Tuesday 25 February 2014

Come on Vince, fair's fair for banana growers.

The Fairtrade Foundation, of which I am an enthusiastic supporter, has pointed out that, whilst the prices of most foodstuffs have risen by nearly 80% in the past ten years, the price of bananas has halved.  The reason is that supermarkets are selling bananas as a "loss leader" which is putting the squeeze on banana growers "making it impossible [for them]  to build up resilient businesses and trade out of poverty."

The Foundation has asked the Business, Innovation and Skills Department, headed by our own Vince Cable, to refer the matter to the Competition and Markets Authority.  Ah, says the Department, "It is not our policy to get involved in price-setting.  The price that people pay at the checkout is down to the supermarkets."

Things were different, of course, when our own  farmers were involved, and a concerted campaign forced the supermarkets to stop selling milk as a loss-leader and compelled  them to pay our dairy farmers at least the cost of production.

Yes, I know that British dairy farmers are living on the edge, I'm an avid fan of  The Archers, but Liberal concerns for human dignity have never stopped at the shores of these country, and Caribbean and other banana growers probably have an even more vivid idea of what that edge feels like.

So "Action this day" from this Liberal Democrat lead department,  could be of great benefit to some of the poorest people in the world.  They're probably "hard-working families" as well, so our Conservative colleagues would approve.

Post Script (added 3rd March)

An article in last Saturday's Guardian by Patrick Collinson spells out how useful the Fairtrade system is to banana growers.  It also points out that Starbucks supports Fairtrade coffee plantations, a redeeming feature  and some compensation for their not paying their fair share of taxes. 

Thursday 20 February 2014

Insurance: a competitive market?

From the number of unsolicited offers I receive whenever my house or car insurance is due (how do they know?) there's plenty of allegedly competing firms in the insurance market.

It is part of Tory philosophy that competition between private providers is the best way to ensure that the customer receives the best possible deal at the best possible price, and that interference from the government, or regulation (the famous "red tape" that they are so dedicated to cutting) can only hinder the efficiency of the market.

Why, then, has the government found it necessary to summon the bosses of the  insurable companies to Downing Street to ensure that the sufferers  from flooding are treated properly?  Is it just a PR stunt , or,  when it comes to the crunch, do they have no confidence in their own market dogma?

Economic right-wingers are fond of quoting the great Adam Smith in support of their doctrines.  Perhaps, at heart, they agree with him when he recognises the need for market regulation, as when he writes: "People of the same trade  seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices."  (The Wealth of Nations, page 116, Everyman's Library edition)

One contrivance to raise, if not their prices, at least their profits, is the apparently universal practice of the insurance companies of providing  only premium telephone numbers for claimants to contact them on.  This is a disgraceful extra imposition on people already suffering from huge  inconvenience, stress, and probably ultimately, financial loss. Claimants can of course avoid this charge by using the http://www.saynoto0870.com/search.php website, but it would be a helpful touch if at least some of the companies sharpened their competitive edge by publishing non-premium landmine numbers up front.

Tuesday 18 February 2014

Bully for Scotland.

I have considerable sympathy with Alex Salmond's view that the forces of reaction are using "bully boy" tactics in the debate on Scottish independence. First there was the threat to take Royal Navy shipbuilding orders away from an"independent" Glasgow on the spurious grounds that we couldn't rely on a "foreign country" to supply  our defence requirements;  then the unanimous declaration by all three major British parties that an independent Scotland would not be able to keep the pound, no ifs, no buts, no discussion; and now  a declaration by José Manuel Barroso that it would be "almost impossible" for an independent Scotland to be a member of the EU.

The first threat is a nonsense.  We rely on the US for Trident (though many of us think it is a pointless waste of time and money) and I believe the British army still uses a Belgian rifle.  I'm curious to know how Barroso was recruited to the "No" campaign: you'd think this was the sort of domestic  argument in a member country that a civil servant would keep out of.  It would be fair enough to say that membership would not be automatic and  need to be negotiated, but clearly the EU would be desperate to retain the membership of a rich country like Scotland, even if only to obtain its supplies of whisky without paying customs duties.

Clearly the argument that a currency union between two countries is unworkable is absolute nonsense, given that across the Channel there's a currency union of 18 countries.  I don't claim that the Eurozone is working without difficulties, but we can learn from their mistakes (notably the lack of a "lender of last resort," which sterling has and would continue to have in the Bank of England.)  And it's worth remembering that when the Euro was created we British  could buy one for 70.5p (£1= €1.42); today, according to this morning's news, we'd have to pay 82p (£1= €1.22).  In other words since the creation of the Euro the £ has lost value compared with the it by 16%.  Not all that wonderful a currency.  (The loss of value of the £ of  my childhood compared with the $US, when with reasonable accuracy we could refer to 5/- (25p) as a dollar, beggars belief.)

I regret that Salmond has not had the courage to stick  to his original preference, which was for Scotland to join the Euro.  I know that would be a very daring policy at the moment, but at least if  Scotland joined it now, at the current exchange rate, they'd have the advantage of the rUK, who will doubtless come scurrying to join the currency within the next 20 years, by which time the pound will probably have reached parity with the Euro, a depreciation of of further 18%.

The irony is, of course, that this bullying, from Westminster in particular, will probably strengthen  the "Yes" vote in Scotland.  That would  be the likely reaction of any sturdy Scot.  Although the current polls still show a healthy majority in favour of the "Better Together " option, all the movement since the beginning of the campaign has been towards "Yes."  An inept  campaign by the "Yes" cause  in the electoral reform referendum led to the overturning of a two to one majority in favour of reform.  Inept campaigning by the "No" campaign could easily turn the majority against Scottish independence into a "Yes." 

That would be a pity, because in my view the solution for the future of Scotland, and indeed the rest of the  UK is not on the ballot paper.  That is Home rule, or what is now called "Devo Max."

The Liberals tried to offer Home Rule to Ireland three times (1886, 1893 and 1912) and each time it was scuppered by the Tories (who, democratic, law-abiding, upright   and patriotic as they claim to be, actually called upon the British Army to mutiny if the will of the Commons were implemented).  This stupidity led to a century of bloodshed in Ireland, and that, indeed, may well  not yet be over.  

While similar dire consequences may not develop in Scotland whatever the outcome of the referendum, to me the ideal solution is for Scotland to have complete autonomy,  including taxation, over domestic affairs, with the UK remaining responsible for foreign policy, defence, the currency,  BBC and meteorological office.  (I've always felt it a bit mean that the BBC no longer broadcasts the weather forecast for the Irish Republic.)

Similar devolution should be enacted for Wales and the English Regions - Liberal/Liberal Democrat policy for as long as I've been in the party, and we should be saying so loudly and clearly.

That would, of course, mean a parliament for England, which should be in York.

Post Script (added 19/02/14)

One of the fears among progressives about Scottish independence is that it would condemn the rest of the UK to a permanent Tory governments.  Apparently this is not the case. A letter in the Guardian  from Byron Criddle of Aberdeen University claims that:  "Of the nine  postwar elections  after which Labour formed the government (1945, 1959, 1964, February and October 1974, 1997, 2001 and 2005) the party would without its Scottish  MPs have had Commons majorities  in all but the 1964 and the two 1974 elections."  Well, that's some consolation if the Scots vote "Yes."

Wednesday 12 February 2014

Floods - will they end in tears for Cameron?

During the First World War, when the Russian Army was facing devastating setbacks,  Tsar Nicholas II took personal command.  We know that happened to him and his poor country.  Let's hope the consequences of our prime minister's bold step in taking command of the floods crisis are less dire, both for him and the UK.

Although we've had a lot of rain my bit of Yorkshire hasn't yet been much affected by flooding.   I can therefore study the situation from the security of a warm dry house and  feel rather detached from the problems.  This enables me to  muse rather airily on what the situation tells us about the reactions of the people affected and what they tell us about our politics.  I freely acknowledge that my thoughts and feelings might be very different if I were personally affected.

Firstly,  I do wonder, perhaps unworthily, if there would be quite so much fuss made if the affected areas were in Barnsley or Bradford rather than the prosperous south (though I'm not all that good at geography, maybe the Somerset Levels aren't all that  prosperous.)

Secondly, the people who have been affected do seem to come over as a lot of complainers and moaners.  In an article in this morning's paper Simon Jenkins mentions just one phlegmatic lady who staggered a reporter looking for yet more complaints by saying :  "I't's a flood, just one of those things."  Otherwise the "blitz spirit" seems remarkably absent among the victims, though not it seems among the hundreds of volunteer helpers.

Thirdly, the bickering among the politicians, desperately trying to shift the blame, and unblushingly  distorting the truth as to who has cut expenditure on flood defences the most, does them little credit  Chris Smith comes out well in my view, and Eric Pickles looks even more foolish that usual. However, the childish and disingenuous squabbling further undermines the confidence of the electorate in politics as it is currently practised.

Fourthly, austerity is suddenly swept aside and, says Mr Cameron: "Money is no object" in helping with flood relief.  What is needed will be provided, never fear.  Business are to be excused business rates, households given up to £5 000, though I'm not clear whether this is protect their property  against future damage rather than compensate  them for losses in this one.  But most (I know, not all) of the houses seems pretty substantial, in areas where house prices have rise substantially over a long period.  If they've lived there for any length of time many owners will have amassed tens,maybe hundreds, of thousands of pounds of value for no effort on their own part.  And most (again not all) will be insured for the damage done.  Is there to be an "Upper Capital Limit" (£16 000 ) or Lower Capital Limit (£10 000) below which one must reduce one's savings in order to qualify for other forms of welfare?  Could this largesse be better distributed?   I can't help thinking that many of Britain's "Benefits Street" inhabitants would be able to rebuild their lives, never mind their properties, with an unmerited windfall of £5 000.

Fifthly, that the problem has arisen at all is a reflection of our stupidity.  For half a century or more we have forced politicians to peddle the myth that we can have a vibrant state without paying for it.  In addition we have been conned into believing, as Jeremy Paxman reminded us last night, President Reagan's sneer that "I'm from the government and I'm here to help" are the most dangerous nine words in the English language.  So we've seen the state rolled back, put a party into government which promises for ideological reasons to roll it back further, believed all that nonsense about the private sector giving better value for money than the public sector, and then seem surprised that, when we need it, the public sector is not sufficiently robust to give us the help to which we feel entitled..

Finally and most shamefully, the Daily Mail has  launched a petition  ". . .  calling on Government to divert foreign aid to flood-hit British families."

 I feel embarrassed to belong to a country where a newspaper with such a warped sense of priorities is a best seller.

Sunday 9 February 2014

NHS data sharing: opting out.

The NHS data sharing scheme seems either sloppily organised or deliberately designed to keep opting out to a minimum.  The leaflet of information about the scheme arrived in my area about two weeks ago. It was unaddressed so it is possible that houses in areas more difficult to reach didn't get one (as often used to happen in the days when election leaflets were unaddressed).

After describing the scheme and its alleged benefits, on its fourth page the leaflet states that if you don't want your (anonymised, so they say) medical history  to be disclosed to all in sundry you should simply call in to your GPs' surgery and "ask the practice to make a  note of this in your medical record."

Personally I'm not too worried one way or the other.  I have not as yet any potentially embarrassing medial incidents: I'm not HIV+ve, haven't received treatment to rehabilitate me from drug abuse (or alcohol abuse, though that could be a matter of time), had an abortion, been treated for a mental disorder (though I agree that that should be no more embarrassing than a physical disorder) and still associate STDs* with telephones rather than the results of sexual promiscuity.

However, after reading discussion on the project I've decided that its purpose is more about enabling big pharma to increase their profits than improving  the treatments available to the public, and after innumerable disclosures of allegedly confidential information (the Snowden revelations, Barclay's Bank this very morning, to name but two),believe  the promises of anonymity to those who have something they'd rather not the world to know about are not to be relied upon. So in solidarity with them I've decided to opt out.

I also learned that there is a time limit of one month from  receipt of the leaflet to do the opting out, though this is nowhere mentioned in the leaflet.

So I've l "dropped in" to my GPs' surgery and asked them to make that note, just as the leaflet said.

It turned out not to be all that straightforward.

The receptionist who dealt with me asked if I realised that all the information would be anonymised.  Yes.

Ah, she didn't know where the forms were, but the other receptionist, on the phone, might.  (There is no mention of a form on the leaflet).  When the other receptionist had finished her rather long phone call she didn't know where the forms were either.  She suggested trying a  code on the computer, but that didn't reveal them, so it was decided that they might  be at the other surgery.  My name and address were taken and the the forms  would be forwarded.

I've now received them, and further complications have been revealed.  There is not one but three information sharing schemes from which we can opt out if we wish:

  1. With local hospitals, and health practitioners outside the practice (eg chiropodists) who might be likely to treat you,
  2. With the local authority, to enable them to plan better health care in the area.
  3. With the new national data base.
I have opted to stay in the first two, which seem worthy and sensible, and opt out of the national scheme, as I believe 40% of doctors have indicated they will do.

*Younger readers (if there are any) need to know that STD originally meant Subscriber Trunk Dialling, a technology which enabled us to make trunk (ie long distance) calls without going through the local telephone operator.  Cutting edge.

Friday 7 February 2014

Christine Lagarde campaigns for Keynes

In the high and far-off times, when there was an interesting talk on the wireless it was possible to read it in print in The Listener the following  Friday.  In this era of super-communications I'm not sure that a similar facility is still available but Christine Lagarde's brilliant Dimbleby Lecture, broadcast on BBC1 Television last Monday, can still be seen via iPlayer at least until next Monday.  It is not to be missed.

It may just have  been Gallic tact which caused Mme Lagarde to praise Keynes to the skies, illustrate the development of communications by comparing the reporting of the Queen's coronation by one voice to the multitudinous tweeting of  the birth of Prince George, and even manage to mention Downton Abbey to her British audience, but her call to "rekindle the spirit of Bretton Woods" suffused the entire lecture.

Three special vignettes:

  •  We need a financial system which serves production rather than its own purposes.
  •  Inequality can tear down the fabric which holds society together [so] inclusion should be given equal weight with growth.
  • Fair taxation requires political courage.
This is a political speech inspired by vision: a refreshing change from the short-sighted petty squabbling which presently passes for politics in the UK.

As an afterthought, although she didn't actually say that Gordon Brown saved the World, she did have some very complimentary words to say about the London G20 Summit which he lead,  something coalition spokespersons might bear in mind when they continue to mislead us by claiming that they're "clearing up the mess left by Labour."

As a campaigner for justice for the Third World for over half a century I never thought I'd say this, but, in Mme Lagarde's case : Vive le FMI!

Tuesday 4 February 2014

Off with OFSTED

The previous post, immediately below, examines why I believe over-attention to the measurable is actually counter-productive, and calls for more constructive methods of supporting professionals, especially in education.

 To show that this appeal is not just unrealistic "pie in the sky" from a blinkered retiree, here is a quote from an article by Danny Dorling, a professor of geography at Oxford University, in today's Guardian:

In Finland there is no inspection of teachers, no league tables, pupils are not set or streamed and. . .'In four international surveys, all since 2000, Finnish comprehensive school students have scored above students in all the other participating countries in science and problem-solving skills, and came either first or second  in reading and mathematics.'

 I am well aware that a system successful in one country cannot necessarily be transferred lock stock and barrel to another: in the case of Finland and the UK there are significant social and cultural differences, not least, I understand, that Fins enjoy a more equal society and,  in general,  have a higher regard for eduction per se than is common here.

However, there is little doubt that Michael Gove, with his obsession with "driving up standards" by force of inspection and yet more testing, is barking up the wrong tree.  Some might say just "barking."

Sunday 2 February 2014

The menace of the measurers.

Edward Skidelski's Guardian review of Philip Roscoe's "I Spend, therefore I am. . ." contains the telling warning: A measure is a dangerous tool, for it tends to take  the place of whatever it measures.

Add the maxim: What gets measured gets done;

and Goodhart's Law: When a measure becomes the target it can no longer be used as a measure;

and we begin to see the danger of our current obsession with subjecting professional activities to what Skidelski calls "scoring systems."

In my view these systems, especially as they are applied in  health and education, have five major disadvantages:

  1. They distort outcomes;
  2. They take time and energy away from doing the actual job;
  3. They are demoralising;
  4. They divert resources;
  5. The competent inspectees rather than the competent practitioners get promoted and so perpetuate the system
These disadvantages  were first brought home  to me as a teacher in Papua New Guinea in the 1970s.  There, to my astonishment, all teachers were regularly inspected and given a mark out of 10. 10/10 meant eligible for promotion by two grades, 9/10 by one grade, 8/10, satisfactory at the present level, 7/10, serious  weaknesses.  There could have been lower marks, but even 8/10 caused quite enough disruption.

1.  Outcomes were distorted because there was inevitably more emphasis on  teachers' paperwork than on the quality of the teaching. All marking had to be signed and dated; preparation  for each lesson, and post-teaching evaluation, neatly kept; and these were evaluated, as were the quality of the observers' reports on lessons observed.

2.  Head teachers were required to observe lessons by each teacher in the school three times a term, write a report in triplicate (one for the teacher, one for the file and one for the inspector) and discuss it with him or her. Heads of department had to observe lessons as well (copies in triplicate, one for the teacher, one for the department file and one for the head), along with ensuing discussions; copies of minutes of departmental meetings kept  along with annually revised schemes of work for the department.  The amount of time and emotional energy taken up by all of this was enormous. 

3.   The inspection system was demoralising in two ways:

a)  The observer was more or less obliged to say at least something critical in very lesson report, or s/he would be criticised by the inspector as not up to the job and therefore denied further promotion. However mild and constructive the comment might be, on receiving the copy of the report the teacher observed  would search for it and defend himself/herself vigorously.  Great tact was need to avoid bad feeling.

b)  I didn't learn about this until long after I'd left PNG, but it has universal application.  Research (I can't remember the source) has shown that, whatever their occupation, about 70% of practitioners think their performance is "above average."  This is of course statistically impossible, so telling people that they are only average or below average is a blow to self estimate to a goodly proportion (perhaps a mathematician can kindly work can work out what ) of the cohort.

4.  Clearly an inspection system has to be staffed and resourced.  I have no idea what additional actual eduction  could be provided if the resources devoted to  OFSTED, plus the private firms who've seen a commercial opportunity and prepare schools to be OFSTEDed,  were converted into doing the actual job.

5.  See above: speaks for itself.

OFSTED was created in 1984, an appropriate year.  Sadly, rather than regarding it as intrusive and counter-productive arm of the state devoted to "watching you", after 30 years teachers regard it as part of the natural order of things and purr on receiving its approval.  According to The Times (Leader 11th January) the Labour Party, if it wins the next election, is going to further enhance its powers by introducing a Licence to Teach, renewable every five years, and "invigilated" by "colleagues working at other schools."  So who's going to teach their classes whilst the go gadding around playing Big Brother?

There's an opportunity here for the Liberal Democrats to tear up the tick box tyrannies and restore supportive systems which,  as Alexander Pope puts it; "Survey the whole, nor seek small fault to find." 
 ( Essay on Criticism)

Post Script (added 6th February)

It was reported in yesterday's paper that the  "appraisers" of the top civil servants in the UK government's Revenue and Customs Department (HMRC) have been instructed to classify 10% of them each year  as "under-performing."  It is hard to think of anything  that could be more illogical or demoralising.  The First Division Association, which represents these "mandarins" has called a strike for St Valentine's Day.  All power to their elbow.