Saturday 30 April 2022

The "Big Calls" right? Score 1 out of 10 (or 1+ if we are generous).

"Partygate" has gone off the boil in the last few days, replaced in the media by indignation (and salacious fascination) at the misbehavours of several MPs.  However, until this diversion (another "dead cat?") came to their rescue assorted ministers were trundling round the studios  cravenly explaining  that, compared with the "Big Calls" which their super-leader Johnson had "got right," a few parties were  a relatively trivial affair that shouldn't worry us too much.

Here's an examination of the"big calls."

 1.  PPE equipment.  It has been a constant theme by government apologists throughout the pandemic that this is an unprecedented situation which couldn't possibly have been predicted.  In fact it was most definitely both precedented and predicted.  In her vivid account of her career in post-disaster management, When the Dust Settles published earlier this year, Lucy Easthope claims that a pandemic has been top of the list of probable disasters in the UK for years.  More particularly Exercise Cygnus of 2016 examined how to deal with a pandemic, and made detailed recommendation to "be prepared."  Most were ignored, in particular the requirement to keep adequate stocks of Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) . These were allowed to run down and NHS staff were consequently required to put their own health and even lives in danger without adequate protection.

2.  PPE Procurement.   Last minute efforts to secure PPE ignored routine procedures and were directed to private companies which  often had no experience of manufacturing or providing such equipment.  Personal connections with Tory MPs and party members secured access to a VIP line and billions of £s of public money were wasted. (A billion is an awful lot)*

3.   Insouciant beginning.  The government failed for too long to take the pandemic with the seriousness it deserved. Prime Minister  Johnson led the field in this.  He attended a crowded rugby match with his then girlfriend and  openly boasted of continuing to shake hands with hospital staff when such physical contact was discouraged. The "Glorious Goodwood " race meeting was allowed to go ahead. This attempt to shrug off the pandemic with casual lack of concern set totally the wrong tone for dealing with it.

4.  Discharge of elderly patients from hospitals to care homes. With typical boastfulness the govenmt claimed that care homes were "ring fenced" against infection.  This has turned out to be completely untrue and the High Court has now decreed the procedure that was followed to have been "unlawful."  The Health Minster at the time, Matt Hancock, has already been forced to resign  for cuddling one of his assistants when the rest of us were officially limited to elbow bumps for physical intimacy.  Maybe he'll now be prosecuted.

 5.  The Test and Trace System.  This was announced, again boastfully, as being "World Beating" and was to involve an (as yet not invented) App. It was farmed out to the private sector, was an abject failure and cost an astonishing £37bn.  Hired operatives spent days sitting by their computers doing nothing.  The existing expertise of the Local Government Public Health Authorities and the NHS's Sexually Transmitted Disease Clinics (surely the most experienced people in the country at tracing contacts in delicate situations) were ignored.

 I find the cost difficult to credit. ( Again, a billion is an awful lot). For comparison, a few days ago, say after five weeks of war, the total cost of repairing the damage to  Ukraine's buildings and infrastructure was estimated as being in the region of £47bn. .  What on earth did we spend £37bn on?

6.The Bounce Back Loan Scheme (BBLS).   This was a scheme to enable established businesses forced to close or reduce their activities during the pandemic to enable them to "bounce back" once the emergency was over.  A total of £47bn was distributed, much of it  apparently without adequate checks.  Some applicants were not even trading before the pandemic started, some never did, and there were multiple  applications  from the same addresses.  A total of £4.96bn has now been written off as "fraud" and a further £5.7bn lost as the loans were given to firms that collapsed anyway.  (To repeat, again, a billion is an awful lot.)

 7.  The Furlough Scheme.  This was not a complete failure, but far from the brilliant initiative it is claimed to have been.  The German and French schemes were arguably more generous, more flexible and lasted longer.  A further £5.7bn was lost through fraud in the UK scheme. (I have seen not figures for the German and French schemes, but I'm sure there would have been fraud there too.)

8.  Delays.  There were countless  delays in imposting lockdowns: at the beginning, for a "half term fire-break," before Christmas with only two days notice, to name but some.  The government can also be accused of lifting restrictions prematurely and recklessly.

9.  Control of our borders.Our "success" in terms of deaths per million population, compared with similar larger and more developed European countries is measured as follows.(as at 24th April 2022)

 Italy:          2 748

UK:             2 558

France:       2 362

Spain:         2 203 

Germany:   1 617 

Nothing much to shout about there.  In fact, given that we are an island, and with the much-lauded "control of our borders" which the Brexit victory allegedly achieved, we should expect a much lower rate of fatalities than our neighbours with land borders, some of them very lengthy.

10. The Vaccine Distribution. This is the great and uncontested feather in the government's cap.  We were, indeed, the first country to start distributing a viable vaccine. (I dislike the term "roll-out" - meant to sound modern and "sexy" but seems to me more properly to be something you do with barrels, and then "have a barrel of fun.") Other countries have now caught up and some have now achieved greater coverage.  it's also worth noting that we weren't the first to create and manufacture a viable vaccine: that was Germany (and by two descendents of  the much-scorned Turkish guest-workers to boot).  

 It's also questionable how much the vaccine success was due to the government and how much to brilliant scientists at Oxford University and the Anglo Swedish ( think - their websites seem reluctant to say where they are based - or maybe it's my poor research skills) AstraZeneca  Company.  It is also notable that the distribution was organised, not by the private sector,  as with the Test and Trace Scheme,  but by the NHS.

The frequently repeated government claim that we were  able to be quick off the mark with the vaccine becasue of Brexit is completely false.  There is nothing in EU rules or regulations which would have prevented our  doing exactly what we did if we had remained in the EU.

So, Prime Minister Johnson's total mark for the "big calls" is one out of ten, or one and a half if we give him the benefit of some doubt on the operation of the furlough scheme.

* PS Just to drive the point home, it takes over 31.5 YEARS for a billion seconds to pass.  A million seconds pass in just over eleven and a half days.  So the cost of £333.000 worth of weaponry which Mr Johnson is offering the Ukrainians today (3rd May, in a Churchill tribute act presumably timed to influence Thursday's  local elections,) is financial peanuts compared with the wastage and losses detailed above.


Tuesday 26 April 2022

The Sub-Postmaster Scandal

 Those who boast that British justice is "the best in the world " and " the envy of the world" and that British enterprise still believes in "fair play" should watch last night's Panorama programme on the sub-postmaster scandal.  I'm told that  present-day Panorama investigative journalism and reporting is but a shadow of its former self, but I found this programme both horrifying and convincing.

Briefly, in the period 2000 to 2014 (that's fourteen years - FOURTEEN YEARS)  a total of 736 sub- postmasters and mistresses were prosecuted for theft, embezzlement or fraud.  Some went to prison (though they were told by the Post Office that they could avoid prison if they admitted to "false accounting,")  Others were fined. 

All were disgraced.  Lots put their own money into the "system"  to avoid prosecution, some selling their houses , even going bankrupt, to finance this. Family lives were disrupted, marriages broken. At least one committed suicide.

The fault, it turns out, was not fraudulent behaviour by the sub-postmasters, but a glitch in the computer system "Horizon," which the Post Office forced them to use.

Two things from the programme stand out to me.

First, when sub-postmasters protested their innocence and said there must be a fault in the system, they were often told by Post Office  officials that they were "the only ones."  Given that there were over 700 prosecutions,  why the the sub-postmasters' union, or similar, did not spot how widespread the accusations were I don't know.  

 What, however, is obvious is that the Post Office officials who  passed on this false information must have known they were lying. Are  they paying the price, with tags round their ankles and spending their days clearing graffiti off the walls, or maybe clearing rubbish from our beaches?  Or are they still in comfortable well-paid jobs?

If the analogy that "fish rot from the head" is valid, them much of the responsibility must lie with the CEO of the Post Office, M/s Paula Vennells, who persisted in pursuing the prosecutions long after it was obvious that the fault lay  "somewhere in the system,"  probably the "Horizon" IT system.  Yet rather than being prosecuted herself, or voluntarily retiring to a nunnery,  she accepted  a CBE and moved into another plum job as Chair of an NHS trust.

We like to tell ourselves that in England  (this precedes the formation of the UK) the "little man" has been protected against the powers of the mighty ever since  Magna Carta was sealed  in 1215.  

We clearly need to take  a long hard look at the might of corporate power in our country, which appears to be as indifferent to justice and fair play as the the mighty in Downing Street.

Saturday 16 April 2022

Johnson's luck, or media manipulation?

 As a benchmark I like to speculate on what our media and MPs might be saying if any left-of-centre leader, say Jeremy Corbyn,  had committed even a fraction of the outrages that Prime Minister Johnson has so far survived.

In summary, his present misdemeanours are twofold.  He has 

!. broken, possibly  repeatedly, the  lockdown  laws he personally caused to be enacted, and earnestly urged us all follow for the sake of the NHS and our fellows, especially the more vulnerable among us , and

2.  repeatedly lied about it to parliament, claiming: 


     a) there were no parties;


    b) if there were "work gatherings" all guidance was followed all the time;


    c)  he was personally both surprised and outraged to discover that it hadn't always been;


    d)  if he went to a party he didn't realise it was a party and he was not there for long.

The last excuse sounds a bit like a burglar admitting he broke into the house,  but he didn't pinch much. 

To put some of this into context here are just two instances from my lifetime.

In 1953 a 20 year old mentally retarded* lad called Derek Bentley was hanged just for being there when his companion shot and killed somebody.  You can't get hanged any more, but you can be be fined or sent to prison under a rule called "joint enterprise" if you happen to be present when a  crime is committed.

Ten years later, in 1963 a Tory Cabinet Minister, John Profumo,was found to have used the services of a prostitute who also serviced an Russian who was allegedly a spy.  Profumo initially lied to parliament about it but then "did the decent thing." and resigned.     At the time the lying to parliament was regarded as a more serious matter than the use of the prostitute's favours.  I think Mr Profumo rehabilitated his personal reputation by spending the rest of his life doing useful charity work.

The time-scale of events following the revelations  about "partygate" are interesting.

First the Metropolitan Police said they wouldn't investigate the allegations of law breaking in Downing Street as they did not investigate historical crimes.  (Presumably we were expected to believe they only investigate crimes  at the planning stage.)

Instead a senior civil servant, Sue Gray, was to carry out an internal investigation.

M/s Gray's report was just about to be published what the Metropolitan Police changed their mind and decided to investigate the allegations after all.

This gave Mr Johnson the opportunity  to say, repeatedly, that he would answer any questions in full about the affair at a later date, but it wouldn't be appropriate to comment while a police  investigation was under way.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine then gave and still gives Mr Johnson the opportunity to tour Europe claiming to be "leading the West" in organising support for Ukraine.

It was revealed that  the Metropolitan Police investigation had found several people, inducing the Prime Minister, guilty of breaking the laws they had made, and fined them, but it just so happened that parliament was (and still is) in recess for the Easter Holidays.

Minister after minister is parading  around the news studios claiming that we couldn't possibly change prime minister in the middle of a war (despite the fact that that is something we often do, even in wars in which British soldiers are actively fighting,) and, in any case it was all two years ago.  (Let any other criminal try that one on Their Worships or His Lordship).

The Home Office has been considering sending asylum seekers to Rwanda  for some time, but has revealed the decision this week.  (Former advisor  Dominic Cummings had a technique based on the idea that if you throw a dead cat on to a dinner table you change the topic of conversation.)

If the Metropolitan Police finish their investigations then M/s Gray's report could be published, but, since the local elections are due on the 6th May, the doctrine of "purdah" means that no important political initiative, (which, curiously, incudes his report),  can be published while campaigning continues.

 To what extend these fortunate causes of delay are just coincidental  and which are the result of clever media manipulation remains for historian to discover.

 In the meantime the polls show that the electorate are giving Mr Johnson more slack than many of us think he deserves.


* That was the phrase used at the time.  We should now say "with learning difficulties."

Saturday 9 April 2022

Mrs Sunak's taxes

The American justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. defined taxes as "the price we pay for civilisation."  In that sense I am all in favour of them and think they should be sufficient to enable everyone in an economy to enjoy a secure, decent, and, yes, "civilised,", quality of life.  

I regret the use of the term "burden" in relation to taxes. Ideally citizens  should regard paying taxes as a "privilege."  (Many people in my parents' generation were quite chuffed when their earnings rose high enough for them to pay income taxes.) If "privilege" is a stretch too far,  then we could at least use a more neutral term such as the tax "take." 

 That said  I should not expect anyone  except the most saintly to seek out the opportunity to pay pay tax more than once on the same source of income.  But that surely is what we would be requiring people do if they earn income on one country but live in another and pay taxes in both.

 In the textbooks incomes are the reward for labour (wages), ownership or use  of capital (interest), entrepreneurship or risk taking (profits)  or rent resulting from  the possession of a scarce factor that cannot be competed away (normally land but can be a rare skill such as a voice like Pavarotti or the football-feet of David Beckham)

In a well-organised world taxes would be collected only in the economy in which the Income is earned,or, if not eared, then generated..  If Rishi Sunak's wife, Akshata Murty, "earns" vast sums through her holdings in he father's Indian IT company, has paid Indian tax on them and the "earnings" remain in India, then I can see no reason why she should pay British tax on the on top of that, even if her husband is our Chancellor of the Exchequer.

If however, M/s Murty has taken steps to pretend that this vast income is generated in some low tax haven, that is another matter. But I have not heard or read anywhere that this is the case.

 If any tax has been "avoided" India has still one of the largest measures of poverty in the world and their government needs it more than the relatively bloated British (see previous post.)

Rather than perpetuate the fanciful "non-dom " status,  the sensible way froward is for the world's financial authorities to get together and ensure that all income, however generated, is taxed in the country in which it is "earned.".

I recognise that this is not as simple as it could be.  Rich asset-holders employ skilled accountants to devise ways in which income generated in one economy can appear to have been earned in another.  It is quite  difficult to disguise where wages are earned and income from land (including  mineral rights) and physical capital are generated.

But it is possible to claim that the profits, the results of the daring skills of the risk-taking entrepreneur, are generated in some obscure tax haven where the company is registered.  

The UK, to our shame, is the titular "owner" of many, possibly most, of these havens.

 It would be a nice irony if Mr Sunak were the Chancellor of the Exchequer who took the first steps in sorting out this abuse, which deprives the poorest of the world of billions      ( of $s, €s, £s, yen or what you will.)

Friday 1 April 2022

Keeping us secure

 As far as I know keeping its citizens secure, protecting us from threats, is universally regarded as the first duty of any government.  Most governments seem very enthusiastic about protecting us from external threats,, particularly attacks from other countries.  so throughout history governments have been happy to raise taxes and spend them on the latest weaponry and the necessary forces to operate them.  I suspect that, as a result of the current confrontation between Russia and Ukraine we shall have further calls for greater expenditure  on our armed forces and their equipment.

Governments are more mixed in their devotion to protecting us and our property from internal threats.  They are keen to pass laws to protect our property and persons from battery and robbery, with severe penalties to enforce them.  i understand that in this country the penalties for assaults our private property are greater than the penalties for assaults against our persons.  However,  although wiling to pass draconian laws and punishments for  infringements, governments in this country are less wiling to spend money on constructive measures to prevent criminal behaviour (plenty of decent jobs, more community policemen - Birstall used to have nine, plus a sergeant,- a well-resourced probation service) and to house decently and try to rehabilitate those it deems necessary to incarcerate.  The Nordic counties are though to be good at this.

In a third area governments are expected to protect us from destitution.  I this country this has always been very skimpily done.  Until the 17th Century it was left to the charities, which meant, essentially the church.  After the dissolution of the monasteries  the church became less effective and, somewhat craftily               Elizabeth I's government devolved both the responsibility for operating it and raising the money to pay for it to the Parishes the local government of the time. This Poor Law was introduced in 1601.

I think the first reasonably comprehensive national system of social security was introduced by Bismark in Germany in the late 19th century.  The UK's Liberal government followed suit with Lloyd George's "People's Budget" of 1919 (which the Tories furiously opposed) and the post -1945 Labour government expanded and improved on this to create a comprehensively secure state in which non-one's quality of life need be hampered by ignorance, squalor,  idleness,  untreated sickness or want.

The basic essentials of this social security must surety be shelter, warmth and food.  Sadly Britain's system has deteriorated to such and extent that these are now far from guaranteed.

From Lloyd George's budget onwards a pension for retired people has been an essential part of the mix.  By coincidence I received this week an estimate of my state retirement pension for the coming year.  It is to increase by by £5.96 per week  from £164.42 per week to £167.38 per week.  Both figures include an additional 25p per week extra "age allowance" becasue i am over 80.

I emphasise "per week.  Members of the House of Lords, by the way, receive £323 per day (that's per day) just for turning up and signing the register.

I quote the exact figures for my retirement pension, not to attract sympathy becasue i don't need it.  i also receive my teacher's pension and, with the two together I live very comfortably indeed.

However, many people for various reasons do not have an additional occupational pensions, but must try to live on the state pension alone