Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Scabies, or a Royal Commission, for the NHS?

Royal Commissions used to be governments' way of putting difficult problems on to the back burner until everybody forget about them. However, people are not going to forget about the NHS.

For the present bill to go forward in any form whatsoever defies all sane analysis. It is opposed by almost all bodies representing the health professionals. It is hugely unpopular with almost all of the public and clearly a majority, if they were unwhipped, of members in both Houses of Parliament. It has already received over 1000 amendments, and another half dozen or so currently proposed by Nick Clegg and Shirley Williams are not going to make much difference.

That a camel is a horse designed by a committee is a tired metaphor. But camels are useful and functional animals, even if they do look a bit odd. If this bill does determine the future structure of the NHS the best comparison I can think of is the ugliest creature of which I'm aware (happily from pictures rather than personal experience), the scabies bug. I hope that comparison remains a metaphor and doesn't prove literally prophetic.

There are at least two mysteries surrounding the circumstances which have brought our supposedly sophisticated and highly educated democracy to this pass. First, Andrew Lansley is alleged to have spent several years preparing his scheme(even though it was never mentioned in the election campaign: indeed any further "top down " reorganisation of the NHS was specially ruled out.) With all that money and top brains available to the Tories you'd think he would have made a better shot at it.

Secondly, how on earth did the Liberal Democrats in government come to permit the scheme to go forward at all? It is not in the coalition agreement. Surely if our leaders were unable to prevent the majority party from doing what it wanted, they could have at least said we cannot support it. To preserve the coalition, the long-overdue reform of a fixed term parliament and other Liberal Democrat policies we would not oppose it. But we will stand aside and make it clear it is your doing, not ours. Our leaders are supposed to have first-class brains too. Why don't they use them?

"Face" being so important in politics, it is difficult to see how the Tories can back down now. But somebody should be looking for a way out which will preserve as much dignity as possible. Sometimes it is a condition of the settlement of a civil action in the courts that the parties agree not to crow publicly. Elder statesmen and women at the top of the parties should get together now and, for the sake of the future health and well-being of all of us, put the future organisation of the NHS to Royal Commission. There, in the words of W S Gilbert, "quiet calm deliberation" can be given a chance to "disentangle every knot."

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Taxation and political reality

Liberal Democrat leaders are working hard at persuading the Chancellor of the Exchequer to accelerate the pace at which the threshold for paying income tax is raised to £10 000. I have never been over-enthusiastic about this policy,which was successfully mauled by critics during the election campaign on two counts. Firstly it is of no help to the very poorest who either don't pay income tax because they can't find work, or work for such low wages that they never even reach the present threshold. Secondly, the policy is wasteful because raising the threshold gives extra tax-free income to all existing income-tax payers, including those in the 40% and 50% bands, who need it like a hole in the head.

The best policy to adopt in the current recession is to increase welfare benefits. This would both help the poorest and give an important boost to the economy, since the poorest are most likely to spend any extra income at home rather then save it or indulge in an extra foreign holiday. However, with a Conservative Chancellor (who, we gather, has no personal experience of poverty) and a climate of selfishness and suspicion of welfare recipients created by the red-top media and virtually unchallenged by the political classes, even of the left, this is a political non-starter.

A second-best policy would be a cut in VAT. Admittedly this wouldn't help the poorest as much as the rest of us since the poorest spend a bigger proportion of their incomes on food and children's clothing, which are VAT-free. However the cut from 17.5% to 15% implemented by the Labour government in the late Noughties is generally acknowledged to have had some success in stimulating the economy then. Once again this is a political non-starter since the Shadow Chancellor Ed balls advocates it and George Osborne (whom David Laws described in the Guardian last Wednesday, 23rd February, as "proving to be a very strong chancellor who gets the big decisions right" - does the party have a suicide wish?) has already done the opposite, and raised the level to 20%.

So, since the Tory heart resonates to tax cuts, raising of the threshold is probably he best available option. What would make the policy more palatable would be to lower the starting point to the 40% and 50% bands by the amount that liability to the initial band is raised. That would avoid giving an unnecessary bonus for the rich and comfortably off. I'll keep my fingers crossed by shan't hold my breath.

Nick Clegg has however argued that any tax cut at the lower end should be matched by greater payments at the top. My own favourite would be to discontinue tax relief at the higher rates for pension contributions. I would go even further and discontinue all tax relief on pension pots once they had reached a size sufficient to provide retirement income equal to the median wage. No-one actually needs retirement incomes of umpteen thousands in old age, and many will be unable even to enjoy them. The main usage must therefore be to entrench further privilege for children and grandchildren, which should be unacceptable in a fair society, or even in that jewel of Tory rhetoric, a meritocracy.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Malaŵi: back to a police state?

An open letter to the Malaŵi Acting High Commissioner (I think the real one has been sent home in in a bit of "tit for tat" diplomacy.)
20th February, 2012.

The Acting High Commissioner,
Malaŵi High Commission,
36, John Street,
London,WC1N 2AT

Your Excellency,

As a former VSO who was privileged to work in Malaŵi in the late 80s and early 90s I am disturbed by reports that the country may be reverting to authoritarian rule. Like most of my contemporaries my memories of “the warm heat of Africa” are overwhelmingly positive. I made many friends among some of the friendliest people on earth, and am pleased to remain in touch with several of them.

However, I do remember how young MCP activists would often bully Malaŵi citizens, and particularly young ones, in incidents such as not letting them into markets or making them get off buses if they did not carry an MCP membership card.

I was saddened to note, in the Guardian on Friday 17th February, the claim that
“ ‘thugs ‘were hired by the Malaŵian government to attack (the human rights lawyer Ralph Kasambara) and petrol bomb his office.” I hope this does not signal a return to the strong-arm tactics that were an unfortunate blemish on Malaŵi’s reputation in earlier times.

In an earlier newspaper article President Bingu wa Mutharika was reported as claiming that democratic rights are being preserved, that a free press is encouraged, that criticism of the government is not punished and “there is not a single political prisoner in a Malaŵian jail.”

The President’s comments are encouraging. Malaŵi has many friends in this country and I hope you will advise that government that we are observing the situation with concern, and hoping and praying that your beautiful country and its resourceful but hard-pressed people will be able to enjoy peace, democracy and the protection of the rule of law.

Yours faithfully,

Peter Wrigley.

I urge other friends of Malaŵi to take what action they can (maybe you can think of something more effective than a letter) to try to stop the drift back to the bad old days of Banda.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Apprenticeships - or a delusion?

"Apprenticeships" apparently deserve a "week" which was held from 6th to 12th February. Liberal Democrat News celebrated it on 10th February with a front page article in which Vince Cable proudly announced that the government "has prioritised investment in apprenticeships (which) has led to the creation of a record number of apprenticeships combined with tough new standards to drive up quality...(which will)...deliver the world class skills individuals and firms need to get ahead." In the same issue, on the back page , it reported Redcar MP Ian Swales's pride that his constituency has seen "a 91% increase in apprenticeships in the last 18 months."

However, in the Guardian on the same day Polly Toynbee, a founder member of the SDP and thus at one time one of the Liberal Democrats' highest profile supporters, wrote that the government's claims are "almost a lie, at least nowhere near the truth". In fact, she claims, the number of apprenticeships for 16-18 year olds has actually fallen in the last three months, that so many of the so called apprenticeships are 12 week courses from private training companies, with no jobs at the end, and bizarrely, that the figures include an 878% increase in "apprenticeships " for the over 60s!

Who are we to believe?

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Do we need the "Liberal Left?"

There is much with which I agree in the "Founding Position Statement" of the Liberal Left.Our current leaders have indeed "taken the party's policy position to the right." We did claim before the election that plans to reduce the public deficit in a single parliament "would remove growth from the economy and their impact would fall disproportionately on those least able to afford them , increasing the gap between the rich and the poor and further dividing the country," and this is indeed "exactly what has happened." And much more.

However, I disagree with them on three important points.

First, they "oppose the party's membership of the coalition." We have to remember that the party overwhelmingly approved joining the coalition. Almost all of us agreed at the time that it was the most appropriate step to take. We have to live with the fact that the deal has turned out to be a bad one. (I argued at the time that there was no need to rush the thing through in a weekend. A ten day period of negotiation, consultation and reflection would have exposed the flaws, such as that an agreement to abstain on tuition fees was insufficient to honour the pledges we had made. The argument that a quick fix was necessary to placate the markets was false.) But that is what the party as a whole agreed to and we have to stick it out. There have been important gains, not least the fixed term parliament, the most important constitutional reform since 1911.

Secondly Liberal Left advocates a clear stance before the next, and presumably subsequent, elections, that in the event that no party has an overall majority we will form coalitions only with Labour, the Greens and other parties of the Left (if any.)This in my view is a nonsense, allowing Labour to argue that the electorate might just as well vote for "the real thing", them, rather than the monkey, us, and the Tories to claim that a Liberal Democrat vote is a vote for Labour. The stance taken at the last election, that the party with the majority of seats and votes should have first crack at forming a coalition, seems fair, right, proper and something the electorate can easily understand. It also guards against the very real possibility that the Labour party simply isn't interested in coalitions but, like spoilt kids in the playground, will take their bats home if the electorate doesn't give them the decision they want , as, if David Laws is to be believed, appears to have happened in 2010.

Finally Liberal Left appears to be set out to create a faction within the party to oppose the leadership. We have seen the damage that such factions have done to both Labour (Bevanites, Bennites, Militant) and the Tories (Eurosceptics). The Social Liberal Forum already exists to to work within the party's structures to steer us back into the paths of Keynesian and Beveridgian economic sense and social compassion. More power to the SLF elbow, rather than a factional grouping, is what is required.

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Reform of SecondChamber (2)

According to a report in the Guardian (Labour peer:PM will rue Lords reform -9th February, 2012) Lady Royall, Labours Leader in the House of Lords, believes that the coalition has the wrong priorities if we insist on going ahead with second chamber reform when "we are in the biggest economic crisis since the 1920s' depression."

Short-termism has been the curse of the British economy for decades, and is one of the reasons that our manufacturing sector, and therefore the economy as a whole, is at present in so weak a position. Alas, short-termism in politics is equally endemic. The promise of a democratic second chamber have now been on the statute book for 101 years. Opponents will always have the excuse that "the time is not ripe." But Lady Royall claims to be an advocate of Lords reform. So does the Labour party, and so they jolly-well should be. It is a disgrace that the job was not properly completed while they had an overwhelming majority in the Commons for 13 years.

Traditional opponents of Lords reform have always been the Tories. For once they are, at least in theory, on side. All progressive politicians should seize the moment and get on with it.

It is an error to see constitutional reform as something of concern only to political anoraks, and to be considered only when there is nothing better to do. Getting the constitution right is a pre-requisite for putting so much else right that is at present wrong in our society. Nick Clegg is therefore to be applauded for pushing ahead with second chamber reform, and he deserves the support, rather than the carping criticism, of politicians who claim to be progressive.

(Please see earlier post for ideas about second chamber reform at http://keynesianliberal.blogspot.com/2011/10/reform-of-second-chamber.html)

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Orwell, thou shoulds't be living at this hour

It is incredible how the Tory spin doctors and their allies in the right-wing press have succeeded and continue to succeed in turning truth upside down.

The nonsense that our current financial difficulties are the result of Gordon Brown's profligacy and ineptitude rather than the failure of the international financial system is now taken as read. Even the Labour party itself has been convinced that Britain's public debt is at so dangerously high a level, which it isn't, that failure to give its reduction the highest priority will lead to a loss of international confidence and put us in a position similar to Greece, which it won't.

Now, with almost three million people, of whom over a million are young, unemployed because of a lack of demand which cuts in public expenditure exacerbate, the propaganda machine is succeeding in convincing even the unemployed themselves that the fault lies with them and their lack of drive and determination, as the article: "So I wonder, in the end does he think that being unemployed was his own fault." by John Harris in yesterday's Guardian (08/02/2012) so poignantly illustrates.

As more and more of the medical and associated professions call for the bill to"reform" the NHS to be dropped the government pretends that this is simply opposition from bureaucrats and providers rather than abhorrence at the prospects of privatisation.

And now George Osborne has the chutzpah to claim that the public's genuine and legitimate outrage at obscene payments to chief executives and the like is motivated not by a desire for fairness but by a culture that is "anti-business."

Yet, with the possible exception of the NHS (have Liberal Democrat peers in the House of Lords been listening?) the cries to the contrary are sadly muted. Comment may be free but the truth is not getting a fair airing. In a developing country with a largely illiterate population this could be understood. In a sophisticated and highly educated democracy it is a disgrace.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Young unemloyed "ill prepared."?

You would think that the statement that one of the reasons for there being over a million unemployed young people in Britain is "poor preparation for the labour market" would come from someone on the far right. In fact it was from David Miliband, unsuccessful contender for the Labour leadership, on the BBC's "Today" programme yesterday (6th February). Genuine socialists in the Labour party must be breathing a sigh of relief that the younger brother won, and that the elder has now announced that he will remain in the obscurity of the back benches.

I find the statement alarming for two reasons. First, when there are five unemployed people for every advertised post, it is a nonsense to claim that so many of the young are unemployed because they're not capable of working. As has been repeatedly pointed out by those active in the system, all the training and retraining, polishing of CVs and application techniques are worthless if there are no jobs. The overwhelming majority of young people are very well qualified for work. Many are graduates or have proved their ability and stickability by completing similar demanding courses. To dismiss their failure to obtain employment as being due to "poor preparation" is an insult.

My second reason for finding the statement alarming from someone allegedly on the left is perhaps unfair, as it was not explicitly stated. Maybe I'm too sensitive but I think many listeners would gather the implication that David Miliband attribute the alleged poor preparation to our education system.

In my view education professionals and politicians should be insistent that the education system exists not to provide fodder for the economy but to open windows and give everyone, whatever his or her talents, the opportunity to reach their full potential. If in the process they happen to develop some skill that is useful to the economy, well and good, but it is not the main purpose of education

I know that this is an idealistic position, but there is quite enough pressure from both the young and their parents to see education mainly as a meal ticket, without educationalists and politicians joining in. One of the worst decisions a Labour government ever made was to create a "Department of Education and Employment." The two should be kept separate.

So one again thank goodness for the Liberal tradition, which sees people as individuals seeking fulfilment and not simply as cogs in an economic wheel.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Baubles for bankers et al

As many commentators have pointed out, if de-knighting and de-nobling are to become the order of the day than many people in addition to Fred Goodwin need to be considered for having their "honours" taken away.

Whatever the pros and cons of that I believe it would change our culture in a helpful direction if we were far more selective in to whom honours are given in the first place.

My exclusion list would include:

+ anyone who kept wealth offshore to avoid taxation, or whose company avoided or evaded tax in a similar way:
+ anyone who was paid more than 20 times the lowest paid in his or her organisation (this ratio to be gradually reduced over the years):
+ anyone who had, or whose company had, donated more than say £1 000 per year to a political party:
+ any civil servant paid at a commercial rate rather than a public service rate, or whose "remuneration package" included a bonus.

Further suggestions welcome.

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Usage and abusage in parliament

Apparently David Cameron called Ed Miliband a hypocrite in parliament this week, but had to withdraw because you're not allowed to be so rude. This incident brought forth in the press the usual list of archaic insults ( eg stool-pigeon, guttersnipe, cad)which are still on the taboo list.

In my view the most amusing incident with arose out of this convention occurred when Jeremy Thorpe was leader of the Liberals and was overheard to mutter "Stupid bastard" whilst the then Prime Minister, Edward Heath, was speaking. The interjection was loud enough to generate immediate demands that Thorpe withdraw , but the Speaker ruled that in the parliamentary lexicon "bastard" was in fact regarded as a term of endearment. At once Jeremy leaped to his feet and said that if he had inadvertently used a term of endearment in respect of the prime minister he unhesitatingly withdrew.

This slick repartee appeals to political anoraks like me, and presumably to MPs themselves and to those who make a living by writing about parliament. But I doubt if it makes much of an impression on the general public. If anything, I suspect it makes the political process seem irrelevant to their real situation.

I should dearly like to see the rules of parliamentary question time altered so that notice is given of real questions and real answers can be given which enlighten us on the consequences of what the government is trying to do. This is especially true when many are losing or in fear of losing their jobs, homes and comfortable lifestyles to which we believe we've become entitled.

Serious discussion rather than clever debating antics are what is need to restore respect for the democratic process.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Gove gets it wrong - again.

The government that promised less micromanaging from the centre has once again, in the form of Michael Gove's edict that schools may no longer count a long list of vocational qualifications in the calculation of their "league table" status, poked its nose in and caused further damage. What is needed is not the downgrading of vocational qualifications but the abolition of the league tables.

For years the second class if not third class status of vocational qualifications has been one of the major weaknesses of British education. We used to have perfectly good and highly respected qualifications, obtained mainly through work-based apprenticeships and "day release" to technical colleges, and validated by responsible bodies such as the "City and Guilds" and RSA. Young men and women with a "Full Tech" Certificate could hold their heads up high and employers could rely on their stickablity and ability to do the job.

Successive government have, through a series of "reforms" poked their noses in and introduced a confetti of qualifications incomprehensible to both the holders and employers. GNVQs were quickly dubbed in the staffrooms as "Going Nowhere Very Quiclky" and NVQs as "Not Very Qualified." Admitedly some of this derision arose from the snobbish attitudes of many academic teachers, but a system which produces embossed certificates with fancy signatures and seals of approval for anything from a three year course to a one day session on how to wash up hygienically could hardly gain respect.

Like, I suspect, most teachers, I should prefer to see the years of compulsory schooling devoted to genuine education and vocational training left to the further and higher education levels. However, it should be up to schools to decide at what age and for which pupils the educational mix should be leavened, where necessary, by some instruction which is more obviously vocational.

Given the existence of league tables it is not surprising that school leaders take their eyes off their main purpose, inspiring their pupils with a knowledge of the many wonders the world has to offer and a love of learning more about them, to how to achieve shabby improvements in their places on the government's marking scheme. It is this "tick box" mentality which damages our education and demeans the teaching profession. League tables should be abolished and teachers trusted to get on with their job.