Thursday, 26 June 2008

A Bill Off Balance

Equality in the balance Controversy once more within the comments pages as Labour today announced the introduction of a bill designed to allow 'positive discrimination' in favour of women and ethnic minorities.

Harriet Harman wheeled out the latest government addition to the statute book under the guise of an enhancement to equal opportunities laws, but in the eyes of many pundits this is another government miscalculation. Instead of nods of approval for Labour's noble efforts to bring equality to the workplace, there was derision at what is seen by many as another blow for the silent majority. The Daily Express headlined with 'White Men Face Jobs Ban', while a Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development advisor remarked that she thought the bill 'incoherent' and risked introducing a 'box-ticking approach to produce minimum standards in diversity'.

The view that the government is once again going against broad public opinion is evident in the popular press, with commentators regarding it as at best the latest example of political correctness and at worst an unworkable and unnecessary burden on employers.

Why is this bill needed? The government trots out figures suggesting that, 40-odd years after equal pay legislation was brought in, women's pay is still only 87% of men's. But it does not seek to question why that should be. Perhaps because of lower experience due to career breaks, because within a family unit there is often agreement that the roles of 'breadwinner' and 'homemaker' are still largely, and consensually, taken up respectively by men and women. Perhaps because in some roles and environments an aggressive male functions better - in the same way that in others an empathetic female works best. Of course the roles are easily reversed, and often are, but the reasons why men and women find themselves in particular roles and at particular levels of pay are normally far less sinister than the government would have us believe. In 25 years of working in and around a variety of industries I have never encountered sexism in employment selection, either overt or disguised. The fact that there are now more female managers and directors than at any time in commercial and industrial history must be testament to the progress already made, and must raise the question as to whether pushing for more is actually worthwhile. Are the barriers and glass ceilings real or imagined?

Yet the government insists on barging into the labour market with the aim of righting perceived wrongs, while creating more wrongs in the process.

The principle of positive discrimination is a questionable one to start with. It goes against the market's basic right to match skills with remuneration. It also unfairly denies opportunities to individuals who have done everything to deserve consideration for a post, only to lose out because of the demographics of the employer's current workforce.

Imagine a situation where two candidates for a job are equally matched, one male one female. If the employer already has more men than women he/she will be required to show positive discrimination in favour of the female candidate. How can that be equitable? Both candidates had equal abilities and the employer should be forced only to more carefully judge their skill differences, not give way over gender.

A more likely scenario is one in which an employer favours one candidate over another, perhaps on the basis of 'soft' attributes like personality, friendliness, charm, ability to mix with existing staff, enthusiasm or even a 'gut feel' that they are the right fit. However, because of the need to apply a bias to meet equality targets that candidate might still lose out in favour of a lesser applicant who was of the 'right' sex, letting the employer off the hook. Hardly a fair way to employ people.

The aspect of pay has similar difficulties. On paper a man and woman may have similar academic qualities and a similar career history, but that does not make them equally able to do the same job. The ultimate test of what is reasonable pay is what someone is willing to pay you to do the job. If your employer doesn't pay enough, and you think you are good enough, go get another job!

Here we stand at the onset of the most difficult economic period that we have had to face for two decades. When inflation is flaring, unemployment - once in perpetual decline - is now resurgent, with overseas competition already having robbed us of our industry, still champing at the bit to take the rest. What does the government do? It stokes the fires of the unions and militants, arms them with weapons with which to hammer their employing companies, adding to the wage spiral and pushing ever farther away the last vestiges of our competitiveness. They are fiddling with legislation while Britain burns.

Idealism is fine when you are a student, but these politicians should know better now. In the real world people get paid according to their worth to an employer. Forcing an employer to pay over the odds, or to take on the wrong person to meet a political ideal of the perfect workforce demography, is plainly ludicrous.

Harman believes that being seen as 'fair' will place us in a good light in the global market place. She couldn't be more wrong. With much more of this kind of inane legislation we might as well hang up a sign at the border saying 'Great Britain: For sale by the liquidators'.

Sunday, 22 June 2008

The Exercise in Futility

Futile Gordon Brown will by now, one presumes, be starting to appreciate the futility of his mission to the Middle East. With despondency amongst his cabinet, mutterings of revolution within the backbench ranks and evaporation of goodwill from the electorate, it's not clear precisely what audience he is playing to. He would like us to see his trip to Jeddah to persuade OPEC oil producers of his 4-point plan to ease world oil market mayhem as befitting the experienced statesman he sees himself to be. He is acting as though his guests have a scintilla of empathy with his aims, and as though his domestic protagonists will see the move as anything greater than a vain attempt to be seen to be doing something, anything to shift the focus away from him and his increasingly tenuous administration. Brown would love us all to be behind him in blaming the rest of the world for our local problems.

And, to be fair, he does have something of a point. Britain's influence as a world power withered to next to nothing years ago. If we ever had the oomph to force the oil producers to revise their output plans, it was lost decades past. But Brown does still preside over the world's 5th largest economy, even if our place in the league table has the force of gravity upon it. We are a heavily oil- and gas-dependent nation, and it is reasonable for our leaders to be trying to bring to bear whatever arguments they can muster to entice more production from OPEC. And the recent 2% output rise promised by Saudi Arabia is a nod in the right direction. (Interesting that, having been handed salvation of their country from Saddam the Kuwaitis are not falling over themselves to raise oil output to ease the woes of their liberators.)

However, in any bargaining situation both sides have to stand to gain. We need a win-win. Gordon's plan is flawed and futile because it does not even meet this basic criterion. Put simply, there's nothing in it for OPEC, so why should they even listen? They will listen, they will shake his hand and pose for the cameras. They may even bring out their second best tea service for refreshments before he catches his plane back home. But what they will not do is cut of their own noses. Don't expect oil production to rise any time soon.

So, to Brown's plan. Where is he going wrong? As he told EU leaders, his aims are:

  • Making the market work better to reduce volatility in oil prices
  • Making the most of the world's existing oil reserves
  • Accelerating the switch to alternative sources of energy
  • Enabling oil producers to invest in alternative energy supplies

Making oil markets work better. Why would that make a jot of difference to oil producers? They produce what they want, when they want. The purchaser keeps paying higher prices. So far as they are concerned, the market is working pretty damn well at the moment. They care not a jot whether speculators are making a killing in the middle so long as demand stays strong and they maintain security of income. Nothing will happen in the short to medium term to disavow the world of its love of oil, nor the speculators that they can second guess the market. Certainly no gesturing from the UK government stands any real prospect of influencing either the market makers or the oil producers. Brown 0, OPEC 1.

Making the most of the world's oil reserves. Now even OPEC will admit that oil isn't going to last forever. They won't tell you how much they have in reserve, nor what the life expectancy of their oil fields are, so it's a guess just how long supplies will last. But as oil becomes scarcer the producers will want more for it, not less. And the resources which were hitherto too difficult to economically extract can be drilled when prices are high enough to make it worthwhile. Decreasing supply = high prices until supply runs out entirely. Brown 0, OPEC 2.

Accelerating the switch to alternative energy sources, enabling oil producers to invest. Now here Brown may have a fighting chance, although not in the way he would like. Sure, while the sheiks are trying to extract every penny they can from a diminishing resource they must have an eye on how little Johnny and Sally Sheik will pay for their fleets of Mercedes in the years to come. Quite how far into the future that will be is uncertain, but those OPEC countries whose economies depend almost entirely on oil (which is most of them) must surely foresee the day fast approaching when the last well is closed off and they have to make a living some other way. So expect to see investment in wind, wave, solar and ground thermal power sources increasing from the OPEC producers over the coming years. But don't imagine for a second that they will compromise their lifestyles in order to introduce these wonderful technologies. The buyer will fund it through high oil prices, just like now. As Nick Clegg put it, if Brown thinks OPEC will fund wind farms in the UK he must be living in 'Cloud cuckoo land'. The boy Clegg doesn't get it right too often, but he's bang on the nail there. Brown 0, OPEC 4.

Quite apparently the oil producers have the upper hand. In fact the entire deck is rigged in their favour. Brown calls for a change to current practices so that "Whenever there is protectionism it is tackled. So that instead of uncertainty and unpredictability there is greater certainty. And instead of instability there is greater stability". Hang on, did he say that protectionism should be tackled? Isn't that like asking the Mafia to adopt safe working practices, or trying to persuade Marlboro that cigarettes cause cancer? OPEC is protectionism. It is protectionism enshrined, embodied and unembarassingly emblazoned on the souls of its members. Brown has more chance of persuading David Cameron to get a Michael Foot tattoo on his arse than he has of getting OPEC to look after anyone's interests ahead of its own. It will protect its profitability until the last barrel is bone dry.

Brown want's win-win, but the truth is he lost 11 years ago. Back then Blair and his henchman had the chance to invest the increasing tax take in renewable energy, nuclear power, bringing the grid up to speed to connect to offshore wind farms, encouraging efficient vehicle production (rather than taxing inefficient vehicles), done all of the things he is espousing now but ahead of the crisis instead of within in.

But despite this he could not have prevented the oil running out, the Asian economic boom or the obscene power wielded by international speculators. He could not have prevented the fall.

But he could have given us a bigger pillow to land on.

Thursday, 19 June 2008

Chicken, Egg, Scrambled Message

Inflation - Chicken and egg Alistair Darling can only be applauded for trying. In his Mansion House speech he called on employers and employees, private and public sector, to exercise restraint over pay increases. A valiant but vain attempt to curb inflationary pressures bubbling up from the workplace in a way not seen for over 15 years.

The news that Shell tanker drivers had received a 2-year 14% pay deal must have been greeted with a grimace by the Chancellor as he prepared to convince City bigwigs that pay must be controlled. And with the Bank of England Governor's inflation letter in his pocket, announcing the CPI has breached 3.3%, perhaps even Alistair could be forgiven for disbelieving his own message.

Inflation, once it gets a foothold, is self-perpetuating - as we all know. As fuel, food and housing costs push skyward almost daily we as rational individuals can only reapply that pressure to our employers. Over the last 10 years there has been little need for employees to do this, but as the pips start to squeak the workforce is moved to act. And so the dominos tumble.

The Shell drivers episode is chilling. Already earning well above the national average (and several times their real worth), these workers were nevertheless able to force a monumental rise out of their employers. True, they had more influence (in terms of being able to bring the country to a standstill) than most employees do. But their actions may have set a dangerous precedent. Firstly they signal to workers in similar jobs that they could demand similar wages. Secondly, they showed that the unions have a lot more power than we are used to crediting them for.

Back in the 70's and 80's we were familiar with the regular and frequent attempts (often successful) of unions in forcing up wages; industrial action was commonplace, union membership was high; stoppages at Leyland, pickets at coal mines - the unions held sway for much of the post-war period. Then came Maggie and the unions were effectively neutered. And with economic growth, full paypackets and high employment, there was no place for militant unions. But things are changing. Whether we are seeing a real resurgence of the unions is too early to say, but many of the signs are there. Unions get their strength from disenchanted members, their growth when workers feel threatened and want support. Those times are most certainly upon us, being fuelled by a pound that buys less and less.

Darling is saying what he has to say, but while we can all agree in principle we will be not be complying in practice.

There are surely more challenges to come when public sector pay settlements hit the negotiating table. With an official target inflation rate of 2%, yet with the RPI topping 4% and rising, there are going to be increasingly disgruntled government employees out there. Can we really countenance a nursing strike, or a police work-to-rule?

MPs are reportedly angling for a pay increase again, to take their pay to £75,000 with a 21% rise. Brown has supposedly ordered his ministers to refuse an increment to set an example. But anything above 2% would be utterly hypocritical and given the furore over expenses payments in recent weeks it's amazing that Parliamentarians have the nerve to ask for a raise at all.

The spiral has begun to turn, the dominos are tilting and about to fall. Government may thinks its message is clear, but in reality it is scrambled, unconvincing and ultimately futile. Costs go up, wages go up. Wages go up, costs go up.

I may not know much about poultry, by I know Chicken and Egg when I see them. Hello inflation. It's been a while...

Sunday, 15 June 2008

Randomly Muttering Again

Tanker sadnessThe Shell tanker drivers strike continues, and confirms the pernicious attitude of both the drivers themselves and their myopic Unite representatives. Secondary strikes are adding to the disruption, with BP drivers reportedly joining in and secondary picketing sparking up at fuel depots.

Thanks to labour laws that protect these guys from intervention from their employers it isn't possible to do the sensible thing and sack or suspend them, to allow replacements to be brought in. So Joe Average, already pushed around with scandalous petrol prices and looking forward to a seaside summer break to beat the air fuel surcharges, now faces the prospect of getting no fuel at all. Going to be some unhappy kids this vacation.

These drivers already earn way over the national average for doing a job which they contend is dangerous and skilled, but which we all know involves sitting on your rear and operating the power steering most of the day. When Shell subcontracted their work 9 years ago, these guys were released to the vagaries of the real, commercial world and they can't face up to the fact that they are not worth as much as they thought they were. Thankfully for them they have control over a valuable resource and therefore have the means to publicise their grievances freely. But that doesn't make them right. We can only hope that sense will prevail soon and lack of wages will force the tanker drivers back to work.

********

Dob you in The Government 'Tax Abuse' hotline was reviewed this week. This scheme was set up in 2006 for anonymous citizens to report to HMRC their suspicions of tax evasion by neighbours, traders, temporary businesses and anyone else not meeting their tax obligations.

120,000 calls were received though apparently, and disappointingly, many were malicious attempts to make life difficult for petty enemies, annoying neighbours and people of whom the callers were plainly just jealous. It's curious but true that 'keeping up with the Jones' now extends to prying into Mr Jones' tax affairs and, if possible, dobbing him in to the Revenue to make you feel better when he gets a better car than you. A uniquely British trait I wonder?

That's not to say that the confidential phone line is not worthwhile. When most of us are taxed to the hilt it is galling to see people apparently getting away with paying little or no tax on their undeclared earnings. Every wondered why big expensive houses often seem to have builders' vans parked outside, or why hairdressers seem to have the nicest sports cars? Ever met an electrician, plumber or window cleaner that didn't have a healthy tan at least twice a year?

Now I'm not going to say that people should be locked in irons whenever they do a 'cash in hand foreigner'. I've filled in a few tax returns in exchange for a drink over the years. The odd few quid here and there is fair and, let's face it, un-policeable and unpreventable. What most people object to is systematic tax evasion, and those that practice it are difficult to pin down because they are below the radar of the tax inspectors. The authorities rely on insider information to detect the cheaters and on the the fear of random selection for scrutiny of their income and expenditure. That's why a hotline is still a good idea, along with heavy fining for blatant abuse of the rules. The hotline should stay, even if it does encourage a minority of us to use it as an anti-social weapon against friends and neighbours.

A footnote - why not require self-employed home workers to display a notice on their premises, or register on a public record that they conduct a business from their home? That would take away the suspicion, born from secrecy, that their neighbours harbour over their tax status. Or is that naive?

********

Company car racerIt's getting easier to spot the company car drivers on British roads. Travel the high streets and suburbs and you won't be able to tell that there is a fuel crisis, but get onto the dual carriageways and motorways and it's apparent who is and who isn't paying for their own petrol.

According to a YouGov poll in today's Sunday Times, 41% of us are making fewer car journeys and 26% are driving more slowly. So although many people are trying to be more thrifty, three quarters of us are not making much effort. I bet I can guess who are the ones who have not modified the use of their right foot.

Company cars are still a stock part of the standard white collar, middle to upper management / sales representative's remuneration package. Often the company will also pick up the tab for private fuel use as well as for the cost of petrol or diesel used in the pursuance of the company's business. There are an awful lot of company cars on British roads (estimate at between 5% and 10% of all passenger vehicles) and they consume a very large proportion of the petrol and diesel used every day. If the government wishes to successfully reduce fuel wastage, this is a good place to look. Notice I said wastage, not usage. Driving a company car - as I have done - is essential to many jobs; it simply isn't a choice if your work requires you to move around the country. What is discretionary though is the manner in which those cars are driven. Through the tax system there should be a carrot for those companies and drivers who consume the least fuel, and a stick for those who do not try to economise. Frankly, bombing down the motorway at 90mph in your company Beemer should not only lose you friends in Greenpeace but should hit your pocket as well as your company's P&L. And when there are technology-based alternatives like email, telephone, teleconferencing and even humble webcams there is now less need than ever to get into the car at all.

If you have all your fuel - business and private - paid for by your company then you will have very little incentive to drive more frugally. These days I try to conserve the contents of my tank and drive at the speed limit, or less. Yet I am routinely tailgated and flashed by besuited young drivers in a hurry to overtake. They have no personal interest in economy, whether micro or macro, because they personally have nothing to gain from being better, slower, greener drivers.

The government should recognise this and tax private fuel benefit accordingly, and companies would do well to reconsider the value of the benefit in kind that giving private fuel away bestows. Maybe companies could consider sending their drivers on courses for economical driving, or structure bonuses around fuel economy.

With the right incentives perhaps we can make the oil last a little longer, and have a few less Lewis Hamilton-wannabe Mondeo drivers on our roads.

Wednesday, 11 June 2008

Stand, and Deliver the Fuel!

Shell tanker drivers are hell bent on holding the UK to ransom to squeeze a pay increase from their employers. Incenced and goaded by their union, Unite, they today failed to agree to a 6.8% pay rise that would put driver's on a basic pay of £39,000 per annum - before overtime.

We need tanker drivers. No one would deny them a decent wage. But consider, by way of comparison, what other trades and professions earn - take a look at the table for some typical examples:

Notice anything? If your work means you may get killed for your country, have to work long hours in a hospital mending people, meant you had to slave for years to earn professional qualifications or must work long or unsociable hours to cart drunks around on public transport then you must be feeling a bit of a mug right now. All along, if only you'd known, you could have been driving a Shell tanker and been quids in.

Now I am no defender of the oil companies and it certainly grates on my nerves when I am waiting for my £60 worth of diesel to fill my tiny tank, to think that Shell made $27 billion profit last year. And that was when crude was averaging $90 a barrel. I wouldn't be first in the queue of objectors if Darling levied a windfall tax on the likes of Shell, Total, BP and the other winners in this daft excuse for an oil market.

What I do object to is these already generously paid blue collar guys throwing their weight around at a time when they can cause the most disruption to motorists. Did I say motorists? Good heavens I sound like a Sun journalist. I mean citizens; just how many people do you know who don't drive a car, ride a bus or rely on the Tesco delivery man these days?

The opportunism of the tankermen and their shortsighted union backers is blatant. They know that no matter how much the oil companies and government implore people to be rational and not 'panic buy', that is precisely what they will do. As an industry spokeman made clear this morning, to the individual it is perfectly rational to buy fuel if you think it won't be available and you have to drive to work, take your old mother to the hospital or get the groceries.

So the arrogance of this union-backed action is of real annoyance to me and I have no doubt millions of others who will be caught up in their squabble.

If these guys are worth more, let them seek it else where.

Apparently they are short of people to drive tanks and tankers in Afghanistan. But they'd have to take a pay cut - so best to sit back, have a cuppa and cripple the economy instead.

Saturday, 7 June 2008

Oiling the Bicycle

Oil for your bike sir In the basic economic theory of supply and demand, prices rise when there are more people wanting to buy than there is capacity for sellers to sell. Likewise, when there is a glut of product available prices fall to entice more buyers.

So much for theory. How does this apply to oil?

The world's demand for oil is not subject to such simple laws. 

World oil consumption

Despite the USA's dominance in world consumption, growth in demand in China and India particularly over the last decade has surged. It must be said that much of this increased consumption is simply from the displacement of industry from the west to the east; as factories close in Birmingham and open in Guangzhou, the requirement for oil to fuel production and transport moves too. But the increased opulence and rapid move to a more capitalist culture in the Indian subcontinent and the Far East have also accelerated local demand for oil too. Meanwhile, the West remains largely reliant on its familiar fuel sources and, while prices have been relatively low, disinterested in reducing consumption.

The USA's fixation with gas-guzzling automobiles, and the European addiction to cheap air travel have also taken their toll. Demand continues to rise all over the world.

 

World oil production  1930-2004Total Oil Production

Supply kept pace with consumption for the best part of the last century, but in the last decade and especially in the last 2-3 years the supply has failed to meet demand. That is one fundamental reason why oil prices have risen.

So why has supply not risen? And what else is influencing prices?

Around two thirds of the world's oil supplies are dictated by OPEC. This organisation's sole purpose is to deny the market place the ability to set prices according to 'free' supply and demand principles. It is a cartel - yes, the sort of thing that governments try to ban within their own borders - but it operates unashamedly to protect the interests of its members. Its members agree to raise or reduce oil production levels, thereby controlling supply. As demand is inflexible within economies based upon oil consumption, the only release for the mismatch is for prices to rise. And when they do, the oil producers' profits rise with them.

There is the argument that the more oil we extract from the earth, the harder it is to get more. So the exploration, extraction and production costs rise and therefore the oil producers do have some justification for lifting prices in order to pay for this. They might also be forgiven for restricting supply of a scarce commodity in order to prolong the time over which they may enjoy the income from selling it. Many of the OPEC countries' sole or main income is from oil. When it runs out they will have nothing left to replace it.

But the secrecy over which the oil producers treat their planning and their insistence that supply is sufficient to meet demand leaves many to conclude that their motives are profit driven. Put simply, they are greedy and cannot resist taking advantage of a captive world market.

There has been a lot of talk in recent months about the effect that market speculators are having on oil prices. Speculators buy contracts today in order to sell them for more tomorrow in a rising market (or sell contracts they don't own today hoping to buy them for less tomorrow in a falling market).

The weakness of the dollar means that investors are looking for places to make money. Betting on the dollar when US inflation and unemployment are on the rise looks like a bad bet, so oil is getting more attention than ever before. And with the lack of transparency over potential future oil field discoveries, reserves held by both producers and consumers, the rising demand trends and the lack of alternative energy sources, oil prices have only one direction to take.

Oil is not going to be cheaper any time soon, and the world (most especially the West) has left it woefully late to find those alternatives.

Time to dust off the bicycle, oil the chain and leave the car in the garage.

Thursday, 5 June 2008

Plug.

PlugNoBollocksPolitics has been soiling the bedlinen of the political blogosphere for a little while now, and is steadily picking up readers. Or at least there are people who are freakishly unable to remove me from their feed list. If you find an idle moment while you're waiting for your beer to warm up or your cappuccino to cool down, why not come over to NoBollocksPolitics and catch up on previous mutterings. All comments welcome so long as they are words of more than 4 letters. Free speech required and admired.  nbp.

Wednesday, 4 June 2008

Random Mutterings

Random mutterings 1 Some thoughts meandering through my mind from recent news stories.

Firstly, the attempts by some - principally Bob Crow of the RMT - to lay the blame for the tube 'alcohol ban' disturbances at the door of London Mayor Boris Johnson. Following Johnson's announcement that a ban would be put in place, a social website-driven party was organised by, one assumes, well meaning fun seekers to mark the event with a final drinking session on the trains. Predictably it turned to violence and anti-social behaviour amongst the cretinous types that get drawn to this sort of thing. Mr Crow should point his finger in the right direction. Johnson's intentions are honourable and he should not be held responsible for the disgraceful behaviour of a few morons. Bravo Boris for taking the decision to help get drunks out of our public spaces. Let's see more of these courageous policies.

******

Thank goodness that Hilary Clinton's and Barack Obama's rhetoric-laden slag-fest has finally reached its end. OK, so it's important that we hear what the potential next leaders of the free world have to say, but even their most ardent supporters must by now be weary of the vacuous, pompous, soundbite-friendly self aggrandising rubbish that they have both been spouting for months on end. This style of presidential campaigning seems to have become par for the course in US politics ever since Kennedy's days. Every hopeful leader tries to emulate the legendary dead president, each imagining that the only way to strike a chord with the voters is to appear supremely poignant and statesmanlike, delivering pithy one-liners and talking of principles and values constantly, to the exclusion of practicalities and relevant comment on real life problems. None will willingly talk about detailed policy when they can generalise instead. As this Democratic battle slogged on I wondered if I was the only one who wished they'd actually talk about something of substance? But judging by the whoops and hollers of their captive audiences. who seem to take orgasmic pleasure when being whipped into a fervour by the mere throat-clearings of their chosen idols, I suspect I'm alone. Americans, it appears, love their politics to be repleat with bollocks.

******

Gordon Brown has stated his desire to reduce the age at which youths can be prosecuted for carrying knives from 18 to 16. A predictable (some might say pandering) reaction to the recently reported spate of knife crimes in our cities. Nevertheless, credit where it is due - Brown's move is a welcome one. Doubtless there will be those who oppose the change on the basis that the wee ones' rights would be violated; or they would prefer to wait until a stabbing has actually occurred rather than removing the potential for it to happen. Make the change. Publicise the new law. Arrest and prosecute the flouters. Less knifes on our streets equals more deaths prevented. That, surely, is an objective that cannot be questioned. Please politicians, don't try to make petty gains by arguing against such a fundamentally sensible proposal.

******

Who will be the next Deputy Governor of the Bank of England? That seems to be a bone of contention for Mervyn King and Alastair Darling, each of whom favours quite different candidates. Darling wants a City man - Paul Tucker - while King has let it be known that his fellow academic Charles Bean is his 2-I-C of choice. Darling contends that the financial sector would be more at ease with a Deputy Governor, and potential Governor-in-waiting, who was 'one of them', able to empathise with their concerns and to work cooperatively with the markets. This, he thinks, will help promote stability. King on the other hand would prefer the expert monetarist, professorial Bean whom he thinks would be most adept with the complex management of an economy needing critical care, with inflation burgeoning yet stagnation a real threat. The choice is Darling's to make, but he will not wish to have a public spat with King over it. In any case, King retains responsibility for any subsequent reshuffle he should care to make. With both applicants ostensibly fitting the job description it will be a test of resolve for both the Governor and the Chancellor on which one gets the appointment letter.

Saturday, 31 May 2008

Love, love me do

Electric kittenLabour just wants to be loved. But it seems that whatever populist move the party makes just now, there are as many people showing derision as delight.

Brown's announcement that he has instigated measures to help the 'fuel poor’ is a case in point. Many blame the government for the sorry state of the nation, including the economic hardships faced by many in the face of rising food and energy bills. Perhaps that's a little harsh - the world markets, substantially to blame for these price rises, are hardly under the control of UK politicians. But the public certainly have a reasonable gripe when it comes to high taxation, the spiraling costs of benefits and allowances, the daylight robbery of petrol duties and VAT and ever growing local government costs. So it would seem worthy of a responsible government to do what it can to alleviate the pressure of rising energy prices. And Brown, recognising that his party's once near-unassailable poll leads are now a distant memory, is keen to appeal to people's most important priority. Their pockets.

Gordon arrived on his white charger this week with cunning plans to assist those voters - I mean citizens - whose gas and electricity costs are above the magic 10% of their income. Measures included giving £150,000 to an Ofgem / Citizen's Advice awareness scheme on social assistance; £3 million to boost 'microgeneration' programmes (such as domestic heat pumps) and, controversially, moves to pass data to energy companies on who amongst their clientele is receiving state benefits. This is intended to ensure that the social assistance schemes offered by the energy companies (who have apparently been persuaded to increase their funding by £225 million) get to the right people.

The government's track record on handling personal data was severely compromised with the loss of millions of child benefit records just a few short months ago, so the prospect of commercial companies being freely given information on the financial circumstances of hundreds of thousands of families does raise a few eyebrows. All justified, says Age Concern, under the circumstances.

But that's not what most of the criticism is concerned with.
Comments pages on many news sites quickly filled up with messages of resentment that the help on energy bills was being narrowly targeted. There is little dissent that the elderly should receive assistance, but plenty of angst was apparent from 'middle income' earners who can not fathom why, when their finances were being squeezed as well, the 'benefit scroungers' are being given yet another handout. And why, after all, would energy companies give away profits to the poor? Surely they will simply increase bills to 'wealthier' customers to compensate?

Again, those individuals who have saved and not frittered away income on smoking, drinking and such like, so that they can scrape together a living without recourse to benefits, will lose out. Those who have spent their money will be given more, subsidised by the prudent.

OAPs on the other hand, and those on pre-pay meters for whom no subsidy announcements were forthcoming, poured scorn on the government initiative. Many criticised the still significant outlay they would have to make for home insulating materials. Help The Aged fears that the moves are too little to prevent many of the estimated quarter of a million pensioners pushed into fuel poverty this year being left in the cold this winter.

Of course the government's political opponents jumped to denounce the moves, saying that they were merely a rehash of existing ideas and policies. Not a few pointed out that the French experience is somewhat different, since they spent the last few decades building 80+ nuclear plants to meet their energy needs. Others highlighted the smokescreen of increased North Sea oil output, which even the government was forced to admit would not make any discernable difference to petrol prices at the pumps.

Brown and his party are in the 'damned if they do, damned if they don't' position that they will come to find increasingly familiar over the coming months. Being generous (uncharacteristically!), I'll give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that their motivations for trying to help the 'fuel poor' are socially and not politically motivated. But that is not the perception held by many of the people that Brown is trying to reach out to. For the external economic problems that plague the country, out of the government's power to change, will figure large in people's minds for some while to come. And after 11 years, with Labour now looking to have outstayed its welcome, the populace will happily blame Gordon for their misery.

Gordon wants to be seen as the man who had, is and will continue to fight for us. But even with the most charitable assessment of his chances, you have to conclude his uphill battle verges on the vertical.

Wednesday, 28 May 2008

React for goodness sake!

Sorry I'm Late Reactor What's all the fuss about nuclear power?

There's not enough of it for one thing. As one of the pioneers in the field, Britain was among the first countries in the world to develop commercial nuclear power plants in the forties and fifties. Right up until the mid-80's, nuclear was seen as the way of the future for a UK that was powerful, independent and forward looking.

But by the time of the Chernobyl disaster, with environmental groups waging war on the industry and fossil fuel prices having stabilised after the 70's oil shortages, nuclear was starting to lose favour. Britain opened its last nuclear power station, Sizewell B, in 1994. But by then the appetite for nuclear power was all but dead. And New Labour was not too keen to give it the kiss of life.

Currently we have a handful of rapidly aging nuclear power stations generating less than a quarter of our electricity; all will be decommissioned within the next 20 years. Within 10 years our nuclear power generation capacity will have been halved. Over the time since we built Sizewell B, our North Sea oil reserves have all but dried up and our coal mining industry, thanks to the efforts of Thatcher, has vanished.

In contrast to the British story, nuclear energy now produces more than a third of the electricity in the European Union, its biggest single source of power.

Why did the British nuclear industry not grow to replace the fossil fuel depletion? Investment. Or rather, the abysmal, short-sighted lack of it.

With the privatisation of the Central Electricity Generating Board in the 90's came an effective end to state investment in the future of energy generation. Private energy companies found themselves with barrier-free markets, low oil, gas and coal costs and therefore no incentive to invest for the long term. Although nuclear fuel is cheap to produce, its capital cost is high. So without direct government tax investment for state-sponsored builds or generous subsidies for the private sector, nuclear was effectively abandoned.

It takes at least 5 years to commission a nuclear reactor. Governments operate with a political time horizon of, at best, 5 years. So while Gordon and Tony were raising a fortune in taxes over the last 11 years it would seem that (despite lip service being paid) they were never seriously contemplating the need to re-invest any of it in energy production.

It should not have come as a surprise that we are in an energy crisis now. The world has been at the mercy of OPEC for years, so a re-emergence of their money-grabbing antics can not have failed to have blipped on government radars. The Asian economies have been seeing double digit growth every year for the last two decades. Did nobody notice that as our industries vanished, as factories sprang up in India, Taiwan and China with impudent regularity, that these countries would come to dominate the demand for energy? When I was in manufacturing our two biggest costs were people and power. If your Chinese plant is cheap on labour you can spend more on energy...supply and demand guys, supply and demand.

So we in the UK have been sleeping while the rest of the world moves on, and now we are paying the price. Nuclear is a long-term alternative and it should always have figured as a major part of our energy resource portfolio.

Yes, nuclear is not a godsend. It has its problems, and not everyone is so certain it's a good idea to build more reactors. There is a waste issue that has yet to be fully addressed. But you should not let your understanding of nuclear power generation from 20 years ago colour your judgement. Today's efficient reactors produce a fraction of the waste of their forebears. In fact we have probably already made most of the waste we ever will.

Detractors talk of leaving a legacy for our children, but what about the here and now? Consigning Britain to being a 4th-rate economy, dependent on the robbing sheiks of the Middle East or playing second fiddle to the Asian Tiger states is no gift to the next generation.

Naysayer Michael Meacher today queried the (lamentably late) surge of interest in nuclear power being driven by Gordon Brown, saying that having an abundance of nuclear-generated electricity would not help with the current oil crisis. Perhaps if electricity were cheaper than petrol we might all be driving battery-powered cars to work? Meacher is an anachronism. It's his kind of negativity that has helped get us into this sorry mess.

The Tories on the other hand, while broadly agreeing that nuclear is the way forward, have insisted that they would not spend government money on it. Wake up, please! The government should spend taxpayers' money for the benefit of guess who? The taxpayers! If the Conservatives can find a taxpayer not in need of affordable, sustainable power then I'll consume my headwear. (If the Tories are true to their word and can cut the benefits mountain from its current £340 billion per year, they can find plenty of money.)

Britain needs its independence. Not from Europe, but from Asia and the Middle East.

Of course nuclear is not the only solution, and all efforts should be made to kick-start our renewable power generation programmes. We've been pitiful at that too of course.

So nuclear is the strongest card we have. Yet even if we start now, with all the planning and legal wrangles to get through - let alone the design and building works - we'll be lucky to see any new reactors this side of 2020. At least a decade of energy impoverishment beckons.

So I say, go ahead Brown - start building nuclear plants. But why the hell didn't you start 11 years ago?

Sunday, 25 May 2008

Pigs have more pride

Pig in troughSo the expenses and allowances of our MPs are being revealed. How many of us are genuinely surprised to hear that some bare-faced cheek has been applied by our representatives when making their claims against the public purse? What's that I hear? Silence.

Some examples: Health Minister Ann Keen drawing £100k allowances against the procurement of a luxury Westminster flat; she and her husband insuring their lives for £430k and claiming the premiums; David Cameron claiming £1,742 per month on mortgage payments; Margaret Beckett's £19,000 claims for housing costs, including 120 visits by her gardener.

All of today's papers have a set of favourite 'shocker' claims to report. It's clear why MPs were so reluctant for this information to be revealed, and their spending over many years was quite blatantly done in the sure knowledge that it would never come to light.

To counter accusations of porcine gluttony, defenders state that no rules have been broken. But setting your own rules doesn't count for much does it? The claim that revealing MPs' addresses would place them at risk was also a smokescreen. Fine, hide those facts (most of which are in the public domain anyway). But what is spent from taxes should be public knowledge also.

So often proclaiming an urge to champion the poor and under-privileged our political masters have finally had the veil lifted on their secret excesses, claimed and paid in cynical contravention of stated beliefs and ethics.

What sort of internal control is in effect to stop such drainage of taxpayers' cash? None it would seem. No self-respecting commercial organisation would tolerate such wanton misappropriation of its funds by its staff. Why should government be different?

After years of the major parties accusing each other of sleaze, the general public now sees that it is endemic within the very system.

Pigs with their snouts in the trough?

Pigs have more pride.

Arrivederci Milano

I recently visited Milan on business, so thought I'd share some brief observations.

The first thing that you notice is the general smartness of the people. Designer clothes abound, people take pride in their appearance. Considering the high cost of clothing this is praise indeed! Versace, Armani, Dolce & Gabbana, Prada - everyone seems to enjoy being stylish.

There is little litter on the streets. There is graffiti, though it tends to be artistic rather than crude.

At night I walked between restaurants and bars without concern for my safety. There is a high police presence on the streets. The local police patrol on foot or by bicycle; the Polizei and Carabinieri are highly visible, particularly in the city centre. Most police officers carry firearms.

Young soldiers are often to be seen in the city; National Service was, until recently, still mandatory in Italy.

A brief drive around the city took us past the football stadium, and I was interested to note the proximity of some quite expensive houses. I pondered whether the owners were ever troubled by drunken fans on match days; perhaps that's more an English thing. Traffic is aggressive (observance of Zebra crossings seems optional), and you must take care not to get wiped out by a Lambretta crossing the street. Petrol prices are similar to the UK. There are many small cars and a number of hybrids on the road.

On Friday evening I took a stroll through the centre of the town, taking a beer at a street cafe and absorbing the atmosphere. No gangs of youths to be seen. No drunks in doorways.

My return to the UK reminded me why I enjoy my visits abroad.

Back in Birmingham the Armani suits had turned to Donnay tracksuits, baseball caps and hoodies. Driving back through Birmingham I instinctively locked the car doors. No police to be seen. Groups of young men carrying cans of lager, shouting and swearing. Babies being pushed from pub to pub in pushchairs by smoking mothers. Shaven heads and tattoos. My England.

Buona giornata!

Saturday, 17 May 2008

Beautiful Backhand

Thank you Heather Brooke, Ben Leapman and Jonathan Ungoed-Thomas.

Through dogged determination these three individuals have brought about a landmark change in the way our present and future politicians will conduct themselves.

Brooke, Leapman and Ungoed-Thomas used the Freedom of Information legislation to request detailed information about the expenses claimed by a sample of MPs, including Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Opposition Leader David Cameron.

The House of Commons objected, particularly on the question of revealing expenses and allowances paid for MPs’ second homes on the grounds that the request was “intrusive” and that security might be compromised. But yesterday the High Court ruled that the information must be disclosed by the end of next week.
Doubtless there are many MPs who have no qualms about revealing their claims, but it will be interesting to see the excuses and justifications that others offer when their expenses are scrutinised.

Disgracefully, £150,000 of public funds have already been spent in MPs’ legal fight to withhold the information requested. The defence had been supported by the Speaker, Michael Martin, who has been criticised over his wife’s claims for nearly £5,000 spent on taxi fares.
You might think this was no serious matter, after all surely MPs can only claim for reasonable, legitimate costs? Well last year expenses claimed topped £87m – an average of nearly £136,000 per MP, on top of a salary of over £60,000 and membership of a first rate pension scheme.

But there is more than the (substantial) cost involved. There is the principle that public spending should be open to the scrutiny of the public. Politicians have been reminded by this judgement that it is they who are the servants and the public who are the masters.

As Ms Brooke remarked, "Anyone making a claim on the public purse must be prepared to put forward their receipts to justify their expenses and to make those receipts public."

I couldn’t agree more. When we are being taxed to our teeth and are suffering incessant cost of living rises, we do not need hypocritical politicians preaching restraint on one hand and taking backhanders in the other. Public sector workers who are still smarting from being told to stomach sub-2.5% pay rises will doubtless be keen to hear what their MPs are paying themselves from the public coffers.

Roll on next Friday.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2008/may/17/houseofcommons.michaelmartin

Thursday, 15 May 2008

Sink the Bismarck!

Gordon bismarck

Is there any chance of redemption for Gordon Brown? To read the headlines it is more like resurrection than redemption that is needed.

Throughout his time as Chancellor, with the winds of economic growth, negligible inflation and historically low interest rates pushing him along, he comfortably balanced the books of the country and rejoiced in his own competence.

He liked to be known as the ‘Iron Chancellor’ – a moniker purloined from Otto von Bismarck, the 19th century Prussian statesmen responsible for German unification (the first time around).

But will Brown share the fate of Bismarck’s namesake battleship from WWII, destined to be holed below the waterline and sunk without a trace in these choppy political waters?

In the ‘nice decade’ as Mervyn King, the Bank of England Governor coined it yesterday, Brown’s stewardship of the economy was a central plank of New Labour’s claim to be the rightful rulers. And in the wake of the Conservatives' then recent economic failings he could hardly have asked for a starker contrast to his own apparent talents. Indeed such was the rate of economic growth (fuelled as it was by a sustained but ultimately unsustainable property boom, and surging world markets that Britain couldn't fail to benefit from), Gordon was able to get away with some astonishing slights of hand.

Perhaps the most notorious was the abolition of pension scheme dividend tax credits in his first Budget in 1997. With a stroke of a pen he denied pension funds the ability to reclaim £5bn a year from the exchequer, ultimately adding to the woes of pensioners for a generation. It's estimated that pensioners are £100bn out of pocket thus far from this raid on long term savings.

Then there was the outright scam that was the manipulation of his own ‘Golden Rule’, wherein he promised to borrow only to fund capital spending and not current expenditure. In 2002 he did just that, with an increase in the deficit to allow him to fund teachers’ pay and the like. He then modified his rules to allow himself the full ‘economic cycle’ of 1999-2006 over which to bring borrowing back in line, moving the goalposts without a twinge of embarrassment. The Tories, still languishing in self-induced unelectability, could only look on.

In 2007 Brown came under fire for selling off over half of the country’s gold reserves when gold prices were in the doldrums. It’s estimated that decision alone cost the UK £2bn.

Over the last 7-8 years petrol and diesel prices have steadily but inexorably risen, and with them the tax take. Over the government’s life from 1997 to date oil has risen from less than $20 a barrel to more than $120, but despite limited concessions on the timing of duty increases the tax take on fuel, 81.5% of the cost at the pumps in 1997, has remained high – still at over 60%. Sounds like it’s come down doesn’t it? But when petrol was 70p a litre 10 years ago and £1.20 a litre now, that still gives the Treasury an extra 20p per litre in tax and duty. As I’ve asked before, where is this money going to? I’m fairly sure I’m not the only one to have noticed that all these billions don't seem to be making their way back into the schools, hospitals and police stations.

Tax freedom day – when the average Joe starts to earn money for himself instead of to pay taxes, has moved from 25th May in 1997 to 3rd June in 2008. So Gordon really has been taxing you more. Again, as if you hadn’t noticed.

Of course more recently he has surpassed himself as Prime Minister with the 10% tax fiasco and its equally calamitous ‘solution’- itself relying on borrowing £2.7bn to give to the low paid. And the failure to call an election at the end of last year, after fuelling speculation that he wished to gain public endorsement of his succession of Blair by going to the polls, is viewed by many as cowardice.

Unbelievably Gordon took a swipe at pensions again with the introduction of the 20% tax rate, which now means that tax relief on pension contributions for those on the basic rate of income tax will be worth 2% less than before April. Many will not realise until it is too late, and those that do will have to find the extra contributions out of disposable income.

So it is starting to look a lot like Gordon was reaping the benefits and accepting the plaudits for fiscal abilities he didn’t really have. In fact it might be said that he was mortgaging our futures to pay for his spending yesterday and today – higher budget deficit, lower pensions step forward as evidence please.

Even the much vaunted independence of the Bank of England, granted by Brown in 1997, is now looking like a shaky decision. In the late 90s when the memory of Tory incompetence with the setting of interest rates was fresh (anyone have a mortgage when rates shot up to 15% when we crashed out of the ERM?), independence from political control looked a good move. Look now. Mervyn King has his hands tied. His remit is to keep inflation under 2% by administering a higher base rate if it shows signs of going up. He now faces rising inflation in a stagnating economy. If he pushes up interest rates to beat down inflation (currently 3.7%) he risks exacerbating the credit crunch and further harming industry, already teetering on the edge of recession. And all those home owners with increasing mortgage payments would not look favourably on him either. If he cuts rates to encourage investment, he goes 'off message' on his inflation-bashing duties. As it happens King has stated that he does not see a case for dropping interest rates over the next two years. So what will happen when inflation, pushed up and up by fuel and food prices, gets out of hand? What fiscal policy will Gordon be able to bring to bear when the Bank has no monetary guns to fire?

Gordon’s legacy is becoming apparent; the chickens are homeward bound and ready for slumber.

Even if, as he claims, he is the man to bring about a reversal of economic fortunes I seriously doubt the electorate would agree. That wind that billowed in his sails in his ‘nice decade’ has turned to a howling wind of change, and I think that this time there will be no escaping the tempest for Brown.

Time, I think, for the lifeboats.

Sunday, 11 May 2008

Tears in the Rain

Tears

Blogs and newspaper comments pages are today dominated with an outpouring of outrage, sadness, despair and sympathy following the death of a young man, Jimmy Mizen. 16 year old Jimmy was attacked and brutally killed by an as yet unidentified assailant. The attacker had been threatening the staff of a baker's shop and Jimmy stepped in to defend them. For his bravery he was rewarded with a slash across his throat with a piece of glass that left him dying in the arms of his brother. For many people this death, if none before have done so, epitomises what is wrong with law and order today. Described as a gentle giant, altar boy Jimmy was arguably an example of what is best in our younger generation and a stood as a stark contrast to the so-often reported violent youth culture that shames British streets.

There are many that blame central government for putting us in a position where crimes of this sort can occur. Many feel that laws are too soft, that the police are under-funded and burdened with bureaucracy, that offenders have no fear of retribution. These are certainly issues that government should address and take responsibility for.

My previous post about respect draws on some of the reasons why some of our youth seemingly have no regard for authority, and that this is so often a product of poor parenting. It remains to be seen whether the murderer in this case will fit this pattern, but it will surprise no-one if this background accurately describes that of the attacker when - it is most fervently hoped - he is brought to justice.

There is a recurring theme in the public comments made about this story, and it is that policing should be stepped up, parents should be made culpable for their offspring's crimes and punishment should be harsher for the offender. Many advocate - demand even - the return of capital punishment. And while I cannot, even in this despicable case, readily agree with this last sentiment I do follow the thinking and cannot deny that justice would sometimes best be served by the harshest sentence possible. Dead murderers do not re-offend.

My condolences go out to the Mizen family. Jimmy's mother has said that she has only sadness and not anger for his killer. I hope that when he is caught the judge and jury can find just a little anger in themselves and punish him with the full weight of the law.

And I hope our politicians, whom I will not blame personally for this sad case, will nevertheless open their ears to the wishes of a public who have seen one death too many among our youth; to a public that wants swift and decisive change in the ways that our streets are policed and our law courts hand down sentencing for violent crime. It is change that the populace demands and they would do well to respect that wish.

Rest in peace Jimmy.

Saturday, 10 May 2008

In Respect of: Respect

Respect fist 2

Respect. What is it, who should have it, is there enough of it and what does it matter?

Respect - in my attempt at a definition - is about recognising the rights of others to not be imposed upon, adversely affected by, be fearful of or suffer from you or your actions. It is a building block of civilised society (there's that word again!) and is more notable by its absence than its presence. Who should have it? Everyone, for if respect is not equally and equitably applied to all, by all, then it has no worth. It is fundamental that respect is to be given to everyone who deserves it.

Most people will have similar views on these points, I guess. The question of whether there is enough respect in today's busy world is hotly debated. Here's my view.

You will often hear the cry that 'there is no respect these days', a criticism most often levied at the younger generation by their elders. There seems plenty of evidence to support this contention. Youth crime is regularly reported in the press; the teaching profession (those old enough to) fondly remember the days when classroom discipline could be administered merely by raising the voice; vandalism, underage drinking, gangs of kids on street corners all feature routinely in the 'Your Letters' pages of the local newspapers. Attacks on police, ambulance men and firemen are more recently, and chillingly, becoming common stories.

The proper politicians are, to their credit, not oblivious to public concerns over behaviour like this. And the root cause of petty crime and anti-social behaviour as being 'lack of respect' is cited often. But why respect is thought to be on the retreat, and what to do about it in terms of party policy, is far from clear.

In order to decide whether respect in our society is in decline, we have to look back to a time when it was thought to be higher. Commonly, the war and immediate post-war years are brought out as a reference point. A time when 'you could leave your doors unlocked', or the local bobby would administer a 'clip behind the ear' to a young vagabond. The trouble with looking back across the years is that memories fade with time, and the tendency to believe in the 'good old days' increases. That these views aren't always born out by the crime statistics doesn't diminish the strength with with they are held. But it is sufficient that there is a perception that crime and bad behaviour are worsening for us to address the matter.

At a personal level it is a daily observation that as a nation we are imperfect in the treatment of our fellows. And it's not always the younger generation that are to blame. When did you last see someone offer their seat to an older person on a crowded bus or train? Have you been the victim, or maybe the instigator, of a 'road rage' incident? Have you ever stomped off to your kid's school to give the teacher a 'piece of your mind' after he or she has administered a telling off to your child?

At an even more base level, how many of your neighbours do you count as friends? Or even know the names of, beyond those next door? If our neighbours were out and had left their washing on the line when a thunderstorm broke, how many of us would dash round with a basket to take it in - and how many would leave it to get soaked? We seem to have lost the ideal of helping others and in turn being helped by them.

If the attitudes of our kids today are to be questioned and perhaps deplored, we should ask ourselves where they got them from, and why. This week, following another needless young death at the hands of a teenage gang, a senior policeman implored parents to take a stronger role in the upbringing of their children, in teaching right and wrong, setting the right examples. And surely he has a good point.

We live today in a consumer society. The 'me, me, me' culture. One where no-one is allowed to starve, where everyone to a greater or lesser degree is given an opportunity to advance. But for some who do not avail themselves of this opportunity and do not advance, there breeds a resentment of those who do. This can reveal itself by a tendency to treat others disdainfully and a refusal to equate reward with working hard. And those that do prosper can become resentful of those who seem to get by fine without effort. And the consumerist, materialist tendency brought to the fore by increasing national wealth, also encourages us to see our co-citizens are competitors in some sort of 'race'. Granny might have had the Hun to fight, but we have Mr Jones next door.

And there is also a geographic element to the problem. In Grandma's day the cities were towns, the towns villages, and the villages remote. All were far less densely populated. The 'family' was wider, more extended, and included 'aunts' and 'uncles' not even related to you. By definition families 'looked out' for one-another, and all took a hand in the standard setting for the youngsters.

Today most of us live within spitting distance of scores, if not hundreds of people. In the cities you might live within walking distance of thousands of people. Yet we have retreated socially to the core family units. Sure, we have friends and acquaintances, but our instinct is for the preservation of only the nearest and dearest. Outsiders are on the whole treated at best as irrelevant and at worst as hostiles. Society, as it has become bigger, has also become more insular.

These attitudes are passed on to our children. And if kids have no authority from their parents, and none is accepted from outside their family group, then the die becomes cast. Without parameters, bounds on behaviour, kids will misbehave and respect for others doesn't even become a blip on the radar.

This didn't start to happen within the last few years. It started to happen decades ago. Those kids are parents, maybe grandparents now. And those values - or lack of them - are now ingrained.

Yet as a society we still yearn for a return of 'respect', to be the recipients of it. But abhorrence of a lack of respect is married to tolerance and apathy. We love to moan about it but do little to change it. That's a prime recipe for perpetuation. We British are so good at that.

So what's the solution?

Intolerance.

We should not tolerate the status quo. We should use the age-old method of carrot and stick. I strongly advocate zero tolerance of crimes and misdemeanours, and I think we should empower our police to deal with them without fear of recrimination. Human rights legislation has its place in the law books, but when little Jimmy gets a cuff round the ear from the local Constable, his parents should not be allowed to troop through the courts for compensation from the Force. If a teacher restrains a pupil who attacks another, they should not have to fear suspension or dismissal. If we want a return to the 'good old days' then we have to be prepared to act like it.

But the biggest part can be played by parents. Your children take their lead from you, and you have to teach them not only the theory but the practice of good behaviour and respect for others. Think about that when you play your music loudly, or the next time you ride a rush hour bus.

If you do, maybe your grandchildren will thank you for it.

Wednesday, 7 May 2008

Lost-Benefit Analysis

A Government initiative I endorse? Whatever next!

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/7387042.stm

A scheme to catch out benefit cheats by using lie-detection equipment to analyse their voices over the telephone made the papers today. Seven councils have trialled the system and savings are being claimed of hundreds of millions of pounds as a result. The Home Office has decided to roll out the programme around the country. The national saving could theoretically run to billions.

But there are naysayers afoot. The TUC claims that some honest claimants might be scared off making their legitimate claims for fear of being wrongly labeled as a fraud. The proponents of the scheme counter that anyone with nothing to hide has nothing to fear.

To be honest, I'm not completely oblivious to the 'trampling on civil liberties' claim. After all, it wouldn't be much of a step further for your insurance company to insist on a polygraph test when you claim for your lost camera, or your prospective employer to ask you to confirm all the points on your CV. Or even a politician to be asked if they truly believed in their policies! There is something vaguely '1984' about denying people the presumption of innocence.

But wasting taxpayers' money on neer-do-wells who take undeserved handouts without a qualm - that's just not on. So I find myself in favour of the scheme, despite an unease that Winston might glimpse something of the wretched Oceania in its quiet arrival.

I have never been afraid of the police, or the Inland Revenue, or even a parking attendant, because like the majority of people I can feel no guilt if I have committed no offence. So I hold with the view that legitimate claimants will not be deterred from claiming. On the other hand, the mere thought of being caught out might well put a stop to a good many would-be cheaters' attempts to get that to which they have no entitlement. A good publicity campaign, a few test cases with suitably strong penalties, and the word will be out that cheaters will be caught and punished. Might even save a few quid on actually having to buy the machines that way.

It would be great to live in a world where this sort of thing wasn't necessary, but practiality must reign. And in a country where every politician proclaims a desire to help the poorest in society, wouldn't it be good to think that those unspent millions could actually find their way to the truly deserving cases?

Now if we heard a few more plans to weed out the leeches from society then perhaps the Government mightn't be in quite the doldrums that it is.

Monday, 5 May 2008

Fiddling while Feedburner Burns

The observant (or plain bored) among you will notice that I have added Feed links, so if you want your NBP delivered to your News Reader or to email, click away.

Back with more political stuff soon...

Saturday, 3 May 2008

NBP :) BNP :(

The recent council elections across the UK this week have seen radical change imposed on the local political landscape, and the real prospect of change nationally in a general election. Labour took a predicted drubbing and lost many council seats, in general being picked up by Conservatives and to a lesser degree, the Liberals.


There was little surprise in these results; Labour has been in power centrally for 11 years and is suffering from the voter fatigue that so often brings to a close the political lives of long-term incumbents. A series of well publicized gaffs, most recently the 10p tax rate fiasco, were also prominently in voters’ minds. And Gordon Brown’s personal credibility and integrity has been called into question repeatedly since he came to office in his ‘coronation’ succession to Tony Blair. His fumbling of the on/off general election call last year still resonates with a public who are less than won over by his grim persona.


So there was a mood in the land for change last Thursday, and it was signalled loud and clear to Labour. It had been said before the vote, and was proved to be true, that Labour were about to lose these elections, rather than the Tories winning them. The protest vote was overwhelmingly used as a rebuke to a government seen as, at best, ineffectual in the face of impending difficult economic and social times.


It is understandable that this would happen, and I don’t necessarily think it is a bad thing. I do regret, thought, that the tendency towards using the protest vote may have had some undesirable consequences. Sure, it will have made our masters in Westminster sit up and take notice. But when people vote for parties instead of candidates, particularly in local government, they may not always get what they want. On Thursday hundreds of council seats changed hands as voters put a cross in a box against a party name, often (I suspect) without even noting the name of the candidate they were voting for; not knowing whether that individual was likely to represent them as they would like; not even knowing whether that individual held views or beliefs alien or akin to their own.


And that leads me to the most disturbing aspect of protest voting - when votes are cast for fundamentally unfit candidates and parties as a means to ‘wake up’ the government. Chief amongst these are those that stand for the British National Party, the BNP.


The UK has seen unprecedented levels of immigration over recent years, most notably from the new accession countries to the European Union – the former eastern bloc states. There is a broad range of opinion amongst the British public about immigration, and it is an issue whose prominence will not diminish rapidly. People, in general, do not like change. They do not like imposition, they detest being told what to do and they abhor the feeling that they are the victims of queue-jumping. British people today seem especially intolerant and indignant when they perceive themselves to be at the sharp end of such iniquities, and there are elements amongst us who are only too quick to lay the blame at the door of immigrants. If those immigrants are a different colour or speak a different language, they stand out more and can more readily be blamed. Sadly there are many who are lured into hatred and resentment of those different to themselves because they can most easily be identified.


Now I am not saying that immigration is not a problem, as I have commented on it more broadly in previous posts. I, personally, have a disposition against religious piety and that counts equally against Hindus, Muslims, Catholics, Wikkas, Druids, Jedis and anyone else who believes they can preach their version of morality to me, so I cannot be prejudiced against one without logically being prejudiced against them all!


I do recognize that there must be something wrong in a society where there are 5 white kids in a school of 500 black kids. But only in the way that I see it as unhealthy to have only 5 black kids in a school of 500 whites. An imbalance is generally undesirable, and most of us are happier when different communities integrate rather than polarize. Taking it down to a personal level, most people are more relaxed. While we so often hear the call for immigrants to go home, when we look to our friends and colleagues and count amongst them just the sort of people whom the extremists would expel, where do our convictions lie? At an individual level most of us know or come into contact with people of other ethnicities regularly and are happy to live side by side with them. But while there is a broad tolerance of cultural diversity, when people feel imposed on or their rights are being encroached upon, that they are being forced along a road they don’t want to go, then they start to listen to, and give undue credence to, extremists like the BNP.


The BNP really is a despicable organization. They were born of the National Front, that vile group of bigots and fascists that sprang to prominence in the 1960s and were most active in the 70s and 80s. As the millennium approached the NF applied a thin veneer of respectability and the BNP arose. But this outfit still panders to the worst intolerance and jingoism in our society. It openly displays its racism, is home to holocaust deniers and anti-semites, homophobes and hate-mongers. It lists amongst its policies the right to bear arms and enforce ‘repatriation’ of non-whites. While it publicly disavows racism it is nevertheless a focal point for white supremacists.


If you actively want to put such people into positions of power, you have a right in law to vote that way. I pity you, but it’s your right. But please don’t make the mistake of inadvertently voting for such a group when you really mean to vote against someone else. Protest votes have a noble history, and can produce real, positive change. But we should not give the oxygen of publicity or the quasi-respectability of holding even minor political office to extremists. That is not the way that Britain became Great, nor will it be the means by which it recovers its greatness.


There are genuine concerns to be addressed in today’s society. Immigration is an issue, social division along religious lines another. But we do not advance our society by rewinding the clock and applying the lowbrow policies of racists. We should be brave enough, as should our middle ground politicians, to talk about the problems and to come up with civilized solutions. And we should not allow political correctness to get in the way any more than we should allow extreme right-wingers to ply their views.

Mainstream parties please note.

Wednesday, 30 April 2008

The 42 Day War

I’ve spoken before about the needs of the many outweighing those of the few. Specifically, is it acceptable to infringe the liberty of individuals in order to make the lives of the greater public better, or safer? Last time I was talking about restrictions on underage drinkers on our streets. This time I’d like to comment on something altogether more serious – detention without charge for suspected terrorists.

There is a running debate in the corridors and chambers of Westminster and across the pages of our newspapers, about the Government’s proposals to extend the powers of the police to detain suspects for a longer period of time before charging them. Currently a suspect can be held for 28 days, but the plan is to increase this to 42 days. Note that this is in cases of suspected involvement with terrorism only; the limit for all other offences is 4 days.

The increase is being touted on the basis that Police need, and have asked for, more time to properly investigate such cases. They argue that in circumstances where, potentially, suspects may have contacts overseas or links to international terrorist groups, where computers need to be searched or multiple locations visited and witnesses sought, the 28 day limit imposes a risk that they are forced to release the suspect before their searches are completed.

Gordon Brown is reportedly preparing to make concessions in response to unrest among Labour MPs and opposition hostility to the 42-day proposals. But I find myself backing Gordon this time. As the former head of MI6, Sir Richard Dearlove, said last week, “Al Qaeda would not hesitate to blow away a city. That’s why we need 42-day detention”.

Those opposing the 42-day limit claim civil liberties and human rights violations will ensue, and that imposing such rules would leave us with detention laws more onerous than those of other European countries. Some state that the extended time limit is unnecessary anyway, as most investigations conducted under the 28-day system have needed far less than that amount of time. Others fear that the extension might be perceived as a racist move targeted at the Muslim population.

These are weak objections. Let’s suppose a terrorist suspect is detained, and the Police find on day 28 that they need more time, but according to the law the suspect has to be released.

Suppose he is innocent, and not a danger. If he had been held for a further 14 days before that decision was reached then, regrettably, he would have lost two weeks’ liberty. One person, two weeks of unpleasantness.

Suppose he is guilty, and a clear and present danger. And suppose further that on his release, fearful that his plans for a terror attack might be thwarted, he flees the country or worse, accelerates his plans. Conjecture, I know. But if such a man is another 9/11 or 7/7 attacker-in-waiting then we are no longer talking about a loss of liberty for one. We are talking about a possible loss of life and limb for many.

I’m sorry, I truly am, that innocent people might temporarily have their lives turned upside down. But it is a small price to pay for society as a whole to be safer, and we should face the issue head on. No one will forgive us for making civil liberties excuses when people lie dead on our streets, the victims of a terrorist who could have been stopped.

In extremis for the sake of emphasis, but NOT an unthinkable scenario. If the Police want 42 days, give it to them, and if you want to talk about human rights then remember those of the potential victims of terrorist atrocities.

Monday, 28 April 2008

The Right to be Different

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/lancashire/7370637.stm

Boys sentenced over Goth murder

I blogged earlier about this case and promised to return to it when sentencing had been handed down. Today the main teenage perpetrators of this heinous murder were given prison terms of 18 and 16 years. For a pointless and savage crime this is, in my humble opinion, barely the minimum acceptable tariff for these lowlifes. But Judge Russell should be commended for at least trying to fit the punishment to the crime, and for explaining (as best as is possible to young men of such low intellect) the error of their ways.

I fear that there is little that explanation will have achieved, however. I grow increasingly convinced that logic and a sense of what is right, what is wrong, is devoid in certain sections of our youth. That the only way to deal with this element is to remove them from society. That's a sad conclusion but a considered one.

There is a small but dangerous part of our (mostly male) young population that has no comprehension of morals, no empathy, respect or tolerance for others, no desire to be persuaded of the wrongness of their hatred, no vision of what it is to live and let live. They have no intention of spoiling the notion that they themselves are all that matters, their right to fun transcends all others' rights. They measure themselves by the gains they can make at the expense of others.

I don't care if it takes a 100 more prisons to keep these worthless individuals off our streets. Build them now and make no apologies.

Sunday, 27 April 2008

When you shake a politician’s hand, count your fingers

We are repeatedly told by the government that their good management of the economy over the last 11 years has ensured that we are in strong financial shape as a nation. And there is a lot of evidence that the economy is fundamentally strong, with relatively low interest rates and good employment numbers. Whether or not you put that strength down to Gordon Brown’s abilities, there are some questions you might want to ask. And like any financial advisor I’d caution that past performance is no guide to the future.

“NBP, you old cynic!” I hear you cry. Well it wouldn’t be me if I was prepared to accept everything the politicos tell me. If our economy is well placed to weather the current financial storms, then please tell me:

Where is all the VAT from food cost increases going?
Where is all the Duty and VAT from petrol and diesel prices going?
Where is all the VAT from increases in domestic and industrial fuel going?

The treasury is dependent on big increases in prices of staples like petrol and food. Yes, the stuff you can’t do without. The drivers of real inflation. Without these increases and the tax take on them, the UK budget deficit would be widening even further.

Again, we have doublespeak from our leaders. Almost in the same breath they opine empathy with the hard pressed motorist, householder and shopper whilst at the same time relying on the relentless rise in the tax take on everyday essentials.

I’m sure there’s a case to state for spending those billions on fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And doling out benefits to fraudsters always happens anyway. Angst is easy to muster, but I’ll try to resist the temptation. There is a lot that the government needs to spend a lot of money on – Health Services don’t run themselves, especially inefficient ones. So I thought I’d see if I could find a resource that would tell me where our taxes are spent.

Well the first thing you find when you start to look at government spending is that a lot of it comes from money the government doesn’t actually have. In the 2007/08 financial year the UK public sector recorded a £7.6bn deficit. We have routinely run a deficit since 2002-3 and it is getting worse. In fairness Labour did preside over a percentage decrease of borrowing (against GDP) from 1997 to 2002, but even that measure has been getting worse every year since. Economic experts at the helm? Hmm.

Anyway, that minor diversion aside I picked up this chart which shows, at the broadest level, how the government intends to spend the approximately £600bn of income it will collect in this financial year.

Very high level. I’ll be returning to the subject of where our taxes are spent in more detail in a later blog. However, while looking through the various source of government information on the net I happened across an entry in Hansard about a bill brought before the Houses of Parliament over 2006 and 2007. Called the ‘Government Spending [Website] Bill’, it was introduced by Baroness Noakes (gawd bless ‘er) with the aim of making ‘provision for a website to enable public access to information about government expenditure’. “There has to be a website”, she said, “it has to be publicly available, and it has to be searchable. In essence, once it is up and running, citizens can go online to find out, for example, how much the government have spent with individual suppliers…or on particular things, such as travel and entertainment.”

There was debate in both houses, right through to a second reading in the Commons in June 2007. Then the bill was dropped, and I can find no further mention of it, nor of any government intent to introduce a similar resource for the public. How strange.

I wouldn’t suggest that the government doesn’t want you to know where it spends your money. But neither can I say that they are falling over themselves to make it easy either.

The finances of the country should not only be available to all at the broad and the detailed level, but our leaders should be prepared to explain them at both levels.

I shall return…

Thursday, 24 April 2008

Remove sock, take aim, FIRE!

You don’t have to look far in the world of politics to find some of the ‘B’ in this blog’s title. Almost by definition, politics is about not quite telling the truth, not really revealing your intentions. And occasionally, outright lying.

Take dear old Gordon for instance. Back in his halcyon days as Chancellor he brought in his Tory-killing, poverty-stomping 10% starting income tax rate. Millions of people would be all but taken out of the tax system, goodness and light would prevail all around. Fast-forward a few years and the lovable old Scottish dear thought up an even better ruse. Axe the 10% tax rate and reduce the basic rate from 22% to 20%. What a masterstroke. The first reduction in the basic rate of income tax in, well a bloody long time. (OK, 75 years – I looked it up.) And you thought the Conservatives were the party of low taxation! But there was a subtext: Gordon’s strategy was to succeed Tony Blair into No.10, and here was a headline-setting way of helping along that process. From brilliant Finance Minister to brilliant First Minister, sheer class.

But it seems Gordy had merely pulled out the twelve bore and taken aim at his pinkies.

What he failed to consider (or if I’m less generous, knew but ignored) was that certain low-paid types would actually have to contribute more to the tax system from this change. Yes, I know – memories are short and those people can be forgiven for forgetting he gave them the 10% rate in the first place. And I know it’s the middle income families that are supposed to be leached for ever more cash. But once people cottoned on, the master stroke started to look more like a millstone.

So you have to ask, why’d he do it? Why did the Iron Chancellor, outstanding economical wizard and World Leader in waiting make such a hash of it? And why did his backbenchers, and the opposition, take so long to spot what was going to happen? Could it be that Gordon and his pals were putting self before nation? No one started to raise the issue almost until pay packets started hitting doormats. Yesterday, after weeks of denial, provarication, then finally submission dressed as concern, the big G announced some (weak) measures to fix the problem. But without admitting there was a problem to start with, or that it was one of his making.

Now what you have here is a serial collection of errors, but you would have a hard time getting the government to admit as much. And that failure to admit mistakes is the ‘bollocks’ in the politics. Instead of the truth we get spin, interpretation and deceit. When all along we’d have settled for the truth, now we have had to watch them squirm to get it we’re even less impressed than if they’d just come clean in the first place. In fact if it weren’t for Labour MPs’ rising panic that with local elections only weeks away the party could take a trouncing, the issue might have been buried. That just smacks of political self interest. And the 'opportunistic opposition' are no better. These numbers have been in the public domain for months, but it's only when they smell political blood that the Tories mention any defects in the proposals.

Voters are curious animals though, and no matter what harm you might think Gordon and his crew have done themselves with this debacle there will still be people ready to forgive, forget and put a cross in the Labour box. It will be very interesting to see what message is sent to the Government in the local elections. Even more interesting to see what they spin it to be.

(Thought: a similar thing seems to be happening with Hilary Clinton, who abjectly LIED about her landing in Bosnia under sniper fire, only to pass it off as a ‘mispeaking’. Do the waving minions at her rallies not consider this just a little disingenuous of the potential new leader of the free world?)

Well perhaps we’ve seen the last blunder of the Chancellor/Prime Minister over tax. Once bitten, twice shy eh?

Maybe not. National Insurance Upper Earning Limits have been increased dramatically, meaning a lot of what some people have gained in the income tax rate reductions will be lost again in NIC payments. Nobody seems to have noticed that one yet...

Have a good day Gordon!