Saturday 30 August 2008

Excellence, Pershore and neighbours

I've been reading a Government white paper , as you do ! Its called " Excellence and Fairness : Achieving world class public services . " For a document with such a lofty title you could expect much . But much is not delivered . This is the mouse that roared. It is a document that speaks volumes about the dichotomy of Government policy on the public service . On the one hand wanting to keep professional public servants working in state services on side , and on the other wanting more diversity of provision ,especially through the third sector. And the problem with trying to steer a middle path is that you get run over !As they do here.

One of the byproducts of a degree in philosophy is that you take a close interest in the actual words people use . So when the document talks of public service workers we have the language of " empowerment " . And what do we read for the third sector ? Well , the Government are going to continue to " expand opportunities" , whatever that might mean .There is a vast gulf in meaning between empowerment and opportunity. We shall be dissecting this document and ensuring we send a strong message to the Cabinet Office. Get off the fence and start empowering the sector. And by that I mean actually giving us the services to deliver. Not opportunities . Not talk . But actuality.

I am not suggessting that the Government are not commited to more delivery through the third sector ; they clearly are . But the mechanisms to achive this have to be strengthened and a determined push given to expanding our role , even when the public sector unions whine and complain . So backbone Ed . This is no time to take ythe foot off the pedal .

We intend to keep up the pressure on this from acevo . In the autumn we are launching a series of lectures on the theme of ; " Capturing the public services for the citizen ". There will be a publication; and you can be sure it will have more backbone than the one I have been reading! The series starts off with James Purnell ( no slouch when it comes to sector service delivery ) then Francis Maude ,Trevor Philipps and Hazel Blears. And a galaxy of respondents for each lecture . Details in the acevo website. Be there.

And be clear ; this is not just about our delivery role . it is also about that crucial role we play in campaigning and advocacy for better services. Acting as a voice for citizens and communities , when so often the public services are run for the convenience of those who work in them .

Yesterday I had a splendid day in Pershore . I was having lunch with Harriett Baldwin , who is Vice Chair of Futurebuilders. But more importantly Harriett is the next MP for West Worcestershire . a beautiful constituency that covers the Malverns and Pershore and other splendid parts of the Cotswolds . The Bredon Hills are celebrated in poetry of Housman and Betjamin . And it is Vaughan Williams country , one of my favourite composers whose death 50 years ago was remembered last week .We were having a catch up on FBE tender plans and prospects for a Social Investment Bank. Harriett , who was until recently at JP Morgan as one of their managing directors is someone who will clearly go far in the Tory Party. A sharp mind and charming personality. She is a real asset to Futurebuilders; with her vast experience of investment policy she chairs our Investment Committee and so ensures a good mix of private sector investment nous , with the third sector knowledge she brings from the work she has done with Greg Clarke on social enterprise. Indeed we have a brief visit to the local arts centre , established as a social enterprise ! She has just got back from Rwanda where she and others ( including Francis Maude )have been advising on micro credit . Francis was doing some teaching in local schools apparently. A great thing to do.

And our 2 dogs got on very well together as they sat in her car whilst we ate the wonderful Pershore plums . I went for a walk round the town afterwards and visited the sadly truncated Abbey (naughty Henry V111 )and bought a large bag of the local plums ; they are the best in the country.

And talking of Tories ,Charlbury is in David Cameron's constituency . My neighbour here is the Secretary of the local Labour Party ( at 75 no less ) and as we chat she tells me that the DC's neighbour in the cottage next door ,up road from Charlbury ,has joined the Labour Party . That will provide for interesting talk over the fence ( or more likely dry stone wall in these parts ) !

Wednesday 27 August 2008

Piffle and the States

Good old Boris. It is worth reporting what Boris said recently,

" If you believe the politicians , we have a broken society , in which the courage and morals of young people have been sapped by welfarism and political correctness . And if you look at what is happening at the Beijing Olympics you can see what piffle that is . "

This is not to say that there are not significant problems in our society . Third sector organisations working with young people understand only to well the effects of poverty , of drugs and alcohol and worklessness. But does this betoken the wider claim that society is broken? However whatever arguments you might have on whether this is a justified claim or not it is good to have the Leader of our main opposition party giving such close attention to social issues and highlighting the role the third sector can play in resolving them .

And the Government too focus serious attention on our sector. This is a time of great opportunity for the sector. Whilst the economy slips into recession I still believe the prospects for the sector remain Strong . Indeed one could argue when public spending is tight Governments are forced to look at more innovative and effective means of delivery .And so our role is strengthened. Though clearly we must watch those who think this is a smart way of cutting coasts by getting us to deliver on the cheap . Bur a professional third sector will be alive to that con and will resist it.

It is good to have politicians who buck the party line , as Boris has done,and show character. There will be many people looking across the Atlantic this week who are wishing we had the sort of politician who inspires and motivates in the way Barack Obama does. My partner has recently returned from New York City and had brought me back some Obama campaign button. I have one on my jacket now.Why can't we have someone here who inspires us to hope for change and makes us feel good and alive to the possibilities of a better society? I'm afraid neither Brown or Cameron quite fit the bill. Our politics come across dead and it is hardly surprising voters are apathetic. Politics is dominated by attack and denigration , not hope and aspiration . Will it change?

My head of International Affairs is off to the States for a month ; to go to the Clinton Foundation Conference and to meet key not for profit figures. He has 73 meetings booked already .No slouch when it comes to networking is our Filippo Addarri.But what a cool place to be over the next few months.

Saturday 23 August 2008

Boris,dogs and libraries

I am sitting in the library again. In Charlbury . The great British institution of the public library is a real treasure . The one in Charlbury is small , and just 2 computers that you need to book ; but there is a marvellous and dedicated County Librarian and you can order what you want from the vast resources of the Oxford shire County Council. There will be a new library here soon . We are fundraising for a new Community centre which will also house a new library with many more terminals for inveterate bloggers like yours truly . There would have been more money for this if it were not for bad governance of the local charity , The Gifford Trust , where poor decisions by trustees led to assets that should have been a real source of funds not materialising. And I'm afraid there is much local criticism of the slowness of the Charity Commission in sorting the problem out .

It is crucial that our sector continues to focus on improving governance. I was criticised once for saying the sector was complacent on governance . But I'm afraid it is all too often true . We need more attention to good governance ; promoting trustee training , appraisal , codes of performance and standards and also different governance structures .In some cases trustees should be paid. In some cases the board may need to be composed of non execs and execs , along the commercial or public sector model . It has always puzzled me why people think in a vast and diverse sector like ours we can only have one model of governance; that of the wholly unpaid volunteer trustee. We aim to set an example in Futurebuilders and the Adventure Capital Fund , which I chair and I am currently reviewing a Board handbook which will set out clearly the duties and responsibilities of all the board members. We will be conducting an appraisal of the ACF board in the autumn . That will include an appraisal of me by by fellow trustees. We must encourage a more professional approach to Governance , And that is the key role for a Chair and Chief Executive.

And talking of poor governance I should resist the temptation to return to the Shaw Trust and their shocking treatment of their successful CEO.Would you believe that they gave Ian a whopping great performance pay bonus in July ( over the last year I believe it amounted to 25% but I'd have to check ) and told him to go in August ! Does that tell you something ? But I am relying on the Charity Commission to be fair and speedy in their current investigation . So we shall see .And I promise not to be too boring on this subject over the coming month!

I have discovered that owning a dog for the very first time has admitted me to one of the country's largest clubs. It's amazing the number of people I now speak to on my frequent walks out to exercise Sparkles.She is becoming quite the Belle of the Ball around here. However I can't admit to very edifying conversations ; matters as weighty as toilet habits and biting are not exactly post Socratic.

But talking of orators I must admit to a growing liking for Boris Johnston .I know him slightly through an old Oxford friend and never took the rather silly view he was just a clown . I was listening to him on "Today " this morning and it was a pleasure . Such a contrast to the wooden and somewhat grumpy performance by Tom McNally ( though admittedly he did have a somewhat sticky wicket ; come on Gordon , drop ID cards or another disaster beckons ). I heard him last month at a charity reception and he talks really well , the cadences and the metaphors , the allusions and the occasional Latin make him a class performer. I must get him to do something for acevo . We must wish Tessa Jowell and Boris well in running a great Olympics in 2012. Acevo has a wide range of sporting organisations amongst its membership.We must remember that the third sector plays an enormous role in promoting and encouraging sport and that the majority of our sports men and women are given the help and encouragement they need through the thousands of sports bodies around the country.

Wednesday 20 August 2008

On a Harbour Wall

I must have made a strange sight! Sitting on the Harbour wall, mobile glued to ear as the kids played around me. The mobile signal is so bad I keep having to get down to the harbour or up on the cliffs to keep in touch with the fast developing story of The Shaw Trust.

A lengthy solicitor's letter from them has arrived. I can only get the gist of the five pages of allegations about the acevo press release and comments in my blog but it is clear they are unhappy. But fire will be fought with fire and our solicitors are onto the case. We shall be responding when I have the chance to review this in full when I am back.

But if this was an attempt to frighten acevo off from pursuing this matter, or from defending the reputation and integrity of one of our chief executive members, you can be sure it will fail. I can't say I welcomed this letter - it's always a bit unsettling when you are threatened with legal action. But did I do the right thing in springing into action to defend a member? I am sure I did and I'm sure the sector would have wanted acevo to be decisive. So the blog continues - though I pause somewhat over the keyboard as I think of those solicitors in Liverpool pouring over my latest offering.

Clearly we will pursue this and I am pleased that the wider third sector can now take a view on the recent events. Third Sector magazine has been published today and there is lengthy coverage of this case. It makes for fascinating reading and you will see why acevo has been so trenchant in its actions and why we are demanding Ian Charlesworth's reinstatement.

I have already congratulated Stephen Cook, the Editor, for taking this up in the interested of better governance in the sector. John Plummer, the journalist who has covered this has done a thorough job, but there is yet more to come.

It is of course the staff and the clients of the Trust who suffer. It must be a demoralising place to work at the moment so I hope the Charity Commission can do their work quickly. Obviously acevo will continue to press for Ian to be brought back and to start the healing process. The Shaw Trust is a great organisation that has had huge success under Ian's determined leadership and we must all hope he will be back soon.

I speak to Ian from my little nook on the wall. I assure him of our continued support and the solidarity of many of the acevo members who have been passing on messages of support. He sounds down and it's important to remember the human cost of what has been happening. But Ian is a fighter and wants to try and retrieve the situation for the staff he has been leading.

and the blog continues!

Tuesday 19 August 2008

In Hope Cove

I'm staying in Hope Cove, a tiny fishing hamlet on the Devon coast, near Salcombe. To those who love Devon the most glorious part of the Shire is South Hams, the southern most extremity between Dartmoor and the sea and Hope Cove is the jewel in the crown.

Just 5 minutes from the tiny cottage I'm staying in and you are out onto the cliffs -and I'm delighted to say they are protected forever in the care of the magnificent National Trust (CEO, Fiona Reynolds, is an acevo member).

I love the walk along to Bolt Tail, a brooding expanse of rock jutting out to sea. And an ever present hazard to the passing ships as a number of shipwrecks here testify.

I walk up there a lot, and not just for the view: its the only place you can get mobile reception!

My brother, 2 sisters, parents and assorted relations are all here too. Can you imagine a convention of Bubbs - trying to decide where and when to go to lunch or dinner - or the beach, or a walk. This is a lengthy process - and enough to drive you to drink (it does me!).

You may recall the name of this place - it hit the news recently as the volunteer coastguards did their job by rescuing someone, only to be told they were not allowed to use the Lifeboat and it has now been impounded. The volunteers face disciplinary action. A petition is already circulating in the village. And quite right too.

Another case of the over zealous bureaucrat was the sad example of the couple who have been successfully raising money for RNLI by selling home made cakes. They have been so successful they have been told by their Council they must be regarded as a
"business" and so get insurance, licences etc.

Silly examples of course, but on the other hand volunteering is a serious matter these days. Those of my members who have substantial bands of volunteers understand the need for a professional approach which provides support and training to volunteers and sets out the need for proper conduct. All of this costs - and Governments too easily forget the cost of volunteering and are too partial to new volunteering initiatives, forgetting that the charities that are supposed to provide these ever expanding volunteer opportunities need extra resources to manage them. That is not quite so exciting for Government so the money is lavished on campaigns to encourage us all to volunteer when actually it would be better spent on enabling the charities themselves to manage their existing commitments better. But it has never been fashionable to spend money on "administration" and yet that is what turns the wheels of the charities so they can then deliver.

The Shaw Trust scandal continues - more to be revealed soon. The Third Sector tomorrow should be interesting reading; it is good this matter is being exposed to the full glare of publicity. Trustees of charities need to understand that transparency is crucial to the trust and confidence people place in charities. You must expect scrutiny if you summarily remove a very successful CEO.

I am looking at the way in which Local Authorities handle the dismissal of a CEO. To protect Chief Executives from bad practice by Councillors any disputed case of a CEO dismissal has to be referred to an independent adjudicator. The law provides proper protection following a number of scandals of Councillors removing their CEOs for not bending to the latest political whim. My old boss, Sir Rodney Brooke, has handled many such. This provides proper protection for any CEO as Councillors know their actions will be scrutinised. Perhaps we can develop a similar system for charities? Perhaps a tribunal, established under the auspices of the Charity Commission, to review any dispute such as the recent tragic case of the Shaw Trust's treatment of Ian Charlesworth? This might give Charity Trustees pause for thought before summarily throwing out their CEO.

Good governance in our sector is dependent on effective CEOs. And acevo must be there to protect the reputation and integrity of its members. We shall.

Friday 15 August 2008

With my Chief Executives

One of the things like to do in August, when the tempo is slightly slower, is to spend time with members. So yesterday morning I was in South Wimbledon with Lola Barrett who runs The Grenfell Housing Association, a small foyer body based in South London. Lola is an active acevo member. A dynamic and committed black woman who has also played a strong role in the life of the community and third sector in Merton. She has also had a 2.4m investment from Futurebuilders (and before anyone who takes an interest in these matters objects, it was an investment last year by the previous regime!). We go and see the new premises they have bought and are refurbishing.

I have also been seeing various members this week; the CEOs of Alcohol Concern, Don Shenker; Jeremy Hughes of Breakthrough Breast Cancer; Hanne Stinson from The British Humanist Association and Roy Clare from The Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA).

If you run a membership organisation its crucial to keep a feel for how members regard your work. We get very positive feedback - one member saying what acevo achieves is "amazing" but we also get criticism. But it is nearly always constructive and so important to consider and makes changes where you need to. And with 2200 members from the third sector it will never be possible (or desirable) to have unanimity. But on balance I think we get it largely right and that's certainly what members say to me.

I'm delighted to get a positive response from The Charity Commission to the letter I write about the Shaw Trust. The response is speedy and to the point. They say they are taking this seriously and they will be meeting Trustees. I'm pleased that this will be reviewed. We can rely on the Charity Commission to be thorough and to investigate fairly in the interests of good governance. This case does have wider implications for our sector and it is important that proceedings are transparent. I want to ensure we put down a marker that in the third sector we expect CEOs to be treated with fairness and respect. I'm not suggesting every single CEO will always be a saint, but proper process and a care and concern for the individual must be core to good governance. As I blogged recently we are looking at the wider implications of the manner in which The Shaw Trust have treated their CEO but in the meantime well done to the Charity Commission for their prompt response on this.

Wednesday 13 August 2008

Defending the Chief Executive

Whilst on holiday I was shocked to see that the Shaw Trust had summarily removed their CEO, Ian Charlesworth. A brief statement from them said he had been put on "gardening leave" and would then be leaving the charity. I was outraged when I saw this. Ian is a great CEO. He has led the Shaw Trust to a position of strength in the employment market and Ian's leadership has been behind that growth. He is widely admired for the way he has put the Shaw Trust on the map as an effective and professional body.

I have been speaking to Ian since my return as I regard it as one of the top priorities of acevo to defend its members, their reputations and their jobs. This is one reason I believe governance is so important and why I think we are often too complacent about good governance in the sector. The actions of the trustees in this case are unacceptable and I am happy to press release my full support for Ian and demand his reinstatement. I have also written to Andrew Hind at the Charity Commission in strong terms asking him to ensure a full investigation of the Trust. I was bemused to see a public statement from the CC saying that they would "address this like any other concern". So that's good to know; disgruntled of Tunbridge-Wells writes to complain about the poor quality toy bought in the Oxfam shop will get the same treatment as a major complaint about the Shaw Trust? Surely not. No favouritism I guess but one thing is for sure, I am on this case and I will be making sure the Charity Commission do investigate thoroughly. The papers I have seen show there is a major concern. And I want Ian reinstated, as the staff of the Shaw Trust do as well. Of course it is the staff who may lose out here. This action has been taken in the lead up to major tendering exercises. The timing could hardly have been worse. And Ian has been hugely successful in this area. The actions of the Director General of the Trust and the Chair and trustees will need close examination. So far they have failed to be transparent in their reasons for this action. They will have to be. They must be held to account publicly for their actions as trustees.

I have known Ian for many years and have huge respect for his gruff, no nonsense approach; which is combined with a clear strategic vision. He has been hugely helpful to aecvo in how we formulate policy on employment and welfare and on commissioning. He played a big role in the MacDonald enquiry into DWP tendering, he remains on the aecvo DWP task force. The Shaw Trust tried to replace him on the taskforce by someone else, but the unanimous view of the members was that Ian remains as a member and the Shaw Trust have been told they cannot send anyone.

Of course it's the personal side of these stories that hurt the most. Ian has put life and soul into the organisation and his reward is this shoddy treatment. A statement that he is on "gardening leave" , which obviously has pejorative overtones. He is deeply upset and hurt, but being Ian, I'm glad to say, is not going to take this lying down. And acevo will fight his corner, as we would for all our CEO members.

I'm also concerned at the wider implications for the sector. It is too easy for Chairs and trustees to act in this peremptory way. This has to be stopped, so I have asked my policy team to look at what we might propose to stop this sort of behaviour in the future. It cannot be right that a CEO has so little protection. I know there are employment tribunals, but this is a very blunt weapon for a CEO who has a strong commitment and involvement in his organisation and whilst maybe feeling sore does not want to harm the people they once led. So there must be a better way.

And I am also clear acevo needs to do further work in building good governance and strong Chair-CEO relations. We have developed a really effective governance review tool for members and their organisations. We will need to push this harder to try to build stronger governance. If you need to ensure a review of governance then act on it soon. You could get more information on this from acevo's Seb Elsworth.

Tuesday 12 August 2008

Learning Globally

acevo and Euclid will be hosting our international conference, renamed the Global Learning Forum, in London on October 16th. As you’ll notice there’s a new name, representing our new focus. Here at acevo there’s been a heavy drive to introduce a fresh vitality for this sort of work, as we really do think this will become increasingly significant to our members. Looking abroad is increasingly important in our global age; it provides an opportunity for third sector leaders in the UK to access a wealth of information and resources, access funding opportunities and can be an excellent form of professional development.

At the conference we will also be launching the findings of an international study on the sector's role in public service delivery. Public service reform, as you know, is a huge issue for the UK third sector, but our knowledge of how other countries are managing this change remains very poor. To address this, acevo is working with Euclid Network to produce an international comparative study on public service delivery which develops the dialogue between those involved in the non-profit sector in Europe, North America and Japan with acevo’s membership and key policy-makers here in the UK.

Monday 11 August 2008

"On Liberty"

John Stuart Mill - one of our greatest libertarians, economist and thinker! My holiday reading has been the brilliant biography recently produced by Richard Reeves (himself a great guy and the new Director of Demos. A somewhat large tome that has been drawing admiring glances at the pool! I hope this has been the holiday reading of our Prime Minister and Home Secretary as the lessons about the importance of individual liberty are as relevant today as they were 150 years ago.

I have always been a fan of Mill ever since studying him at university - required reading for anyone studying politics and philosophy. But Richard's book is a tart reminder that individual liberties matter.

He was concerned that the state and society did not infringe on individual liberty unless a proven harm might result. He was scathing on the knee jerk desires of legislators to make laws in the face of the latest public scare. Jacqui Smith might consider his advice pertinent today:

"Is it the part of a legislature to shape its laws to the accidental peculiarities of the latest crime reported in the newspapers? If the last 2 or 3 murderers had been men with red hair, as well might Parliament have rushed to pass an Act restricting all red haired men from buying or possessing deadly weapons."

Written in 1852. Relevant in 2008.

Mill was as keen to ensure society, as well as parliament, respected difference. As he wrote: "No society in which eccentricity is a matter of reproach can be a wholesome state."

So he was a defender of people's right to speak their minds, even if giving offence. He warned against the "despotism of custom".

"In this country the effective restraints on mental freedom proceed much less from the law or the government, than from the intolerant temper of the national mind; arising no longer from even as respectable a source as bigotry or fanaticism, but rather from the general habit, both in opinion and in conduct, or making adherence to custom the rule of life, and enforcing it by social penalties, against all persons who, without a party to back them, assert their individual independence". An interesting reflection for David Davies perhaps, who has made much of the encroachments by Government on individual liberty (with some force I suggest) but neverless has opposed moves to grant more individual freedoms in areas such as abortion or sexual rights and civil partnerships. And a standing rebuke to the intolerance of some church leaders who attempt to force or oppose legal change to coerce the rest of us into their moral corsets.

Mill's central thesis are his opening lines in his greatest work "On Liberty" these are as true today as when written in 1859.

"Apart from the peculiar tenets of individual thinkers, there is also in the world at large an increasing inclination to stretch unduly the powers of society over the individual, both by the force of opinion and even by that of legislation."

Mill's influence is still strong. You saw it recently in the landmark ruling of the Australian Supreme Court overturning a ridiculous law passed in NSW which made it an offence to "affront" Catholics. As they said this law was "repugnant to fundamental rights and freedoms at common law."

It's an interesting point what Mill would have thought of the 42 day issue. He certainly argued that you can legislate to avoid greater harm to society - hence the terror threat could well be such a cause, but somehow I doubt he would be cheer leading this proposal. And the fact that there has been such a huge debate on this change to what is, after all, one of our most fundamental freedoms shows that the desire for liberty still retains its strength and for this J S Mill can be partly thanked.

It was particularly amusing that I was reading the chapter on liberty in the shady courtyard of my hotel in Catania and discovered the text on his travels in Sicily. He was, apparently, a fan of butter and commented frequently on its quality etc.
He wrote:

"I note as a curious fact, that when I asked for decent butter I was told that there was none available at all in Catania."

I am glad to say that there is now butter in Catania.

And indeed much else in Catania, though the highlight for me was going to see the birthplace of Vicenzo Bellini, one of my favourite Opera composers. In the rather small and poky home they have a manuscript copy of "Norma", as well as his death mask and the coffin in which they brought his body back from Paris so he could be buried in his home town. I went to see the rather splendid tomb in the not so splendid Baroque Cathedral.

They also have St Agatha there. The ornate reliquary in which they take her walkabout on her Feast Day was a sight to behold - all gold and sweet little plaster models and tableaux of her life. But good to have paid tribute both to St Agatha and St Rosalia - the great patrons of Sicily; an island I have become rather fond of since my stay.

Wednesday 6 August 2008

Under a Sicilian Sun

A deep blue sea, blue sky above with a wisp of cloud - or to be precise, the smoke from Mt Etna and I'm sitting on the hotel balcony with my blackberry doing a blog! On holiday in Sicily and I'm glad to say that a general Mediterranean manana has descended. Any emails that last week seemed so urgent have been consigned to oblivion.

Now let me describe a general day in the Bubb holiday itinerary: late and lazy breakfast followed by serious "Culture" leading nicely to a late but leisurely lunch in scenic spot (you know the type of place - small Piazza by crumbling Baroque church, table under awning strategically placed to view passing folks) then siesta and possibly, a swim, with an optional late visit to mind improving Gallery and with the grand finale - dinner in splendidly recommended gastronomic delight of a restaurant.

My partner is having a "milestone" birthday so Saturday was a day of indulgence - dinner in a Dominican monastery. Or, to be precise, the Monastery of San Domenico in Taormina which echos now not to the swish of the monkly habit but to the cash registers of American Express. Where once God was daily worshipped now wealthy tourists come and go intent not on God but the next tour stop; for this is now a top quality hotel. But of course we must remember that champagne was invented by that excellent monk, Dom Perignon, in Epernay - though he was of course a Benedictine!

We come for dinner and sit on the terrace which runs the length of the monastery and faces out across the valley to the sea. A more splendid vista it is hard to imagine and viewed over the top of a chilled glass of Prosecco life seems suddenly so very wonderful.

Palermo, the Sicilian capital, is a marvellous down at heel but splendidly vivacious city. Crumbling Palazzo, not yet availed of the healing hands of an Italian National Trust and somehow all the better for that, and a glorious mix of churches; Norman, Byzantine, Saracen and Baroque. The Cathedral holds the tomb of Frederick 11, King of Sicily and Holy Roman Emperor. He was the first official champion of vernacular Italian and Dante devoted an entire canto of the Divine comedy to describing the glory of his Court. And let's not forget the ashes of St Rosalia inured in a vast silver reliquary which goes walk about every July on her Feast day. But the real highlight is a visit by hot and dusty bus to the Cathedral of Monreale. It must be the most perfect Byzantine church in Europe, built in the 12th century by the Norman kings and employing local Arab craftsmen. The cloisters are a wonderful fusion of Christian Romaneque and Arab architecture and there is even a fountain which clearly owes a debt to those you will see in any Mosque in the middle east - it's a reminder of the vitality and magnificence of Islamic culture.

Of course the city is deeply immured in criminal venality and the grasping hands of the Mafiosa. You see the results in the unfinished building projects and the grossly underfunded municipal infrastructure. But there is a splendid organisation: the "addiopizzo", which has been set up and is campaigning against the injurious mafia tax levied on all business, known as the pizzo. I have a coffee in the quaint restaurant on the Piazza San Francesco whose owners, the Conticello, are one of the main organisers of the campaign and who gave evidence against the Mafia in a major trial in 2007. This means that the restaurant has its very own police protection; two moody Caribinieri stand guard 24 hours a day! I go several times to both show support but also to eat the superb pane con la milza. Long live solidarity and gastronomy!

We have been travelling by train, much against the advice of all locals who insist this is crazy! It will be "slow, late, crowded" etc. But we are English and we invented trains so feel affectionately for them. And they have been rather splendid. And it is so much better than risking your life on the roads where the rules of the road are made to be broken in as inventive a way as possible. The train from Taormina to Messina hugs the coast and leaning out of the window feeling the sun and the breeze is a delightful, if frowned upon activity.

I have realised on holiday that Public Service Reform is never going to catch on in all of Europe. Here there is simply no concept of a client or citizen focused public service. Whether you are in a bank or a post office, a train or bus station, it is abundantly clear these institutions exist to provide employment. What they serve is incidental. So in a bank I was in a queue behind the one teller - there were, of course, plenty of other people "working" as you could see them as they sauntered from office to office, or to the Expresso break or to call home to Mama about the pasta for lunch - it was clearly not a concern that there was a large queue. It is equally so in the post office and at the train station, where you can't get a ticket in time for your intended train! There will be another one along in a couple of hours!

Still, I'm on holiday - what's the rush!