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 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.

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


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?


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!

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.