Friday, 17 February 2017

Business rates: some unlevel playingfields

I've just become aware that NHS hospitals have to pay business rates.  A current revaluation of property values means that the worst affected, Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, will find its rates bill more than double to £6.9m a year.

Private hospitals also pay business rates, but most of them are registered charities, so they get an 80% reduction.

Apparently local authority schools also pay business rates.  But Academies, would you believe, are also regard as charities and so they too  get an 80% reduction.  It's worth noting that some Academies pay their heads fancy salaries well over £100 000 a year, and one Multi Academy Trust (MAT) with 28 schools pays its CEO a not very charitable-sounding £370 000 a year.(see here)

I suppose Eton gets an 80% reduction too, along with all the other posh public schools

You couldn't make it up.

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Co-op Bank goes down, but who is to blame?

I'm sad that the Co-op Bank, with which I've had an account for may years, is giving up in its present form and seeking a buyer.

Many people, when they read of its demise, will immediately think of, and blame, its inadequate former chairman, the Non-conformist  minister Paul  Flowers, who was later found to have drug problems and so nicknamed Crystal Methodist.  It is easy to conclude that mutual ownership is not viable for serious businesses as amateurs on the board are not up to the job.

But it is universally agreed that the Co-op Bank's troubles began with the takeover of the Britannia Building Society in 2009.  True the Co-op was probably over-ambitious, but it is too easy to forget that the take-over was given the green light by the privately owned giant  accountancy firm KPMG.  Later, too late for the Co-op to back out, a "black hole" discovered in the Britannia's accounts.

Presumably a fully professional board would have put their trust in the mighty KPMG just as the amateurs did.

There was a similar piece of amazing incompetence from an established part of the professional "finance" industry when the Icelandic banking system ran into trouble. Up to a month before the collapse Iceland's sovereign debt was given A ratings by all four of the major credit rating agencies. Several UK local authorities which had bought Icelandic bonds in good faith were caught out (and, I think, were actually compensated by the UK government - see here).

We need to ask whether the ratings of these agencies are really meaningful and whether the accountancy industry, concentrated as it is on the "big four" (KPMG, Deloitte, PwC and E&Y) is really fit for purpose.

A final point in favour of the Co-op Bank is that, when in difficulties, it rescued itself without calling on public funds, unlike  the Royal Bank of Scotland and Lloyds Banking Group, both of which needed to be bailed out with taxpayers' money.

So there are no grounds for  Co-op Bank's unfortunate setback to be used as evidence for a loss of confidence  in co-operative and mutual ownership

Thursday, 9 February 2017

What if. . .it were a Labour government?

The UK is in the bizarre position of having a government pursuing what today's Guardian describes as "as profoundly mistaken a decision as any that the UK parliament  has taken in the post-war era,"* yet that same government is riding high in the polls and winning huge majorities in the Commons, with three quarters or more of the official opposition voting for its Alice in Wonderland policies.

I can't help wondering what the political atmosphere would be like if it were a Labour government which had:
  • called a referendum which was important to its own members on the "lunatic left" but not among the top  priories of the electorate at large;
  • failed to include in the legislation for the referendum any rules to ensure an honest campaign or the usual threshold higher than a simple majority for a decision  on a constitutional matter to be valid:
  • tried desperately to avoid any parliamentary involvement  of the implementation of the result, which most experts (and indeed the majority of MPs) regarded as likely to be highly damaging  both to Britain's economy and our international reputation;
  • seen its supporting newspapers attack the senior judiciary as "enemies of the people";
  • caused important sections to the finance industry, a big cash-cow for the Treasury, to relocate in other countries, with more predicted to follow;
  • described any critics of its activities as  "enemies of democracy";
  • caused a 12% depreciation of the value of the pound, with probably more to follow;
  • invited what most Conservatives regarded as a "rogue leader" (Fidel Castro of Cuba,  perhaps, or Salvador Allende of Chile) on a state visit;
  • had the Speaker of the House of Commons, one of its own, publicly oppose this action;
  • had its prime-minister publicly snubbed by fellow European leaders;
  • endangered the peace settlement in Ireland;
  • caused the potential break-up of the UK itself;
  • and all the above with the NHS and care system  in crisis: a critical housing shortage, and the young unable to afford to buy what was available; the government's "fixing " of the public finances, promised in the first parliament, postponed to a third: deplorably low productivity; and a record and continuing deficit on the balance of external payments. 
Actually, for once history can give us a clue.  Way back in the 1960s Harold Wilson's Labour government seemed to have its back to the wall, although its troubles could reasonably be described as "a little local difficulty" compared with the present super-omnishambles.

In 1967 Labour had devalued the pound from $2.80 to $2.40 (just over 14% - it's now down to $1.25: so much for the "strength" of the British economy), Wilson was upsetting the Americans by refusing to join in the Vietnam War and there were a few strikes.  Two newspaper barons, Hugh Cudlipp  and Cecil King, arranged  a meeting with Lord Mountbatten, a  relative of the royal family and mentor of Prince Charles, and others, to suggest that chaos was round the corner, the government was about to disintegrate  and that:

[t]he people would be looking to somebody like Lord Mountbatten as the titular head of a new administration, somebody renowned as a leader of men, who would be capable, backed by the best brains and administrators in the land, to restore public confidence. (See here for further and better particulars)

To his credit Mountbatten recognised this as treason and walked away.  

 I am not suggesting  a similar attempt at a coup today, or that the current press barons might be capable of organising one.  Even if our MPs are too supine to do their duty we must put up with them until the end of the parliament.

But the incident does illustrate the lengths "the establishment" are prepared to go to frustrate a left wing government compared to the sycophantic support of the present one, seemingly in hock to its "loony right," however demonstrably misguided and damaging their policies.

*  Makes a change from my favoured "biggest cock-up since Lord North lost the American colonies over an argument about a tax on tea."

Thursday, 2 February 2017

Brexit: Britain betrayed

In our history we've had a Short Parliament, a Long Parliament and a Rump Parliament.   I suspect future historians will dub this one the Pathetic Parliament.  They have:

  • set up a referendum not in the interests of the nation but to help one political party try to solve a domestic problem;
  • failed to provide for a supermajority and other safeguards , such as would be normal in any civic organisation which wished to change its constitution:
  • allowed an advisory referendum with a small majority of those who voted to be translated into "the will of the people";
  • have granted the government the right to implement this result despite the majority of them believing that this will  be damaging to their constituents and the country as a whole:
  • amazingly, have voted for this before seeing the customary White Paper setting out the Government's plans
Our MPs cannot argue  that they were unaware of their right and responsibility not to leave the EU.  The philosopher A C Grayling wrote to each one of them individually setting out the case, my friend John Cole set it out in  the lead letter in  the Observer on Sunday (link now found); there's a similar one from me in the January edition of Prospect; and Polly Toynbee had a vigorous article on the subject in the Guardian the day before the debate.

Best of all is Ken Clarke's excellent speech in the Commons on the first day of the debate

Most Members, I trust, are familiar with Burke’s address to the electors of Bristol. I have always firmly believed that every MP should vote on an issue of this importance according to their view of the best national interest. I never quote Burke, but I shall paraphrase him. He said to his constituents, “If I no longer give you the benefit of my judgment and simply follow your orders, I am not serving you; I am betraying you.” I personally shall be voting with my conscience content, and when we see what unfolds hereafter as we leave the European Union, I hope that the consciences of other Members of Parliament will remain equally content.

It is invigorating to read the whole speech, available at:

Instead our MPs cravenly succumbed to the loudness of the shouting of the Brexiteers and voted for something which they believe will harm both our country and the people they were elected to serve.  Shame on them.

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Mrs May the weathervane

 Apparently when President Trump signed his executive order to ban refugee, among others, from seven predominantly Muslim countries  from entering the US Mrs May was on an aeroplane, tired and without time to think.  So her first public pronouncement was a metaphorical  shrug of the shoulders:  The US policy on refugees is a matter for the US and nothing  to do with us.

As a former Home Secretary she should have known, and if she didn't one of her multitude of advisers on the aeroplane should have told her, that the 1951 Refugee Convention is a United Nations International Convention, subscribed to at the time by 145 countries, including the US and UK, and in which both British and American lawyers were  involved in the drafting.  It is part of international law, and we believe in the Rule of Law.  Deviations from international law are not "nothing to do with us" but something on which the UK should strive to uphold, even if the the deviations are by the highest and the mightiest.

Of course in view of the international and national outrage provoked by President Trumps improvident action Mrs May has been quick to change her tune (though Boris Johnson's reaction that it's all right really because his special relationship has allowed an exemption for Britons with dual nationality is pathetic). But Mrs May's  initial response makes it clear that she is seriously lacking in moral compass.  Now that the most powerful country in the world is in the hands of a maverick, leaders with strong moral compasses are desperately needed.

It is possible that the Trump regime may not be as disastrous for liberal values as his campaign rhetoric predicts.  If so, as the last  ten days or so indicate, that will not be through any lack of determination by Mr Trump but through the robustness of the American Constitution.  This entrenches the principle of "Separation of Powers."  The Executive (the President and administration), the Legislature (Houses of Congress) and the Judiciary  are independent and act as checks and balances on each other.

With a liberal president in office this can be a cause for frustration, and  with Congress in the hands of the Republicans many of President Obama's progressive reforms were either seriously diluted or blocked altogether.  However, although he Republicans still have a majority in both Houses of Congress, many of the individual Republicans are far from Trump supporters, and may well provide the necessary checks, as indeed a decision of a Federal Judge that the travel bans are illegal already has.  The rights of individual states are also well entrenched by the Constitution

For years we British have boasted on the advantages that the flexibility of our "unwritten" constitution, with any necessary checks and balances provided by conventions, gentlemen's agreements and our innate predilection for "fair play"  Clearly these three can no longer be relied on, so we desperately need a written constitution, not least to entrench the rights of the devolved administrations and local government. 

Alas fundamental issues such as this will be placed on the back-burner whilst the political establishment veers with the wind whilst haggling over an issue most of them believe shouldn't happen.

Friday, 27 January 2017

The Holocaust. . . and Refugees?

Today is Holocaust Memorial  Day.

Here is an extract from Primo Levi's dispassionate description of his time in Auschwitz:

. . . .Schonunglsblock means the rest hut, where there are only the less serious patients or convalescents, or those not requiring attention.  Among them, at least fifty more or less serious  dysentery patients. 

These are checked every third day. They are placed in a line along the corridor.  At the end there are two tin-plate pots, and the nurse with a register, watch and pencil.  Two at a time, the patients present themselves  and have to show, on the spot and at once,  that they still have diarrhoea; to prove it they are given exactly one minute.  After which they show the result  to the nurse who looks  at it and judges.  They wash the pots quickly in a wash-tub near by and the next two take over.

Of those waiting , some are contorted in the pain  of keeping in their precious evidence  another ten , another twenty minutes; others, without resources at the moment, strain veins and muscles  in a contrary effort.  The nurse watches, impassive, chewing his pencil, one eye on the watch, one eye on the specimens gradually present him.  In doubtful cases , he leaves with the pot  to show it to the doctor.

If this is a Man, pp59/60, Abacus edition, 2013

I fear I see a similar  lack of empathy - the failure to see other human beings as people like ourselves, with similar thoughts, feelings, hopes, sense of dignity, as ourselves - in our attitude to refugees; not least  the argument by a British politician that rescuing refugees from drowning in the Mediterranean is a bad  idea, because it might encourage others to attempt the crossing.

Man's inhumanity to man is not, sadly, confined to the 1940s, but lives on.

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Brexit: the time for pester-power

Now that the Supreme Court has decided that it is up to Parliament, and not the Government, to decide whether or not to trigger Article 50 it is up to us to put the machinery of our much vaunted democracy (of which Brexiteers are so anxious that we should take back control) into action.

Step One: write to your MP.

I've just written to mine as follows:

  * * * * * * * * MP

House of Commons,

London, SW1A  0AA

Dear * * * * *   * * * * **

Now that the Supreme Court has ruled that it is Parliament and not the Government who have the right to decide whether or not to trigger Article 50 I urge you to vote against any such move.  I appreciate your were not an MP at the time the Referendum Bill was passed, so are not personally responsible*, but it was  Parliamentarians, through complacency or negligence who got us into this mess (see points 2 and 4 below)  so it is up to them , now including you, get us out of it.
The grounds for opposition to triggering Article 50 are:

  1.  The referendum was not binding but advisory.  This was made perfectly clear to all parliamentarians even if, sadly, not too much was made of it during the campaign.   But the law is the law, and the truth  is that the Government and Parliament have received advice, not an instruction, and it is up to you to decide whether or not to act on it.
  2.  Parliament failed to include in the Referendum Bill the supermajority normally necessary for such an important decision.  Organisations as inconsequential as golf clubs and music societies require more than a simple majority to change their constitutions.  All parties were remiss in not including special provisions, such as a two-thirds majority over-all and at least a simple majority in each of the four constituent parts of the UK, for a "Leave" vote to be valid.
  3. The Government and other "Leavers" are fond of repeating  that "the people have spoken" but the actual result of the referendum  (37% of the electorate for Leave, 34% for Remain and 27% did not vote) was far from a clarion call that must be obeyed.  The 16-17 age group who, in terms of years, will be most affected by the long term effects of the result, were not allowed to vote.  If those not on the register but who should be are included it is estimated that the actual percentage of the adult population who voted to leave was a mere 28%, barely more than a quarter.  In two constituent parts of the UK, Scotland and Northern Ireland, the majority voted to Remain.
  4.  The campaign, without the constraint of any means of challenging misleading statements in the courts such as the provisions of the 1983 Representation of the People Act,  was seriously misleading; on both sides, yes, but most seriously on the Leave side.  Promises made by Leave have been unravelling from day one: there is, for example, no £350m per week for the NHS, and we can't "have our cake and eat it."

As our MP you are elected not as a mandated delegate but as a mature and rational representative expected to use your judgement for the general good. In the present climate I know this will take courage, though it is worth remembering that some 70% of Labour voters voted to Remain**.  We are told that a substantial number of other MPs are contemplating voting against so you will not be alone.  Perhaps you can use your influence to persuade others, in the Lords as well as the Commons.

The tactic of demanding details of the negotiations or inserting provisions about preserving employment and workers’ rights, or even wanting a second referendum on whatever “deal” is finally achieved, is worthy but second best, in that it means you and the political establishment will spend the next two years  haggling over the details of an exit that the majority of you believe shouldn’t happen.  End it now and you can   concentrate on remedying the actual serious problems which face us: growing inequality, housing, low productivity, an alarming deficit on the balance of external payments, race relations etc. But the greatest of which is inequality.

Yours sincerely,

* My MP was recently elected at a by-election held after the Referendum Bill was passed, so, if you choose to use the above as a template, minor alterations will be needed.

**Also she is Labour.  Other points will need to be mentioned to MPs in other parties, very strong ones if the constituency happens to have voted "Remain."

The philosopher A.C. Grayling urges us to go much further, as follows.

Never forget that the referendum was unnecessary. It was an internal party political affair of the Conservative Party. Leave won with 37% of the electorate (a restricted electorate which excluded millions) that had been defined for the
poll. . . . .

The best way to stop Brexit is for our MPs to vote it down in Parliament. . . .

The most effective means of getting your MPs to act is to visit them in their constituency surgeries and to keep on visiting them every week. Crowd their surgeries every week. Demonstrate outside their surgeries every week. Fill their waiting rooms every week. Insist. Do not stop. Keep it up. Do not give up. Do not stop until it is all over.

Support the various legal actions by donating to the crowd-funded resources for them. Stay informed. Argue with Leavers; change their minds. Discuss with those Remainers who have given up the fight: get them back into the fight.

Choose a day, a time and a place, and meet there every week regularly with posters and EU flags. Gather more and more people there every time. Keep it up, rain or shine. In 1989 in the German Democratic Republic what began as a small nucleus of protesters grew until there were millions all over the country, and the government fell.

The EU has its flaws because it is a work in progress. But it is a great work in progress, with immense achievements already to its name in bringing peace, progress and increased prosperity to Europe, along with admirable labour laws, environmental protection, scientific advance, human rights and civil liberty protections, and so much besides. 


PS (added 27th JanuaryI'm pleased to see a clarion call for Labour MPs to vote against from their activist, (and repsected railway expert and oponent of HS2) Christian Wolmer, at