and stretch mark cream instead?

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.