Tuesday, 18 July 2017

A cost-free improvement for the NHS

I have not actually seen the film "The Sense of an Ending" but was sufficiently intrigued by the adverts to buy Julian Barnes's book.  There I was delighted to read, put in the mouth of the first person narrator, Tony Webster, sentiments that coincide exactly with my own:

Do you know something I dread?  Being an old person in hospital  and having nurses I've never met calling me Anthony, or worse, Tony.  Let me just pop this in your arm Tony.  Have some more of this gruel, Tony.  Have you done a motion, Tony?*  Of course, by the time this happens,  over-familiarity  from the nursing staff  may be well down  my list of anxieties, but even so. (Page 69)

Change "Peter" and "Pete" and that's exactly how I feel, not just in the context of old age and physical incapability, but in all contexts when discussing matters with people I neither know nor am likely to know. (eg buying insurance over the telephone, receiving letters from my Party's leader).

However, Barnes is right (presuming he is airing his own views.) that the situation is most acute in the medical context, when we feel at the most vulnerable.  In that situation the last thing we need is to addressed  by authority figures in a manner which takes us back to our days in the mixed infants.

So the free improvement for the NHS is that all staff should  address people by their honorific (Mr. Mrs, M/s or something posher) and family name  and that should be the default position.   If patients then prefer their first name, nickname or something more familiar that's fine, but the initiative should come from the patient, not the practitioner.

I am not and never have member of BUPA or any other private medical scheme, but I'm pretty sure  that in those places patients are" Mistered" and "Missised" routinely.

More generally, the English language, which is so prolific is most other areas (we have half a million words and counting, compared with a mere 100 000 in French) we have no equivalent of the French Monsieur,
Madame or |Mademoiselle, which can be used indiscriminately without any sense of status difference or servility.  The French also get around the difficulty of distinguishing between Missises and Misses by addressing every woman who appears to be over 30 as Madame. (though that may be an unwelcome rite of passage)

In English, outside school, the army, police  and high-end department stores , "Sir" and "Madame" sound deferential, and outside Buckingham Palace and detective stories featuring senior female officers I suspect no-one uses the abbreviation  "Ma'am" (to rhyme with "jam," not "psalm").

I have no suggested alternatives to make but should be pleased if someone could come up with one to replace "Pall", "Mate" "Squire " (ugh) or nothing at all.

Of course, here in Yorkshire the unisex "Luv" covers all cases

*Barnes himself has dispensed with quotation marks

Monday, 10 July 2017

Great Britons

I spent last week walking on the Western edge of the Chilterns with an Anglo-French  group.  As is our custom we took a day off from walking midweek and did touristy things.  In this location the obvious choice was Cambridge, where we took a ride on a punt on the river, which was very good value, and a walking tour round the colleges, which had the cheek to charge £20 per head  ( though as "concessions" we got it for £18)   which included all " entry fees to colleges,"  but as we didn't actually enter any, or King's College Chapel, was a bit of a rip off.

When we were told of the original of Newton's Principia Mathematica in the Wren  Library (along with the drafts and sketches for Winnie-the-Pooh), the college to which Professor  Stephen Hawkins belongs,   and pointed to the pub where Watson and Crick relaxed whilst uncovering the structure of DNA, my British bosom swelled with pride.

A quick search on the internet will tell you that Cambridge University has, at 61, more Nobel Laureates than any other university in the world (Harvard is next with 48), and there are lots of other distinguished literary alumni (E M Forster, C S lewis and Bradford's very own J B Priestley) in addition to A A  Milne.

I do not subscribe to the view fostered by our school history courses that  Britain  has been "top nation" for most of the time since the reign of Henry VIII until the Americans took over, but the Cambridge experience is a reminder  that for the past few centuries we have been among the leading nations for science, medicine, exploration, literature, politics, philosophy, engineering, economics and culture. 

Britons have made serious and significant contributions to making the world a more civilised, stimulating and comfortable place.

Nor do I suggest that, post-Brexit, no one from these islands is ever gong to write another decent book or make another scientific discovery.  But if we go ahead with Brexit not only shall we be economically poorer - that seems now to be almost universally accepted - but we are deliberately dropping out of the big league.  The implications, especially for  science, are particularly severe.

Friday, 30 June 2017

Corbyn, Labour and the Single Market

In her pre-election literature my Labour MP, Mrs Tracy Brabin, who was re-elected, made an explicit promise that she would fight for "full access to the single market, vital for jobs in our community."  I quote her words exactly.

Yesterday, 29th June, a senior Labour MP, Chuka Umunna, moved an amendment to the Queen's Speech calling for the government to try to obtain exactly that, full access to the single market.  Mrs Brabin did not vote for  the motion.  Some fighter.

Well, I suppose she's not the first MP to break an explicit promise, and in any case (I'll get this in first) who are we Liberal Democrats to cast stones?

But I am genuinely puzzled by Labour's attitude on this issue.  On this blog I have consistently praised Mr Corbyn for his honesty, consistency , integrity and ability to enthuse others, and especially the young.   I've welcomed his manifesto as "a  breath of fresh air" and rejoiced at the progress he made in the General Election.  I am still hoping that the tectonic shift he has achieved in our politics will lead to some form of progressive alliance and an end to the damaging Tory misrule.

The curious thing is that both Corbyn and the Labour hierarchy, including their responsible shadow minister , Sir Kier Starmer, have consistently argued that we should make  the economy and jobs in the UK a priority in the Brexit negotiations, and clearly full access to the single market would be a considerable help.

 Some Labour big-wigs could be anxious that some of their support could be disgruntled if access to the market involved a bit of a trade-off on immigration, but Corbyn himself has been refreshingly and , in my view admirably, relaxed on immigration, stressing the enormous benefits that past immigrants have brought to our economy, culture and society, and being reluctant to follow the Tories in their quest for draconian and unsustainable reductions.

It may be that the Labour establishment are timid about being seen to go against the so-called "will of the people"  as expressed by by a narrow majority in a seriously flawed referendum.  But even senior Brexiteer Boris Johnson assured us during the referendum campaign that voting to leave the EU did not imply leaving the single market.

So Labour don't have that excuse.

Yet Labour MPs were officially instructed to abstain on the Umunna amendment.  49 of them defied the whip and voted for it,  along with all our gallant band of Liberal Democrat, the one Green and I think most if not all of the SNP and Plaid Cymru. But not the doughty Mrs Brabin.

I am saddened but not surprised by Mrs Brabin's lack of fight, but genuinely puzzled by Labour's stance.  It is becoming increasingly clear that public opinion is moving against a hard Brexit.  Here was a golden opportunity to run the government close if not actually defeat them and Labour just didn't take it.

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Spoiling the ship for a ha'p'orth of tar

We shall learn  in due course whether the Grenfell Tower conflagration was the result of saving £1.5m by using a less expensive cladding material, or turning down the preferred bidder because someone else was cheaper, maybe both or maybe something else entirely.

However, there can be little doubt that any savings will already have been far outweighed  by the enormous expense of paying for alternative accommodation for the displaced families, and the £5 500 per family grant to enable them to survive in the short run and re-equip in the long run.

Add to this  the further cost of finding and paying for temporary alternative accommodation for the thousands of families forced to leave other tower blocks because they are now discovered to be unsafe.  Doubtless the same firms that  put up the inadequate cladding in the first place are receiving premium rates for removing it and will in due course be the preferred bidders for putting up the right stuff.

The message is that the combination of deregulation, (the "bonfire of red tape" is a grimly appropriate metaphor), cuts in council inspection services and the penny-pinching temptation to save "public money" by going for the lowest bidder, (in fact I think, though an not sure, that in some cases councils are forced to accept the lowest tender),leads both to false economies and public danger.

The financial costs are, of course petty compared with  the horror of the deaths and injuries, and the massive anxiety and  inconvenience caused to the families affected, both at Grenfell and elsewhere.

This terrible tragedy merely helps us to highlight how other attempts to cut public expenditure to the bone have actually boomeranged. An article by  Frances Ryan, published in the Guardian back in April, lists the costs of various examples of Tory ineptitude.

  • two private firms have been paid £700m  to conduct Personal Independence Payment (PIP) assessments on disabled  people.  Four out of five of their rejections are overturned on appeal:
  • the flagship Universal Credit system has been delayed seven times,  is now five  years behind schedule and has so far cost £16bn (sic)  In the areas where it has been implemented the six-week waiting period has led to the need for mass emergency food parcels, and to rent arrears and evictions:
  • councils have had to spend more than £3.5bn on temporary accommodation for homeless families in the last five years (that is, even before the tower block cladding scandal) 
The conclusion must be that, on top of the misery they cause, and the increased shabbiness of our environment, the cheeseparing approach to public expenditure, the lie that "savings can always be made through cutting waste" can often lead to more rather than less public expenditure.

A contributory factor must be running down of both local and national government personnel through he outsourcing of services.  This leads to the public sector being left without expertise and enables the well-resourced  private sector to run rings round them in the drawing-up of contracts.

Saturday, 24 June 2017

Brexit: where will it all end?

Oxford Professor Timothy Garton Ash has a whole article devoted to this in yesterday's Guardian and it's well worth a read.  Here's his somewhat dismal conclusion:

". . .my hunch is that Britain will probably end up. . .with some novel variant  of Norway's European Economic Area deal, Switzerland's customised free-trade package or Turkey's  membership of the customs union.  It may be dressed up  in Union Jack bunting, but it will effectively mean that we have second-class membership of the common market, that we must abide by rules  we have no say in making, that we will continue to pay into the EU coffers, that immigration from the EU is only slightly reduced,  [and] that we have to accept  legally binding arrangements in which the European court of Justice still plays a significant role . . . A majority in parliament  will probably swallow all this, in a very British game of muddling through."

In an article in the July edition of Prospect magazine  the former Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Home Civil Service, Gus O'Donnell (a trained economist, not , happily, via Oxford's PPE, but at Warwick and Glasgow Universities) concludes:

"Even if the[Brexit] talks go well, the long term effect of Brexit will be a smaller economy than previously  expected, which feeds  through to lower tax revenues."

That's it: " a smaller economy,"  no ifs, no buts.

Spending the next two years negotiating towards this nonsense is crazy.  MPs should pluck up courage, do their duty and put stop to it now.

Friday, 23 June 2017

Land and "The Archers"

Radio 4's soap opera, "The Archers," to which I am addicted, began in1951 as a vehicle for informing Britain's farmers of all the latest techniques and Ministry of Agriculture rules and regulations.. Whilst it continues to do this (you can easily pick out the boring bits) it has since explored various social issues, most recently the coercive relationship between Helen Archer and her husband Rob, which kept the nation, and me, agog for over two years.

In the last couple of weeks organic farmers Tony and Pat Archer, with their family Helen (above) Tom and recently discovered grandson Johnny, have been offered £1m for a three and a half acre plot of land on which rich property developer Justin Elliot hopes  to build 18 houses.

I've no idea whether this is just an "East Enders" style plot to generate a bit of inter-generational squabbling within the family, or if it will develop into a serious exploration of the iniquities of land holding in Britain. I hope it will.

Tony and Pat were initially tenant farmers but  some time  ago raised the money via a huge mortgage  to buy their land from the estate which owned it.  Presumably they paid agricultural land prices, nowhere near  the £1m (now reduced to £900,000 becasue of son Tom's interference) they expect to receive for this small corner.

So far in the script there has been no mention of paying capital gains tax on the massive increase in value.  Indeed the family have already had detail discussions as to what to do with the whole million (half to Tony and Pat's pension pot, the other half to the development of Tom's business).  Will CGT be introduced into the script at a later date, or don't farmers , largely Tory voters, (though Tony and Pat probably aren't), pay it?

I hope we shall be told.

Nor, as far as I know (I missed a few episodes while in Scotland) has Justin Elliot yet gained planning permission for the houses.  Will he be"assisted" by friends on the council's planning committee?

And, when agricultural land increases enormously in value when a change of use is granted, why  is not the resulting increase in value simply taken by the state?  Maybe it is, in which case the family's plans are delusional.  And if it isn't, why not?

We could even go on to explore why why supermarkets, builders and maybe others are able to sit on "land banks" hoping for better times, without paying any rates. According to the housing charity Shelter, there is at present  enough land which has already been given to planning permission to build around half a million new homes, yet the building industry claim they are held up by obstructive local government bureaucracy and busy-body Nimbyists.

There could also be interesting discussions as to how many of the 18 houses to be built are "affordable."  Will Ed and Emma Grundy be able to afford one?

There is a rich vein of instructive dramatic possibilities, even without going into the fundamental question of why land is privately held when "God gave the land to the people."  I can hardly wait.

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

2010 to 2017: what a difference.

In the final days days leading up to the 2010 General Election we were warned by David Cameron and most of the press that if there were a balanced (actually they said "hung" ) parliament than the sky would fall in, the markets would collapse and the world as we know it would come to an end.  So to avoid the calamity  of a Labour government dependent on the Scottish Nationalist (horror of horrors) better vote Conservative.

Well, Gordon Brown's Labour government lost its majority, Cameron's Tories didn't win one, the Liberal Democrats, with 57 seats (oh happy days) held the balance, and the sky didn't fall in, the markets didn't collapse and the world as we knew it went on much as before

So promptly the mantra shifted that unless a "strong and stable" (though they didn't yet put it that way)  coalition was formed within hours then all these financial calamities would surely happen. The leaders of the three major parties (yes, we were one of them then),  all exhausted by their strenuous election campaigns, had frantic meeting, half heated offers from Labour came to nothing, David Cameron and Nick Clegg put together what looked like a good deal and within in less than a week the Conservative-Liberal Democrat  coalition was formed.

In none of this period did the markets even wobble.

However, in hindsight it has become clear that in all the haste the Tories had managed to run rings run round us.  We had not absorbed the small print, or lack of it, so our dreams of Electoral and House  of Lords reform, which looked to be assured, came to nothing, and we were trapped in an austerity regime which went against  all our traditions and heritage (though this seemed to worry  some senior Liberal Democrats less than most of the party).

To avoid similar fiascos in the future I suggested that we abandon  the expectation that the day after an election  the old PM would  leave No 10 by the back door as the new one entered by the front, and spend at least 10 days in a transition period from one government to another, even if the same prime minister continued in office.

Strangely that is more or less what has happened since 8th June.  There is still no sign of an agreement between Northern Ireland's  Democratic Unionists (apparently not such a horror) and the May government, the anachronistically named Queen's Speech (actually the announcement of the government's programme) has had to be postponed until today, and the sky has not fallen, the markets have not even wobbled (though the £ has dipped a bit) and, sadly, the world again continues much as before.

Although I have no sympathy whatsoever for the bigoted views of the DUP, the party founded by Ian Paisley, they are from their point of view quite right to hang on until they have cast iron guarantees from the Tories for getting whatever it is they want.

Lets hope this sets a precedent for the formation of future, and I hope, progressive, coalitions