Monday 25 February 2013

Mischievous timing?

Three priests and one ex-priest have issued accusations  of inappropriate behaviour towards them by Cardinal O'Brien.  The alleged behaviour was some 20 years ago and it is admitted that the allegations are made public now with the specific aim of trying to prevent Cardinal O'Brien from going Rome to join the Conclave to elect a new Pope.

There is no stated motive from the women who last week made public their claims of inappropriate behaviour towards them by the Liberal Democrat peer, Lord Rennard, but it does seem odd that accusations  about events which allegedly  took place sometime between 2003 and 2008 should surface the week before the Eastleigh by-election.

If this is a plot to undermine the Liberal Democrat effort then the plotters must be very pleased with their results.  The Mail in Sunday had a full front-page splash on the topic yesterday (plus possibly something inside: I didn't buy one to look) and Nick Clegg's claim that he played no part in a cover-up was the lead item on the Radio 4  news this morning.

Obviously I have no knowledge of the veracity of any of these claims but it does seem to me to weaken the the position of the accusers if the accusations are not made within a reasonable time of the alleged offences.

Saturday 23 February 2013

Osborne mises his own goal

Schadenfreude, the malicious enjoyment of another's misfortune, is not a very noble sentiment, but I shall indulge in it without restraint in relation to George Osborne's humiliation now that Britain has lost its  AAA credit rating from one of the three major  agencies.

The fact that the goal of retaining the "coveted" rating as the principle objective  of Osborne's "austerity" policy was the wrong one  because:
  •  it was based on a lie: there was never any evidence that the UK was about to lose the confidence of the markets: the ploy was and is simply a convenient cover for the Tory policy of dismantling our welfare state:
  • the credit rating agencies were already discredited: it was they who rated Iceland as AAA and caused thousands of individuals and several UK local authorities to lose savings by putting them  in what they believed, on the evidence of these agencies, were in super-safe banks:
  • the possession of the AAA rating is not the cause of the low cost of government borrowing in Britain (of which the government criminally fails to take advantage):  the real cause is the lack of alternative sources of profitable investments because of the lack of demand in the economy:
  • the loss of the rating is unlikely to have much effect on government borrowing  costs: rates have actually fallen slightly  in the US since it  lost the imprimatur some months ago:
 does not rule out the enjoyment of some satisfaction at his failure

Retaining the AAA rating was the goal to which Osborne nailed his standard.  He chose it, he has failed and now he should resign.  Many politicians have resigned for far less.  We've had a catalogue of economic failures ranging over nearly three years, now culminating  in the loss of his most prized trophy.  That he should be allowed, or even want, to hang on beggars belief.

The proper, the decent, outcome, would be for him to offer his resignation (not wait for Cameron to sack him) and retire to the back-benches, or better still to a monastery where he can atone for his follies without further distractions.  The fun will be to see how he and his skilled PR gurus wriggle to convince us that the failure of the policy which they themselves chose to reach their own chosen  goal  demonstrates the need for more of the same policy. Once again, Orwell, thou shoulds't be lining at this hour.

Sadly what is not fun is that the disable being driven into work,  those forced into unemployment, those on social security benefits already too low to maintain  a civilised standard of life and who now get less, who have all suffered unnecessarily for the past two and a half years, will continue to suffer.  We are not in a jolly sixth-form debate to see who can score points, crack the best jokes and win, if not the academic argument, at least the support of their audience.  The wrong decisions of these  "posh boys" are spoiling real lives.

The only decent outcome of this debacle would be for Vince Cable, who, though not in my view as saintly as he is often depicted, at least has some notions of the desperate need  to implement Keynesian policies to revive  our economy, to be  the new Chancellor of the Exchequer.  But unfortunately our political system does not seem to lend itself to common sense.

Most exasperating, and that's putting it mildly,  for a Liberal Democrat, was to hear our own Treasury minister, Danny Alexander, actually saying on the radio this morning that he continues to support Osborne and his policies.  Have Liberal Democrats in government no sense at all?   If the misguided application of collective responsibility rules does not allow them to cheer this wonderful opportunity for a change of personnel and policy, at least they should have the sense to keep quiet.

Wednesday 20 February 2013

Whistle-blowers and gagging orders.

I have never been subject to a "gagging order" so may have misunderstood the circumstances under which thy are imposed.  If that is so I'd be happy to receive correction.

However, from what I read in the papers there seems to be a great deal of opprobrium heaped on the organisation that imposes the gag, and the silenced whistle blower is hailed as something of a hero. But surely what has happened is that the whistle-blower is offered, and has accepted, a bribe to keep quiet.  Admittedly some of these bribes must be very difficult to resist: one in the news at the moment is said to be in the region of half a million pounds.  However, the whistle blower doesn't have to accept the bribe: if he or she is so terribly concerned about the wrong-doing of the organisation he or she could forgo the bribe and still speak out.

There seems to be to be moral culpability on both sides.  What is needed in all large organisations, public and private, is open and democratic representation of  all the "stakeholders" - employees, the community affected, and customers, clients or patients - as  well as shareholders if the organisation is in the private sector, so that the clique in control is held to account.

Monday 18 February 2013

Who'd want to be a manager?

Yesterday on  Newark North Gate Station I saw a  huge  poster which advises young people with degrees in physics that, if they become teachers, they could rise to management positions within four years. This is offered as an enticement rather than a threat.

I find this bewildering.  Surely the people we want to become physics teachers are those who are terribly keen on physics and wish to impart their enthusiasm to others, not those who want to get out of the classroom and into "management" as quickly as possible.  I have long argued that to be a good teacher you need three qualities:

  • an enthusiasm for  the subject  and sufficient knowledge of it for the level at which you're teaching:
  • an ability to communicate:
  • respect for the people you're teaching, be they infants, children,adolescents, or adults.
Essentially managers make lists. This is very important.  In schools good lists ensure that the right pupils get to the right teacher at the right time, in hospitals that the right patients get to see the right doctors, and so on.  Being a good list maker is not as easy as many people think, as I discovered in the brief period when I was a deputy head. But to assume  that list-making ability is more important than  being a good teacher, doctor, artist, probation officer, musician, entrepreneur  or whatever,  is mistaken  It is also mistake to assume that those who are good at their profession are actually good at making lists.

A friend who qualified as a teacher in the same year as I claims: "It all want wrong when they began to talk about middle management."   If we are to have the best possible schools, hospitals, universities, etc we need to attract those who are keen to do the actual job, not those who are keen to "rise" out of it as quickly as possible. We need to reverse the present culture, so that managers are seen as the servants of practitioners and not their masters.

Friday 15 February 2013

Smoke and mirrors with taxation

When Gordon Brown as Chancellor of the Exchequer reduced the tax rate for the first £1 500 of taxable income to 10% in 1999 there were mutterings from the tax collecting experts (then known as the Inland Revenue) that an additional rate of tax was not a good idea because it simply added to the complexity of calculating how much should be paid.  The accepted wisdom was "The fewer tax bands the better," so would it not have been simpler to abolish income tax on, perhaps, a slightly narrower band?

When I first heard, in the 2007 Budget,  that  Mr Brown was to abolish the 10p tax band I assumed that this meant that he had, albeit belatedly, learned the lesson and that  band of income would now be free of tax.  However, more detailed explanations in the papers the following day revealed that what was actually to happen was that band of income would in future be taxed at the standard rate of 20%.  In other, and simpler, words, not abolished at all but doubled.

Today  Ed Miliband is being lauded  for promising that a future Labour government would re-introduce the 10p band.  Why this receives applause, whilst the Liberal Democrat policy, now being implemented, of actually raising the tax free allowance, ie increasing the 0% band, goes almost unnoticed by the press, beats me. Smoke and mirrors indeed.  However, we must welcome Labour's support for Vince Cable's Mansion Tax, though an increase in the number of council tax bands would be far more sensible and catch many more people.

However, I find all this obsession with taxation rather tedious, and I suppose matters will get worse as Budget Day approaches.  As a society we need to pay more attention to what we receive for our taxes and do less grumbling about paying them (though I am all  in favour of looking for fairer ways of paying, and making sure that the rich and corporations pay their whack).  The American juror Oliver Wendell Holmes put it rather neatly at the beginning of the last century: "Taxation is the price we pay for a civilised society."

We need to stop obsessing about the "burden" of taxation.  In my view it's not stretching credulity too much to regard paying taxes as a privilege.  I'm jolly glad that throughout my working life I always earned enough to pay income tax and am happy that my pension is sufficient to keep me in that privileged bracket.

Sunday 10 February 2013

Inequality perpetuated

There is much grumbling amongst the well heeled that the government has decided to cap the maximum amount the elderly need pay for their own social care at £75 000 rather than the £35 0000 recommended by the Dilnot Commission.

I don't know how many houses in London, the South East and other affluent parts of Britain are now worth over £1million, but there are certainly enough to scare the Liberal Democrats into raising the "qualification" for our proposed Mansion Tax to £2 million rather than the £1 million originally proposed by Vince Cable.

Suppose a couple owning one of these mini-mansions both have to pay the full £75 000 for their social care in old age.  That's a total of £150 000.  So if their house sells for exactly £1 million, that still leaves £850 000 to be distributed amongst their offspring, or other favoured causes.  Suppose they have the average of 2.4 children.  That's slightly over £350 000 apiece.  Not a bad little windfall.  And, of course, many of these "mansions" are worth much more than £1 million, mostly accrued through house-price inflation rather than any effort on the part of the owners, if they've lived in them for any length of time. And there will probably be be other assets as well.

I am aware of the difficulty of distinguishing medical care,  which under our NHS is and, I agree, ought to be, free  for everyone, regardless of means, and social care, but I see no reason why the latter should be paid for out of the public purse just so that rich people's children, probably already very well-heeled, can enjoy yet another bonus.

Research to be published by the Resolution Foundation in the UK will show that, as in the US (see the reports of the the film Inequality for All, based on the work of, and staring, President Clinton's former Labour Secretary Robert Reich), whilst both economies have grown, and worker productivity has increased since the 1990s, the incomes of ordinary households  have flat-lined.  The rising tide has not lifted all boats:  the already rich have taken the cream and the rest of us remain pretty much where we were.

That's the result of neocon economics, and this social care "cap," albeit higher than Dilnot suggested, merely perpetuates the system.  Jeremy Hunt, the Health Secretary, talks of the "scandal" of people having to sell their houses to pay for their social care.  This is yet another example of Orwell's "Newspeak." The real scandal is that the government, whilst cutting vital help to the poor who desperately need it, is introducing yet another scheme to protect the wealth of the already wealthy.

Friday 8 February 2013

Liberals, liberalism, and Israel

In 2004 Jenny Tonge, then a Liberal Democrat MP, said after a visit to Palestine that, although she did not condone the behaviour of suicide bombers:  "If I had to live in that situation - and I say that advisedly - I might just consider becoming one myself."  For this admission of empathy, shared by many, she was slapped down by the then party leader, Charles Kennedy.  Last year, for stating that, "Israel in its present form is not going to be there for ever," (a fairly obvious truth: the UK for example, "lost" the larger part of Ireland in the 1920s, and may well part with Scotland in a few years time.  Other states, such as the US, seem to gain bits)  she was virtually forced to resign  from the party by Nick Clegg.

Last week David Ward, Liberal Democrat MP for Bradford East, after a attending a Holocaust Memorial Service, blogged that he was " saddened that the Jews . . .(are) inflicting atrocities on Palestinians in the new state of Israel and continue to do so on a daily basis in the West Bank and Gaza."  For this he has received a reprimand from the Liberal Democrat chief whip and been forced to issue an apology.  His offence is that he attributed the atrocities to "the Jews" rather than "the Israeli government."

Ward acknowledges that his remark could have been better phrased, but his shorthand would have passed unnoticed in most other contexts. When we speak of "the British" in India we do not imply that each and every one of us was responsible for events there.  When we say that "the Americans" led the invasion of Iraq, we do not imply that each and every citizen of the US was culpable.

As Ward points out, "There is a huge operation out there, a machine almost, which is designed to protect the state of Israel from criticism. And that comes into play very very quickly and focuses intensely on anyone who's seen to criticise the state of Israel."

Few can doubt that the Israeli-Palestine situation is one of the most intractable problems in the world today.  It arises because the second part (my italics below) of the Balfour Declaration of 1917:

"His Majesty's government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country."

 has been ignored.

Until a solution is found Israeli citizens will continue to suffer random attacks and Palestinians disproportionate retaliation and unspeakable humiliations.  These latter are well described by former hostage John McCarthy in his recently published book, " You Can't Hide the Sun," (Bantam Press, 2012). The post war history receives what seems to me even handed treatment in a Channel 4 television series called "The Promise,"  first shown in 2011 and now available on DVD.

Politics is government by discussion, and a solution to this sore on our civilisation will not be found without full and frank discussion of all points of view.  It is absurd that the Liberal Democrat party, which puts liberty as its premier value, and that must include freedom of speech and opinion, submits to pressures to curb frank exchanges of views.

Tuesday 5 February 2013

Cameron and Huhne: two own goals.

It is difficult to understand why David Cameron is pressing ahead with legalising same-sex marriages.  I suppose he thinks that by introducing this piece of faux liberalism he will dispel some of the image of the Tories as the "nasty party."  however, this  is highly unlikely as he presides over the dismantling our welfare state and civic society and handing the pieces  to private profiteers.  In any case the scheme has backfired  in that a huge amount of publicity is being generated by grass-roots Tory opposition to the move.

The whole issue is essentially trivial in that same-sex partnerships already have all the legal rights enjoyed my married couples. and the negative publicity much exaggerates, I suspect, the depth of Tory opposition.  Twenty-five chairs and former chairs of Tory constituency associations  have handed in letters of protest, but there are 650 MPs and therefore 650 constituencies.  Some of the Tory constituency associations may ave amalgamated because of the paucity of members (eg in Scotland, where Conservative members  are very thin on the ground) but there must be around 600 associations still functioning.  So if they can only scrape together 25 chairs and ex-chairs to protest, that hardly signifies wide-scale grass-roots rebellion.

Nevertheless it is good to see the focus of unfair pillorying switch from Nick Clegg to David Cameron for a change.  I should prefer to see him squirm over his duplicity on electoral reform, his backtracking on House of Lords reform or his wrong-headed economic policy, but something is better than nothing.

I feel exceptionally sorry for Chris Huhne.  Yes, he has committed an offence and made matters worse by lying about it, and the whole matter may never have come to light if he hadn't separated from his wife.  I'm told that passing on driving licence "points" to one's partner in order to avoid a driving bans not  uncommon, though I have no personal experience.  And it was all ten years ago.  The stupid thing is that Huhne was a millionaire at the time (he'll be less so after all the lawyers' fees) and could easily have afforded to take taxis or even hire a chauffeur for the period of his ban.  The whole matter would have cost a few thousand pounds at most and been over within a few months.

There are, I think, echoes of the Profumo affair of the 1960s.  Let's hope that, like John Profumo, Huhne manages to re-rehabilitate himself In some useful sphere.

Monday 4 February 2013

Search and Rescue, Privatisation and the Big Society

The operations of the Search and Rescue services are probably more complex than the government realises.

A few years ago someone claimed in parliament that people who got themselves stranded on mountains or became adrift at sea should jolly well be sent a bill to cover the costs of rescuing them. A military person responded that the search and rescue teams had to practise anyway, and operating in real situations was more effective training than taking part in staged situations.  So market forces weren't necessarily appropriate in this area.

Equally, the Search and Rescue services rely a great deal on volunteers: the Mountain Rescue teams in popular hiking and climbing areas, the Lifeboat services around the coast.  There used to be volunteer fire brigades and ambulance crews: maybe there still are. Volunteering for the public good, physical and metal challenges,along with a bit of fun and companionship, is an important part of what Cameron now chooses to call  the"Big Society" but I can't see volunteers being quite so keen to give their help free to businesses that are trying to make a profit out of them.

If new equipment has to be bought  (the replacement of the ageing Sea King helicopters seem to be the major cost pending) there is little point in transferring the immediate cost from the public to the private purse, and then lumbering future generations with paying through the nose for the service thereafter.  And how long before some bright management guru decides to introduce payment by results or whacking bonuses?  Even A-level students can see the bizarre possibilities that would arise if firemen were paid according to the number of fires they put out.

This is yet another area where the government is advised to leave well alone, rather than damage an effective public service for ideological reasons (or the private profits of its mates.)