Friday 30 March 2012

More AND better aid: we can and should have both

The House of Lords Economic Affairs committee's realisation that the quality of overseas aid to developing countries could be improved is not news to those of us who have been engaged in the "aid lobby" for many years. I developed the following "Good Aid" guide some twenty years ago and have used it in teaching and talks ever since.

A “Good Aid” Guide

1. Aid by itself will not solve the problems of world poverty, but it can help. Always see aid in the context of trade, debt relief, human rights, the arms trade and other relevant issues.
2. Campaign for better quality aid as well as increased quantity.
3. Good quality aid involves local people: make sure the poor are consulted about what they need.
4. The most successful projects seem to be small-scale ones directed at the poorest (often women) rather than large scale prestige projects.
5. Non-government organisations (NGOs) on both sides have a good record.
6. Good aid is in an appropriate style…
7. …and uses appropriate technology.
8. There needs to be long-term follow-up.
9. The motivation should be justice rather than charity.
10. Aid should be in the interests of the recipients, not just the donors.
11. Good aid aims to develop people rather than things.
12. Aid directed at individuals rarely solves the cause of the problem: aim to help communities.

Reading between the lines gives a good indication of what can go wrong. For example, Item 10. It has been common knowledge that Landrover was kept afloat for years by the UK's aid budget, to which, I believe Mrs Thatcher actually charged the new post war airport in the Falklands.

So a lot still needs to be done.

Where the House of Lords committee is grossly in error is in its proposal that the target of 0.7% of GDP should be abandoned. There are many reasons for this, among them:

1. As David Cameron, to his great credit, wrote in the Observer last July: "I don't believe it would be right to ignore the difference we can make, turn inwards solely to our own problems and effectively balance our books while breaking our promises to the world's poorest." Happily the Department for Overseas Development appears to be sticking robustly to this commitment.

2. The promise to raise our aid budget to 0.7% of GDP was origninally made by the British government in 1969. It is outrageous and shameful that, over 40 years later and when we are now, in spite of our present economic difficulties, around three times as rich as we were then, we still haven't met the target.

3. Meeting the target was a manifesto pledge of all three major parties, plus the Greens, in the last election. How can the public be expected to trust anything politicians say if a pledge can be so easily abandoned?

And, talking of pledges, there are Liberal Democrat peers on this committee and its recommendation is said to have been unanimous. Who on earth are they and of what can they have been thinking? We of all parties should be very conscious of the danger of breaking pledges.

Wednesday 28 March 2012

Riots: blame the schools! (No change there then.)

A commission on the causes of last summer's riots has recommended that schools should be fined if they don't turn out suitably servile citizens. For all of my active career, which now spans over fifty years, it has been customary to blame the schools for any of the ills of society, from the young's alleged inability to manipulate the multiplication tables to their lack of moral fibre.

I treasure the remarks of Nigel de Gruchy, General Secretary of my union, (now called the NASUWT) which he made in 1996:

...morality is caught not taught. Example is the best teacher of all and it's no good expecting schools to save the nation from moral decline while there is so much sleaze at the top; while the media is obsessed with private lives; while company directors award themselves massive pay hikes as they make their employees redundant; and while tax concessions are handed to the rich and thousands are forced to live on the streets. In reality schools are often oases of morality in a desert of couldn't-care-less corruption.

How sad that so little has changed over 16 years, in spite of Labour rule during 13 of them.

For most of the 1980s I worked in an inner city comprehensive where I taught some lower-school maths. We were a 13 to 18 school and I liked to keep my third form (ie first year in that school) for the three years until they took their 16+ exams. Each year I welcomed a bunch of mostly bright and eager pupils and promised myself some good results in three years' time. This enthusiasm usually continued throughout the fourth year, but during the fifth and final one the pupils gradually stopped coming. This was particularly true after Christmas when it was common knowledge in the area the the attendance officers, successors of the "school bobbies" of my own childhood, didn't bother you in the final two terms. So although those who saw out the course usually performed creditably the over-all record was somewhat dismal.

The point of this personal reminiscence is that schools play only a part in engendering academic achievement, character building or whatever else you think is the purpose of education. I suppose some bright spark from OFSTED, who probably in private boasts gleefully of having escaped the classroom, would today incant that we should have made our lessons more stimulating so that the pupils wanted to come. We tried of course, but educational achievement in most subjects requires hard graft as well as enjoyment. And even professional stand-up comedians might find it difficult to hold their audiences for eight periods a day five days a week.

Unless the parents and, equally importantly, the community, are on side then the schools are batting on a losing wicket.

And (here's a message for today's government) however lofty the ideals of we teachers are in our quest for opening windows and revealing the exciting wonders of the world to the young, what the parents, community and pupils want is qualifications that lead to jobs. And if the qualifications are bogus and there are no jobs...

Sunday 25 March 2012

The truth put brutally.

What has been striking about the coalition thus far is how wonderfully useful it has been for its dominant partner. The Lib Dems attract and absorb the bulk of any campaigning attention against unpopular bills, as they do the bulk of the hatred when the bills go through. They themselves bleat truthfully but cravenly that they negotiated some important concessions but rarely - never - create space to explain what an alternative, Lib-Dem formulated policy would actually look like. Deborah Orr, Guardian 24th March, 2012.

Brutal but, I regret, absolutely true. There is still far too much "ownership" of coalition policies, the latest being Nick Clegg's description of the budget as something of which Liberal Democrat can be proud - even when it is plainly illiberal, abandoning as it does the principles of both Beveridge and Keynes, and the supine acquiescence to the reduction of the 50p tax rate when only a few years ago we were proud to be the only party proposing it.

I suspect our "bleating," as Orr puts it, of the minor concessions we achieve, does not make much positive impact on the electorate in general, and our triumphalist claims that we are "punching above our weight" do not do much to promote the politics of cooperation rather than competition.

What is desperately needed, and I hope it does not take a slaughter of our councillors in May to prove it, is a change of tactics to include:

1.After repeating the fact that the Tories have 306 MPs to our 57, calm and non-point-scoring references to the modest moderations of policy our influence may have helped to achieve.

2. Robust declarations, from Simon Hughes, Tim Farron and others not in government if ministers aren't allowed to do it, of what Liberal Democrats would do if we were in government on our own.

3. Reversion to core Liberal Democrat values and policies. To give but two examples, why are we blethering about mansion taxes and the latest trendy tycoon tax when we have perfectly sound policies, honed over the years, on land value taxation? And why aren't we saying that we're keen Europeans and should be in there with our money to help the Euro to survive, rather than giving patronising lectures from the sidelines?

Friday 23 March 2012

The budget - not much to be proud of, much to regret

Every comment by Liberal Democrats, on the budget, the NHS or anything else for that matter, should be prefaced by the phrase:"the Tories have 306 MPs, we have 57." Given that parliamentary arithmetic, the best Liberal Democrats can hope to do is nibble at the margins to ameliorate some of some of the worst consequences of Tory philosophy.

So first the good news: the rise in fuel duty is to be retained. The Chancellor has stuck to his guns and not caved in to the motorist/road-haulier lobby as Labour so cravenly did under similar circumstances. Whether this is due to Liberal Democrat pressure or an unsuspected green streak in George Osborne's make-up I can't say.

Second the threshold for the 40% tax band has been lowered (by £825) so that this swathe of the well-heeled do not get most of the benefit of raising the threshold for the 20% band by £1,100 to £9,205. Pity he didn't for the whole £1 100, but as I didn't expect anything at all, this deserves half a cheer.

And that's about it.

Although I am a pensioner, (though not, I hasten to add, a Granny, or even a Grandfather for that matter,) I can't say that I'm too upset about the freezing and eventual abandonment of our age allowance. Pensioners whose income reaches the tax threshold will have an income of at least £3 618 over and above our state pension which is to rise to £5 587, and some people are expected to live on that alone. Pensions exist to prevent destitution when one's earning life is over, and you can live quite comfortably on £177 a week. Some of us have much more and enjoy the life of Riley, so have no need of an extra tax-free perk. What sticks in the craw, of course, is that this change is made to finance the absurd cut in tax for those with a taxable income of over £150 000 (over eight times the national average wage.) Were our modest sacrifice used to fund extra welfare benefits we wealthy pensioners would at least be compensated by a glow of virtue.

The two worst aspects of the budget are that it does nothing for those who are suffering most from the failure of unregulated capitalism: the low paid, the unemployed and others on welfare benefits. These do not benefit from the raising of the income tax liability threshold since, because their incomes are so low, they don't pay that tax anyway. They continue to suffer whilst the rich are rewarded.

Secondly , in spite of the evidence that it is a crass failure, the Tories are sticking to their austerity policy, and there is nothing in the budget which will stimulate demand, bring us out of recession, create jobs for more people, and thus increase the tax take and reduce the national debt, which in any case remains at relatively modest levels. If Osborne believes that the cut in the 50% tax rate and a further drop in corporation tax are going to produce the necessary stimulus he deceives himself and the truth is not in him.

Talking of truth, both Liberal Democrats and Tories are fond of claiming that that raising the income tax threshold takes umpteen thousand people out of tax. This is a gross misrepresentation. It may take them out of paying income tax, but unless they live in clandestine tents in a field,have no televisions, buy only uncooked food and children's clothes, and never drive, smoke or drink alcohol, they pay the council tax, the BBC licence fee, VAT and duties, which can add up to quite a lot.

I had thought Nick Clegg was learning. There were few nods of agreement as he sat on the Government front bench during the Chancellor's speech, and we were spared the embarrassment of an approving embrace at the end of it. However, Clegg has now sent me an Email telling me: "This is a budget we can be proud of." It clearly isn't for members of the party who wish to see conquered the five giants identified by Beveridge, and the implementation of Keynesian economics to bring us out of recession.

Better to emphasise that that 306/57 split. We can be proud of our bit of tinkering at the edges, but should dissociate ourselves from the whole.

Monday 19 March 2012

Cantuar without cant.

A few years ago when I was studying French, I escaped from the modern languages department for a while to take a module in theology. The course followed the history of the Church of England from the Reformation. When asked by a student, not me, what, if any, were the unique contributions of the C of E to the Christian tradition the lecturer gave has his opinion that the Anglican Communion was the only "reformed" church which had avoided the splits to which Methodists , Baptists, Brethren and others have been prone.

Rowan Williams has struggled heroically to hold our Communion together against those who feel that their views on homosexuals and women are the only possible ones to hold. David Steel once said in parliament that he wished he was as certain of just one thing as Mrs Thatcher was on everything, and I'm sure Williams has felt much the same about those who wish to dictate the direction of the Communion solely according to their own prejudices.

In addition to his efforts to preserve the liberalism of the Communion Williams has, in my view, ranked alongside other great archbishops such as Temple and Runcie, (and Bell who didn't become archbishop because he spoke out against the saturation bombing of civilian populations,) in openly opposing the Iraq war, and speaking up for the poor against the unfairness of and damage done by the present government's cuts and changes to welfare provisions.

I'm not sure whether it is theologically possible to jump from a mere "Reverend" to a "Most Reverend" in one leap, but if it is, then Giles Fraser seems to me to be the most obviously qualified replacement.

Monday 12 March 2012

Liberal Democrat acivists have guts after all.

I didn't go to Gateshead as I have a small part (actually three small parts) in a play that was running over the weekend and I thought that would be more fun. On Saturday I was dismayed that the conference had voted, albeit by second preferences, to debate the "accept" motion on the NHS rather than the "reject" motion. Another victory for the party managers. I was delighted therefore when the managers were thwarted and the "reject" motion was carried by a significant majority.

Clearly I didn't hear the debate, and I haven't got the terms of the bill in front of me, but it does strike me that the so-called improvements obtained by the Liberal Democrats in parliament are mostly weasel words. One that springs to mind is that there shall be no privatisation that is "not in the interest of patients." Surely everything the NHS does is, or ought to be, in the interests of patients. Another is that a Trust can't increase its private operations (up to 49%, would you believe) without the permission of its board, which would be or could easily be packed with sycophants sympathetic to the profit orientated medical industries.

It will be interesting to see how the parliamentary parties get themselves out of the dilemma. Breaking up the coalition should not, in my view, be top of the agenda. It would be bad long-term policy to abandon the important gain of a fixed-term parliament, and reform of the second chamber is still on the cards, not to mention the importance of preserving human rights and civil liberties and maintaining a more realistic, even idealistic, attitude toward the EU. Thoughts of an immediate election with he NHS as the main issue and the Liberal Democrats seen as heroes are a chimera. Elections are rarely won or lost on the issue with which they began, as Edward Heath discovered in 1974.

I don't personally see further amendments to the bill as being satisfactory. They may save some of the Tory face, but the public and medical professions clearly see the main purpose of the bill as to open up the vast funds devoted to the NHS to private profit-making enterprises, who are clearly straining at the leash to get their hands on them. A better outcome would be for the bill to be abandoned and, to save the Tory face, the whole issue placed, without gloating on any side, in the hands of a Royal Commission.

Let's hope our top negotiators are clever enough to achieve this sensible outcome.

Wednesday 7 March 2012

Death and Syria

Until yesterday the acme of success in my clipped and limited life was to get a letter published in the Guardian. This I achieved last week for about the fifth time, a modest record compared with the likes of Keith Flett et al, but satisfying all the same.However, a friend who reads The Weekly (The best of the British and Foreign media) showed my yesterday that my letter was reproduced there on their "Pick of the week's correspondence" page. Fame indeed. What joy.

As the Guardian's editing had, in my view, lost some of the letter's punch, I produce it in full here. It followed a leader entitled "The lost art of dying" published on Ash Wednesday.

Some years ago I was a lay representative on the Ethics Committee of our local hospital. We dealt mainly with applications from drug companies for permission to carry out research. In the voluminous literature accompanying the applications were frequent references as to what to do in the case of an SAE. Timidly I asked what stamped addressed envelopes had to do with it. It doesn't mean that, I was told. It means a "Severe Adverse Event." And what exactly, I asked, was a severe Adverse event? Well, the medics replied rather shiftily, it usually means the patent dies.

So if any of your readers are worried about death (The lost art of dying, 22 February) they can come to the old West Riding and have an SAE instead

I was pleased to get in the bit about the West Riding. Why do our politicians think, from Windscale onwards, that changing names is the solution to problems?

The Week's lead letter was reproduced from The Times, so was not something I should normally come across. The letter was from a Sir Andrew Green who was ambassador to Syria from 1991 to 94. He warns that "The breast beating over Syria by liberal interventionists shows a shocking disregard for the consequences of the sheer folly they urge upon us." He points out that hints of international assistance have already lead thousands of Syrians into sever danger and the "calls to arm the opposition can do no more than accelerate the slide into civil war - the outcome that Syrians most fear." He concludes that though "I hold brief for the regime, we have no means of replacing it with something better."

Western politicians, particularly British ones and not least William Hague, enjoy strutting about on the world stage, pretending to punch above our weight and telling other people what to do. The SAEs in Syria in the past weeks are far too numerous and tragic to be the subject humour. Politicians should adopt the doctors' oath and "first do no harm." In my book that includes not selling arms to the governments of repressive states.

Tuesday 6 March 2012

50% tax rate or mansion tax?

It would be nice to both have our cake and eat it, but alas that is rarely possible, and almost impossible, I suspect, in a political coalition. So I suppose we must swallow our frustration when Liberal Democrat leaders declare that the we are not ideological committed to the 50% tax rate (what's happened to the fairness agenda and all being in it together?) and accept its abolition in return a mansion tax. Indeed, there is a sense in which a shift away from taxes on income and towards taxes on assets, especially unearned ones, and including land and property and wealth, is to be welcomed

The main problem, if such a bargain is reached, will be to make sure that the Tories don't abolish the 50% rate now and then somehow wriggle out of the mansion tax at a later date. We've been out-manoeuvred in the past: let's hope our negotiators are moving up the learning curve.

When I asked Vince Cable, at the Liberal Democrat Birmingham Conference last September, why he advocated a new mansion tax rather than extra bands to the already existing and therefore more acceptable, though flawed, council tax, he dismissed the idea. It was therefore gratifying to hear him on the Today programme this morning concede that extra council tax bands are an alternative worth considering. Pity neither he nor his department bothered to answer my letter on this topic of last September (see post of 3rd October,,)in spite of the Department's promise to do so within 15 days.

Saturday 3 March 2012

Less car, more bike.

The current "highest ever" cost of petrol and diesel is leading to the predictable calls to the government to delay the next planned increase in fuel duty. That is akin to asking the government to emulate St Augustine, who famously prayed for chastity, but "not yet."

We all know that we must prepare for an economy and lifestyle less based on dependence on oil, and , rather than put off the evil day, a sensible government would seize every opportunity, of which the current high price is one, to encourage alternatives to car use.

So the call should be for more car sharing, more use of public transport, more waling, more living nearer one's work and more cycling.

I was re-introduced to cycling during my stint as a VSO in MalaƔi, when our standard issue for transport was a "sit up and beg" boneshaker with rod brakes and no gears. Our US equivalents, the Peace Corps, who were issued with modern mountain bikes with umpteen gears, expressed scornful surprise that "they still make those things."

Well, I rattled along painfully but healthily with only one accident and resolved on returning to the UK to buy a bike beofre I bought a car, which I did. I'm now on my third and, although I don't use it as much as perhaps I ought, find it an acceptable way of getting around, particularly for journeys of less than three miles which don't involve crossing a motorway junction (which can be quite a hairy experience.)

Here are a few suggestions to make cycling and cyclists more acceptable.

1. Cyclists should obey the Highway Code like anyone else. That includes stopping at traffic lights and carrying lights when it's dark. Cyclists should be fined or given community service if they ignore these common-sense frequirements.

2. Motorists should be fined or given community service if they park across cycle lanes.

3. More pavements should be designated for use by cyclists as well as pedestrians. These could be designated by little signs, which, as a letter in today's Guardian points out, would be cheaper than painting white lanes for cycle lanes. It would also be safer for the cyclists, since many roads are really too narrow for cycle lanes. This is partially true when there are pedestrian refuges in the middle of the road. Large lorries do not seem to slow down for these and if you're there on your bike at the same time you are liable to be swept into the gutter.

There would need to be a clear order of precedence on such common pavements, and cyclists should give way to walkers, and dismount and push when there are young children about.

4. All bicycles should have a bell, which the rider should use, especially on the approved pavements.

Thursday 1 March 2012

Chruis Huhne and his £17 000 severance pay.

It would be churlish to be too critical of Chris Huhne's acceptance of £17 207 (tax free, I think) severance pay after voluntarily resigning from his cabinet post. Probably, faced with outrageous lawyers' fees to defend him in court he feels that money from any source is welcome.

What I think will stick in the craw of most electors is the fact that cabinet ministers grant themselves such generous conditions. What other walk of life gives such a generous pay off when voluntarily leaving a job after less than two years? That £17 000 is the equivalent of Job Seeker's Allowance for over five years (except that you can claim JSA for only six months). Why are our masters so cut of from the reality of the lives of a substantial part of the population that they seem indifferent to the contrast between the lavish rewards thy arrange for themselves and the conditions of the people they are elected to serve?

Many will also question why ministers require such a massive salary (about £68 000 a year) on top of the parliamentary salary of over £60 000 which they already receive, and which Huhne continues to receive. There is, after all, no shortage of MPs wanting, indeed desperately anxious, to become ministers. It is interesting that, though the monetarist are in charge and believe that "the market rules, OK," they don't apply market rules to their own pay and conditions, where supply and demand would hardly determine such largesse.

Columnist Gabby Hinsliff claimed in yesterday's Guardian (29 February) that "the decision of Stephen Hester, the RBS boss, to relinquish his bonus in order to avoid becoming , as he put it, a 'social pariah', was a crucial signal to his City peer group that public opinion has consequences."

If Chris Huhne really is a multi-millionaire, as I have seen claimed, maybe he could have afforded to consider the effect of his decision on public opinion and the reputation of his and our party, and the consequences for Liberal Democrats seeking to retain or win council seats in a couple of months' time. The present publicity reinforces the impression , which in spite of everything I still believe to be erroneous, the all politicians are "in it for what they can get", and that the Liberal Democrats are no exception.