Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Highway To The Danger(Euro)Zone

A lot of water has passed under the bridge since my last post but as angry as much of it made me, I got the distinct sense of deja vu. Idiotic local Government decrees, complaints at well-overdue welfare reform, deficit reduction versus 'investment in the public sector'. Whatever the topic I ended up thinking about blogging and then realising each post would simply refer the reader back to posts on identical subjects. So, considering my workload, I chinned it off for a while. Now as we wind down to Christmas and the foot comes off the pedal I have found something worth bleating about - the Eurozone nonsense.

People are up in arms declaring that David Cameron's use of Britain's veto is the turning point in relations between Britain and Europe. It is not. The turning point came when we declined to join the single currency. Having been 'created' at Maastricht in 1992, the Euro was launched on 1 January 1999, though perhaps 1 April 1999 would have been more appropriate. The EU was born out of various European economic pacts, the latest of which was the European Economic Community. The Euro was crucial to the economic pillar of the newly named EU, which was also to broaden its horizons to foreign policy, criminal justice and many other non-economic areas.

However, in the beginning the economic pacts were simple (of far smaller scope - e.g. European Coal and Steel Community) and between fewer countries (ECSC had 6 founding members). The EU though is designed to be proselytising in nature - in a way, it exists to expand, and number 28, Croatia is queueing up at the door. It is because of this that the Euro was doomed to failure.

Countries exist separately because they are different and their peoples are different. They have commonalities that transcend national boundaries and where they find agreement, treaties and accords are created. Where they do not, they do not. That is why country A might have treaties on military policy with country B and treaties on economic policy (broadly speaking) with country C but not vice versa. If we all agreed on everything and all had the same needs and wants, there would be little need for national borders. However, Germany and France still only sign treaties on the areas they agree upon. They do not rub out the border and become Frermany (as much as the Germans may have shown their desire for it over the last 100 years).

The point I am lumbering slowly towards at the speed of European economic recovery is that for something as complex as a single currency to work it would have to have very few signatories, and thus limit the inbuilt national variations, the fluctuations of which will always produce stress. The simpler the premise of the treaty and the less interference it requires in a country, the more likely its success. Likewise the more complex the treaty, the fewer countries must be involved. Two countries can probably find many things they agree upon and draw up a treaty, but as you go out to a wider and wider audience the list of things you actually agree upon gets smaller and smaller.

The Euro was an economic policy idea on the face of it but in essence is entirely political. As is now clear for all to see, for it to be a success economically, it requires political union on a grand scale. The newsworthy part to come out of the European summit was not that Britain is unwilling to bow to control of its economy; budget, taxation et al, from supra-national mechanisms, but that 26 lunatic countries are willing to do so. We are seeing the naysayers of Maastricht proved right - it was indeed the thin end of the wedge. Now we find that a European crisis has very quickly produced the apparent need for total integration (read: Franco/German control) of economic policy across the ever expanding notion of Europe. How lucky a position we find ourselves in to still have a veto and the power to turn down such an indelicate offer of economic invasion.

I am not a Euro-phobe. That is because I do not fear Europe. I do however have grave misgivings about the foundations of Economic Europe. There are so many different types of countries within Europe in terms of development, main industries, culture, religion (I could go on) that one large blanket simply doesn't work. The Baltic states are nothing like the Southern European ones. The Northern European states very different to the Scandinavian ones. That is breaking Europe into just four parts, but within each of those there are vast differences. Why would an economic policy which is right for the production-heavy Germany be right for services-based Britain?

Britain is rightly staying on the sidelines of what is perhaps to be the culmination of a very expensive disaster. People talk of not being at the table meaning you don't have a vote. It wouldn't have mattered how many great sailors you had on board the Titanic after it hit the iceberg; it was always going down. If you ask me, I'd rather be on the Carpathia. Yes we will suffer if the Euro and perhaps with it the EU ends up going down, but getting a front row seat to it all might not be in Britain's best interests.

All the use of the veto meant was that the UK is continuing on with its entirely sensible policy of not joining the Euro and gently moving away from what Europe has become. When hopefully the more slender European phoenix rises from the flames of the Euro I expect our diplomats to be on hand to renegotiate our position with the new Europe. To have a good relationship with other nation states does not necessarily require closer and closer union. Union only works when the roots of those trees bound together are growing the same way. Otherwise it will only ever be paper thin, and the stresses of the organisms under the veneer of union pulling in different directions will always win out in the end. I'm all for Europe, just a much smaller one. One that next time does not get too big to fail.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Pension Scheming

When November 30th comes around and you are stuck in traffic because all the trains have stopped running; or you are in your 10th hour of waiting to see a medical professional in A&E; or you are forced to take a day of annual leave to look after your children as their teachers aren't coming into work, think long and hard. Think about whether or not those who have chosen not to come into work and inconvenienced a nation struggling for economic recovery should be on strike.

This week has seen the Government offer farcically large pension deals to public sector workers who have looked that particular gift horse straight in the mouth. One can only assume that the definitely over-generous offer from the Government is a political ploy. Knowing it would be refused by the selfish Trades Unions they are able now to point to the very generous terms they had proposed which are being turned down point blank. It gives them some political leverage, but one hopes they have not gone too far - even with the changes to pensions, many still consider the deal unaffordable. One should hope the deal that is eventually reached has less generous terms, but that is a very unlikely outcome.

Let us look at the other main player in this pensions farce - the ever more idiotic unions (we have been here before). They, the 6-figure salaried morons-in-chief with healthy pay and pension packets, have been rousing their members to turn down a gold-plated offer from a nervous Government. And not actually rousing that many of their members; the strike laws must be changed. We have unions declaring a majority in favour of striking when only a quarter of its members vote for said strike. 75% of people 'represented' in the union have not said they want to strike, yet striking is apparently the will of the people. Barking.

The pension pots that moderate earners in the public sector would still end up with under the new rules are the things of fairy tales for those in the private sector. Little over a million people in the private sector have a final salary pension scheme, yet it is what those in the pubic sector think is their right. Those on relatively small pay packets (say £12,000) up to those on reasonably comfortable wages (say £40,000) all will still receive pension payouts far in excess of what their private counterparts on the same salary could dream of.

Under the new system, a public sector worker on £15,000 per annum would end up with a pension of £12,000. If that was your private wage, to receive the same pension you would have to put away £325,000 from that meagre pay packet - which is never gong to happen. I shan't even go into the pension pots of the rather better off public sector employees - rest assured generous doesn't cover it. The Treasury figures go on, and for a quick look here's a Torygraph article to save me paraphrasing.

In short, the pension scheme being offered is still ridiculously generous. To build up a pension pot large enough to match that of a similar-waged public worker, a private worker would have to pay in vast amounts more of their salary. Yet the unions are not willing to take this on board. The Government is rightly looking to budget - to see what our liabilities are, listing our wants, counting how much cash we have and then managing those liabilities and wants accordingly. One area identified is the largesse of public sector pensions; they cannot be afforded alongside education bills, NHS bills, defence bills - all the things that have to come out of the taxation pot. With the ballooning of the public sector (vastly so under a Labour Government more keen on winning votes by getting people into work in the right constituencies than costing those jobs properly to see if they were affordable) these pension schemes must change. The ostrich behaviour of the Unions is as predictable as it is laughably moronic.

The public must be honest with themselves and not give in to the tired 'underdog' cause that the unions will undoubtedly try to put forwards when they strike. They have been offered a staggeringly generous pension scheme; a scheme that private sector workers of similar wages could never afford. They are turning it down out of pure greed. Yes it is a cut, but a cut to a still high level. There isn't enough money to continue the scheme in its current form. Having been paid a lot yesterday is not a reason for being paid a lot tomorrow.

The demands of the Trades Unions are for the public sector to be ring-fenced, for the economic realities we all have to face to be something they don't. In short, they are demanding we cripple the economy with a pension burden the nation cannot afford. Quite simply, if we carry on like they wish, there will be no pensions because we will be bankrupt. The public sector must not only take their share of the medicine, they must do so humbly whilst realising quite how privileged they are. They complain at having to work longer and pay more to receive less - welcome to the world everyone else is living in. There should be no public support for the proposed strikes. They are not the underdogs. You are.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Not High Standards; Not Cheap Parking

Last week I had to avail myself of some of this National Health I have heard so much about. Having come off second best in a rugby tackle (though heroically soldiering on, stemming the deluge of blood with a little vaseline) I popped off to the local hospital to see about getting them to sew me back up.

After I had explained the ridiculous looking self-help bandage adorning my face to the receptionist I cast my eye around the Wednesday night intake at the A&E department. I had figured I would be in and out in a jiffy, it not being a Friday, Saturday or Sunday and thus missing the majority of the sport and booze related injuries. How wrong I was; 5 to 6 hours was the anticipated wait time.

A Doc popped out and apologised for the "longer than usual delays"; a line I am sure I've heard before somewhere. Anywho, the long and the short of it was I didn't have the whole night to while away sitting in A&E what with a rather early start at work the next day and the requirement to not be asleep at said work. The doc gave me some dressings and suggested I got it seen to first thing in the morning if I couldn't wait. On a side note the Doc the next morning decided my wife had done such a good job with the butterfly stitches he'd just leave it be - clearly she has missed her calling.

Now you may think this is about to turn into a rant at waiting lists, waiting times and the general efficacy of the NHS and its hospitals. It is not. Nope. Maybe some other day - I've not the strength now, though I do remember in my youth when NHS spending was a small fraction of what it is now I never waited more than 4 hours to be seen; money can't buy everything it seems. No, the gripe I have with the hospital today actually doesn't concern the hospital per se, but rather the few acres of tarmac immediately outside its doors. You see, I simply can't stand the hospital parking payment system. My hatred it twofold; I shall, of course, elaborate herein…

Firstly, it seems wrong to me to charge people to visit hospital. If you want to make your go green arguments that we should all take the bus remember you are talking in many cases about people who cannot arrive any other way than by car due to their various ailments. The point is, we've paid for the sodding hospital and its sodding great car park, so how about you let us park there without charging extra? It's not free parking - we've already paid for that too, on top of the middle managers and health based slogans. It seems counter intuitive to penalise those in need of hospital visits or indeed those visiting sick friends or relatives. It minds me very much of kicking a man when he is down.

However, that is not the thing that really gets my goat. What really exercises me is that the slower the service in the hospital (i.e. the worse in a way), the more you are charged. It is the equivalent of the police turning up 2 days late to a burglary and charging the victim whatever the robber did not steal for the pleasure of their wait. When a cab company fails to honour its side of the agreement, we negotiate a discount - if they turn up an hour late, they don't get the full amount. If the NHS fails to provide a timely service though, they are rewarded with extra parking cash and the patient foots the bill.

Perhaps now we see why NHS groups are so keen to treat people in hospital that could perhaps be treated at home. Perhaps this is why despite the billions thrown at the NHS we still have full hospitals and long waits to be treated. Ultimately the sick man is a captive audience cash cow waiting to be milked. Call me a cynic, but when the most efficient part of the department is its car park charging system, it's not that great a leap to hear NHS and see NCP...

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Having Your Salmond Cake and Eating it...

Driving into work the other day, I listened to the pugnacious Alex Salmond on Radio 4. He was doing his outraged Jock bit that he so loves. He insisted that whether devolution occurred for Scotland and to what extent would certainly be a matter for Scottish people to decide. It would not, he spluttered as if the words themselves offended him, be a matter for English politicians at Westminster.

Fine. That makes some sense to me. However, you can't have your (Salmond) cake and eat it - though he looks like he's failed to dodge the pudding trolley on at least a couple of occasions. The West Lothian question is one that has long existed and long been avoided. Why should English politicians be barred from deciding Scottish matters when Scottish MPs are allowed to decide on English matters? It is such a crushingly obvious flaw and one easily remedied one wonders why it hasn't been.

Certainly it is not in the interest of Labour or indeed the Lib Dems  - they have many MPs sent to Westminster from Scotland. Removing their votes could be crucial. Full devolution would cripple them both as parties, whereas the Tories would lose just Dumfriesshire. Yet since it was 'officially' mooted in 1977 Tory Governments haven't done anything about an injustice that seems sensible to deal with and is entirely beneficial to them.

Any discussion of the West Lothian Question tends also to trigger discussion of the Barnett formula; the simple formula that sets the amount of money given to the devolved authorities of the UK to spend as they wish. It is the spending of this for Scots only on free hospital parking, free prescriptions, negating university fees with which those south of the border take umbrage. The reason is that the formula gives much more (an average of about 20% more) to the other UK nations to spend per capita on its inhabitants than Parliament has to spend on English inhabitants.

Both the West Lothian Question and the Barnett formula are matters that must be resolved. The formula was not based on need nor indeed on tax revenues. What such a formula should be based upon or even whether it should even exist are still matters of contention. Either way it does not help the union, or future relations of the separated countries, to have such obvious inequality of treatment of its subjects. So Salmond can have is devolution if he wants, but if wants only Scots to vote on it, let's have a bit of vice versa at Westminster. And whether or not devolution fully occurs, there must be a re-evaluation of the Barnett formula. Well-intentioned probably, but definitely a concern - even the best laid schemes o' mice an' men gang aft agley...

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Utilitarian Utilities - For the Greatest Good (Profits)

Today's gripe is with the private sector. I've decided I've been bashing the public sector for too long, and a bit of even-handedness wouldn't go amiss. So I'm going to look at utilities, specifically the telecoms and energy sectors and see how these consumer reliant industries treat their customers and why...

I'm told I'm due an upgrade. No, there is no cause for alarm for Mrs Law Abiding Citizen - it's not that type of upgrade. I don't normally leave matters of such importance as marriage and divorce to a telesales operator from O2. If I had the option I'm not convinced I'd leave matters of such importance as my mobile phone in their hands.

You see I'm far from impressed with my mobile phone operator. In fact the same goes for my mobile phone. I think I am probably not alone. Part of the problem is I don't know at whom to direct my vitriol - Apple or O2. I'm not sure if my iPhone drops signal or if my network drops signal. As they're different companies, they both seem pretty content to blame the other.

Unfortunately, I think I've been a customer of pretty much every provider and it appears a universal truth that they're all bastards. Indeed I stuck with Orange for so long in no way because they were competent - far from it - but because I was able on several occasions to say "I've been loyal to you so you owe me." It rarely worked.

I cannot be the only person who would like simply to scream at these huge and often useless companies about my phone hanging up a call and telling me the network is busy (which I knew - I was using it). If they spent a little more time investing in a proper UK-wide network signal rather than trying to put more computing power into their phones I would be a happy bunny. You see much of the time I simply have a very pretty handheld game and music playing calculator cum calendar. But I actually wanted a phone. Unfortunately I'm too hooked on the fleeting moments of real connectivity (and Baby Monkey) that I don't want to go back to my Nokia 3210.

That is also despite the fact that those old phones that actually made phone calls all still work, regardless of their being dropped eleventy times and being full of 10 years' of dust. If they could all stop trying desperately hard to make the first phone to be able to drive your car whilst simultaneously orally pleasuring you (an interesting concept) and remember that phones are primarily designed to call people, it might be a step forward. However, increasing network coverage is the job of the network providers, and as long as they're all comfortable offering only about 50% of the country proper coverage we're screwed. As long as none of the big telecoms companies decides to spend on improving the service, we the consumer, are stuck with a choice between several almost identically bad, identically priced network providers. There's no need for them to spend on coverage if their sales aren't suffering. So short of protesting with great no-mobile days, unless the Government steps in and makes those it allows to use our airwaves and ionosphere play fair for all, not much will happen.

Onto the energy lot then… Much is being made in the media, in between jaunts of Fox Hunting and Where's Werritty?, of the totally unexpected and almost simultaneous price hikes in all 6 of the large energy providers in the UK. Now I'm going to stop short of suggesting Government pricing guides and windfall taxes on huge profits. That's mainly because I don't think it would ever happen and I'm a free market kind of guy. It's just that I'm not convinced many utility companies really operate within free markets. A little more attention paid to pricing would help, but ultimately the system is not set up for smaller energy firms to be able to compete.

One simple example is the renewables sector which is being stimulated by Government funding. The Government pays out (or rather forces energy firms to pay for it who pass the cost onto us) Feed-In Tariffs for renewable energy producers to get money into the sector. Making renewables viable by subsidies to install costly new technology is meant to be the way to attract research and development money. This R&D then should provide ways of lowering the costs in the sector thus making it economically viable as a stand-alone means of energy production.

However, the electricity being produced is sold at a paltry few pence (3.1p typically) per unit, compared to an average of about 15p or so that we pay whoever for the juice to power our lights. The Government could vastly reduce the amount that gets paid out in subsidies (and therefore gets passed on to us) if it made the system pay small producers fairly. The logistics are more complicated with electricity storage and distance for electricity to travel being key concerns, but it is workable. There is just no appetite for it in the big 6 - it will provide real competition and make them stop fixing their identically artificially high prices. There won't be real competition in price until the market is properly opened up. 

So, Government intervention seems to be the only real option here. Well I'm sure npower and the rest are quaking in their boots at the toothless Ofgem and likewise for Vodafone and Ofcom. I'm not convinced anything can come of it, so seeing as we're in the realms of the unlikely, I have another suggestion…

We are constantly told (lied to) by our mobile and energy providers that they are doing the best they can to get you their utility at the cheapest price possible. They are at pains to point out which of their million tariffs suits you the best (seeing as we can all be pigeonholed). Yet when it comes to renewal it seems it is always cheaper elsewhere, often even on a different tariff within the same company. So if these companies really mean it, put their money where their mouths are. I'm convinced they live off incorrect tariffing. Unless you never put a foot out of line and remain in the very small bounds of your tariff, you get stung; be it having to call 0845 business numbers (we've been here before) which are never covered, or having to put a wash on in the middle of the day, rarely will you not get charged for going over and also have to pay extra for a utility limit you didn't completely use up.

If these companies really want to help us, why not abandon getting us to choose from the myriad of tariffs but pleasantly inform us each month which tariff they put us on - the one that came out cheapest for that month's usage. So, the month where your office phone line goes tits up and you use 6000 minutes on your mobile, you don't get a huge bill; you get the unlimited calls plan, but next month when it goes back to normal, you're back on 'penguin' or whatever they call a normal usage plan. I know that someone will point out that it's not in the utility companies' best interests to do that, but they can't have their cake and eat it.

If they want to be able to advertise that they're trying to help, then make them use my plan. Let poor old granny warm her cockles over the winter freeze without having to bankrupt herself, and not have to pay the same rate for lots of energy through a milder than expected February. It is clear enough we can't predict the weather or the markets, why must we insist that everyone predicts how much of each utility they are planning on using? If however they don't want to be honest and actually help us lower our prices; if they wish to say they keep their tariffs complicated and narrow to profit from our inability to stick to them, then make them drop the sanctimonious 'here to help' bullshit and just say they're 'in it for your money - trying to keep you just rich enough to afford to stay alive and heat your home'...

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Human Rights and Wrongs 2: Misjudgement Day

Well it seems as good a time as any to roll out some more grumpy misgivings about 'Human Rights', seeing as Mrs May has put them front and centre with her conference speech. Yesterday saw a storm re-emerge over the interference in British law of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR or Convention); Article 19 of which created the unambiguously acronymed European Commission of Human Rights (ECHR - or Commission) and the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR - or Court). Actually more specifically the Home Secretary was talking about the Human Rights Act; the 1998 British legislation codifying into British law pretty much word for word, the main articles of the Convention. Now we've got the difference between those lot sorted, we can move swiftly on...

I've blogged before (here and here in the most part) about human rights. I have long promised some more on the matter, but I always tire at the sheer enormity of the task ahead and choose the easy route and shout instead about people who engage their handbrake at traffic lights and those who queue at passport control with their passports buried deep in their bags. They're easy wins you see. Now Theresa May's speech talked in part about amending British laws to deal with those foreigners who come to Britain, commit crimes and then use aforementioned legislation to remain in Britain and avoid deportation. I'll talk about that today, but also the wider scheme of things - what essentially are human rights?

Simply put human rights are those things that one has a right to by being human. They are the codification of what is considered morally to be owed to a human by his very existence. Unsurprisingly we see the right to life, the right to liberty, the right to freedom of speech for example, as basic human rights. They are all by definition generic - they apply equally across the spectrum of humanity; to tribes in the depths of the Amazon, workers in China and the inhabitants of Pratt's Bottom in Kent.

It is one's humanity alone that places them in the Venn diagram circle marking out those to whom human rights apply. It is not belonging to one nation or another, nor being part of on political system or other. So, we should not view rules of said nations or political systems as existing on the same level nor should we do the same with prevailing social norms. They come at a sub-layer of humanity; that is, human law is an absolute foundation on which other systems of law may be built. Those systems may make constitutional law to enforce human law or indeed derogate from it, but that does not alter the ultimate truth of a human right.  

I go into such rather confusing detail because 'human rights' have been perverted in their meaning, certainly in Britain to include some quite ludicrous things. Hereafter I hope to look at a few human rights and wrongs issues, both trends and particular cases. There will be some overlap from case to case so bear with me. This is going to be a long one…

Let us kick off with voting; one of several issues concerning prisoners where the Government has fallen foul of the Court. You can guess where I stand on this one. Being human has nothing to do with voting. Voting is a function of a Governmental system. A Governmental system is a layer apart from human law.

If you live on a desert island on your own (with presumably one luxury, the complete works of Shakespeare and some dubiously chosen music) you are human and should be afforded (for example) the protection of human rights to life, free speech and peaceful assembly if one can assemble a crowd of one. You have no human right to vote though. Being allowed to vote is down to the law of the land - it is a constitutional right, not a human one, and there is no constitution of which Robinson Crusoe is aware. The constitution can say what it likes, as long as it is not diminishing the rights as laid out in the Convention. Article 17 states "Nothing in this Convention may be interpreted as implying for any State, group or person any right to engage in any activity or perform any act aimed at the destruction on any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein or at their limitation to a greater extent than is provided for in the Convention." Since disallowing prisoners the right to vote is nowhere to be seen in the Convention, Article 17 has not been breached.

A prisoner denied the right to vote loses not a human right but a constitutional one. The constitution offers certain privileges to its law abiding citizens, it simply reserves the right to revoke these privileges should other areas be breached. It's like having your membership of the golf club rescinded for widdling in the plant pots. You haven't broken the higher law (of the land) but you have broken the club's narrower rules. That analogy simply transfers up one level from constitutional law to human law.

There is a similar story with internet connection, satellite television and other such luxuries that some and indeed many (morons, who unfortunately probably have the right to vote) now think qualify as human rights. They are not human rights, they are niceties afforded by increasingly more people in today's technologically developing society. The fact that more and more people consider them base or core amenities and products as opposed to luxuries is neither here nor there. The zeitgeist has no effect on human law. The man on the desert island must still be protected from false imprisonment but it is not necessary under the Convention for him to be given a 10mb internet connection and Sky+. When you get back to the bare bones of the Convention, it offers none of these things that are claimed by many. It is a worrying sign though of the mood of entitlement as opposed to earning that surrounds us today.

The problem, of course, is in interpretation.  There is even an Article to cover that - Article 18, which states "The restrictions permitted under this Convention to the said rights and freedoms shall not be applied for any purpose other than those for which they have been prescribed." People constantly misinterpret Articles, or seemingly deliberately ignore subsections of said Articles. As Mrs May pointed out yesterday, Article 8, the one used to spare deportation on the grounds of right to a family life (and a cat) has one such subsection. It mandates respect (we'll come back to that) for family life. However, it qualifies it that this can be waived if it is "in accordance with the law and is necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security, public safety or the economic well-being of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others."

Many of the Articles are similarly qualified - Article 9 on freedom of thought, Article 10 on freedom of expression, Article 11 on peaceful assembly. They all allow the waiving or breaching of the human right they outline if it is in the interests of public safety, prevention of crime, protection of health or morals etc. Now these are very wide-ranging caveats. The right to respect for a family life is obviously intended to be waived if it means keeping a dangerous man in the country (public safety), or a known serial criminal (prevention of a crime). Indeed under the protection of health or morals one could justify removing someone to maintain the moral fibre of the country - it could be argued it erodes the moral fibre of a country when a foreign convicted killer is allowed to remain in the country he has done nothing but abuse. This is quite important as there will be a counter argument to the 'public safety' argument for released criminals who supposedly have paid their debt and are rehabilitated. 

Radical preachers who spew forth hatred and incite violence against this country are catered for too. Article 9 amply covers that. The caveats are there, they are just being ignored. Cases of burglars being killed by homeowners who have discovered their nefarious activities and feel threatened are covered under Article 2. It states that "Deprivation of life shall not be regarded as inflicted in contravention of this article when it results from the use of force which is no more than absolutely necessary: (a) in defence of any person from unlawful violence". However, we make a big song and a dance about the rights of the burglar as if that caveat did not exist. Likewise I went through at great length here about privacy versus freedom of speech. Clearly there are times when Articles will be on both side of an argument, and that is when common sense and the application of caveats must apply. 

Furthermore, when people claim a right to a family life, they misquote the Article in question. As I covered here, it is right to respect for family and private life, not a right to family life or privacy themselves. Common sense dictates that someone wilfully committing crimes knowing if caught he would face extradition shows little or no respect himself for his own family life. He places it in jeopardy himself - why would a court have to do more than he would? This reading of the Article is just in addition to the caveat which should be more than enough to see the human right lawfully waived.

Likewise, those who claim they must be given the right to have a family whilst in prison are wide of the mark. They have only the right to respect for their family life. Again, a respect they have totally failed to show themselves, buy putting themselves in a situation where they may be unable to have a family life. They clearly give up their right to respect for their private life - we lock them up in prison - why do people take umbrage at the family part of the same article? They have various constitutional liberties removed by their breaching of constitutional law. Their human right is to respect for their family life, not for a family life. A private and family life is what law abiding citizens get. Those rights are removed by the caveat for among others, protection of morals, and the fact that common sense shows the criminal has himself shown nothing but contempt for his own family life or chances of it.

It could be said it boils down to the fundamentals of imprisonment. It is for the protection of the public that people are imprisoned and for the punishment and rehabilitation of the prisoner. Without punishment there is unlikely to be recrimination and subsequent rehabilitation. If we waive the removals of any freedoms, the deterrent of imprisonment is removed to the detriment of society - without deterrent crime will go up, clearly not in the interest of public safety. Therefore it is legal to waive various human rights under the protection of society. Not least, it just makes sense.

It is clear to me that whilst well-meaning, the Convention (and derivative HRA) is too loosely written. Despite the wording being there, far too often the judiciary (British and European) misinterprets its intent (contrary to Article 18). No-one can surely think that the Convention is not often being used for purposes other than that for which it was intended? This was a convention that was formed in 1950 against the backdrop of the inhumane treatment meted out to so many humans in WWII. It was never meant to stop lawful countries deporting dangerous terrorists.

Not only is there the issue with misinterpreting Articles and ignoring caveats, but also there is no framework to judge one article against another. Classic examples are of the foreign radical clerics or terrorists who despite being ordered deported under the caveats for public safety and non-incitement of racial hatred are given leave to remain on the grounds they might face ill treatment in their home countries (against Article 3). Perhaps they should have thought of that before alienating yet another country? Surely when a conflict of Articles arises, there should be legislation to show the balance must fall on the side of the righteous not the sinner?

So where do we go from here? A British Bill of Rights is a start, but it will have no effect whilst a European Court using the Convention as framework is a higher authority.  Some real direction and leadership within the judiciary would be a start, but ultimately it must be combined with the rescinding of the surrendering of Sovereign power to Europe. Seeing as it would kick up quite a brouhaha to remove Britain from judicial control of Europe, you may as well remove Britain from the other economic and legislative oversight they have over us. In for a penny, in for a pound. As nice as that may sound, it won't happen whilst there is a Coalition Government, and is only a possibility under a strong Tory majority Government. Not only does that look unlikely given the rate of economic recovery, but even with it, is there the appetite for such a drastic move? So for now at least, it appears that moaning about it is the best we can do. We'll leave the referendum on Europe for another day...

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Fairly Taxing?

I have also sat by this week and watched a lot of political claptrap being bandied about, and it was this I think that really stirred me into action (and impassioned pleas to resume blogging from all (both) of my readers). "Je ne regrette rien" - an interesting choice, when asked in an interview, of personal song for a partner- and point-swapper who has gone back on more vows in his manifesto than in his dissolute marriage. I refer, of course, to Chris Huhne, a man who can pour forth pointless illogical drivel like an extra from One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest. His comments in particular piqued my anger this week with his non-sensical economic codswallop on taxation.

It shall not have passed you by that this week has seen the Lib Dem bandwagon (perhaps too grand a name considering their massively reduced popularity - maybe bandtrolley) roll into Birmingham. And my oh my, aren't they pleased with themselves? It had to be expected that they would trumpet all the things they have 'forced' the Tories to do and shout from the hills about their moderating ways stopping the evil Tories throwing 'the poor' on a bonfire for 'the rich' to dance around. In top hats.

The main worrying thing is that as I have previously mentioned (here) is that this influence they lay claim to may not be that false. I just wonder why on earth the Tories feel the need to bow to an unpopular party with some 11% of public support who have a contract to deliver on the Coalition agreement? I worry that with all the talk of the 50p tax rate having to be exchanged for another tax on wealth, it might actually happen. Nobody from the Tories has the balls to stand up and reply to the Lib Dem posturing.

Nobody is willing to say "as with the majority of the Coalition Agreement, as we massively outnumber you and are the senior party, the general bias will be towards our policies". Nobody will say "stop trying to horse trade on policies like you are on an even footing", and no-one will say "we'll make our fiscal decisions based on fiscal reasons with a general bent towards our economic philosophy as opposed to your poisonous hatred of wealth". I cannot for the life of me understand why the Tories accept the posturing of a bunch of middle ground grey men who are trying to win back from Labour the half of their support that has vanished since they had to actually govern rather than write out a distinctly naive wish list of unfunded policies when in third place.

The most important point in there I think is the reasoning behind tax. I read an interesting article a few weeks back about tax policy, and the current lack of it. When we run for Government in this country it seems we are happy to set out our policies on health, education and defence etc. We explain why we have such policies. We explain what the purposes of all our proposals are. Nobody sets out a tax policy though. It is just said that we pay for x,y and z in other policies through taxation. It is just a means. It is not an end. And therein lies the problem and the one the Lib Dems are falling foul of currently.

You need to have a taxation policy - what is it there for, what are we trying to achieve through taxation, through the different parts of the system? It is more than just a money making machine. It is so vital a part of the running and funding of the country that it should not be directionless. Yet it is. That is how we get into the mess we are in now, with the Lib Dems repeatedly standing up and demanding punitively high rates of tax on 'the rich'.

I shan't get into the weeds on 50p tax again, indeed the extra tax may not be that much more of a burden on the highly paid and may actually increase tax takes (we'll see when the independent report comes out, but I doubt it is working), but that is by the by. The point is that the Lib Dems think that this tax, and their 'mansion tax' proposals are designed to be punitive and that that is the right way to go about taxation. They think tax is about retribution. They want all these 'fat cats' to pay 'their fair share'. Yet, as I have mentioned before, nobody is willing to define 'fair'.

It appears if you have more money it is 'fair' that you pay more and more of it in tax (to an as yet undefined limit) so it can be redistributed. Now I'm not advocating flat tax amounts, but at least that is an easy one to justify as 'fair' - everyone pays the same amount seeing as they are all at equal liberty to avail themselves of the services said tax provides: All men are equal - I reckon I could sell that one. Or we could go with a flat rate; not equal amounts, but equal percentages - then one pays relatively the same amount: Even shares of one's own wealth - I think I could sell that too. Or no taxation in a wholly private system where everyone simply pays for the services they wish to use and do not pay for the ones they do not: Pay As You Go - I reckon I could sell that one as well.

But we in the UK have none of those systems. Our system is the 'progressive' system, where the more you earn, the more you pay because of your ability to do so, and vice versa: To each according to his need, from each according to his ability. Now that's where we are now, and it is indeed a noble thesis.

However, let us not fool ourselves into thinking this is necessarily 'fairer' than the first three. It may promote a more caring society. It may redress the imbalance in wealth that fate, genetics, or just hard work has created. However, to call this 'fair' we should acknowledge that we think it is in some way unfair that some people get richer than others. We should acknowledge that inequality even when deserved, is unfair. Which, of course, it isn't.

It is not unfair that at the end of the summer the ant has lots of food for the winter and the grasshopper has none. Now it is often unfortunate that some grasshoppers will have been unable to harvest as much food as some ants. Some may be weaker, some perhaps lack the guile of the ant in his cunning harvesting processes, but some will also be lazier. Inequality is all around us, but it doesn't make it unfair.

Now I'm in favour of a progressive system. It massively benefits the richer in society for the poorer to be helped, and not just in a soothing their souls kind of way. I also believe a progressive system makes for a better society, where there are opportunities for those at the bottom of the ladder to be helped out and helped up. I'm all for that. I also think it is good for those with more to help those with less, but let's not forget that happens with a flat rate of tax too.

The problem is that 'fair', unlike 'equal' is subjectively judged, not objectively judged, therefore they are not always mutually inclusive. They are not the same things. So when someone talks about equal, we know what they mean, but when they say fair, we must insist they qualify it. People claiming this tax or that tax is 'fair' and talking about a 'fair share' have to define exactly what they consider to be fair. They cannot simply hide behind the word, for by being subjective, it by definition requires clarification.

Is it fair for someone to pay more and more of their income in tax as their income increases? I think one is on pretty dodgy ground trying to argue that. Why does your 'fair share' keep increasing the harder you work? Certainly it helps society that those who can afford to pay more do so, but let us not think it would be unfair if they only paid a flat rate. We have an exceptionally generous tax system in terms of redistribution of wealth. The tax system takes its money disproportionately from those who use fewest of the services it provides with those taxes. It takes the least from those who are the highest financial burden. It is a good system, but it should not be said that it is necessarily fair, because a system could be far less generous and easily be defined as fair.

It is not fair or unfair for the strong man in a group to carry the weaker man's load. It is generous, but the overall speed of the group will aid him in the long run. As long as he is able to see the collective benefit of his aid and he does not become somehow obliged to help so, everyone will be happy. When we start suggesting that it is fair to heap more and more weight onto him, we do him a disservice. When you take the strong man for granted and punish him for his strength, or blame him for the weakness of others you run a grave risk. He will happily carry more than his share of the burden if he can see his contribution is valued, if the extra weight is not too great, and if he can see how he benefits too.

Once we understand that we can get to grips with tax rates. Once we understand that our tax system has gone beyond the various measures of equality where it would be easy to call it fair and into territory that is obviously generous we may get somewhere. Once we understand that the economy is mainly kept ticking over by the work of those from whom we ask the most we can progress. Taxes over parity need to be explained with their economic reasons behind them - how they help everyone, including the one paying the tax. This is how you find yourself at optimum tax rates. To go into tax policy with an eye on punishment or retribution is to utterly miss the point and guarantee sub-optimal tax takes. It is biting the hand that feeds you. So no more talk of 'fair shares' please, just sound economics behind a sensible taxation policy. As the social scientist Arthur C. Brooks said, "if you think spreading money around by force seems like an odd definition of fairness, you're not alone."

Friday, 23 September 2011

London's Burning (Well It Was...)

And so I'm back, from outer space (not technically, but I have been away getting married and stuff like that). Sorry for the absence, but apparently spewing forth my bilious feelings about the world whilst sitting on a beach with my brand new wife (not that I have another, older version) wouldn't necessarily be in harmony with the loving feel-good feelings I was reliably informed were to be present on the honeymoon. So the laptop stayed at home. You may now be thinking that writing a non-commercial blog for three men and a tortoise called Alan must be a better business model than it appears if I've been on honeymoon for the best part of two months. Alas, I merely got out of the swing after a normal length retreat and have spent many days since thinking how I must blog, but simply couldn't be bothered.

Perhaps I became apathetic, or maybe there was too much to get into. So I've picked a couple of things that irked me and split them down into a couple of posts. First off, I watched London burn and then watched the police come in for more "damned if they do and damned if they don't" abuse. Yes the riots lasted a while, but we rely on policing by co-operation not by force. We have shown in war zones the world around that escalation is rarely the answer to violence. Rolling armoured vehicles down Oxford Street sends out a message that violence is expected and the ante has been upped - you bring a bigger gun, so will I. No fool would rob a convenience store in America without a gun because all the shopkeepers have them and all the police have them. Therefore all criminals have guns - it is self-defeating. Look at Northern Ireland, look at Iraq. Policing those situations is about damage limitation, restrained policing and intelligent and targeted use of force. I thought they did alright.

I then watched as "human rights groups" (read: mindless morons with no better idea than to jump on the latest fools' bandwagon) and friends of the lawless complained at the 'unduly harsh' sentences passed down on rioters. I watched them castigate judges who sentenced within the law - there are guideline sentences with discretion for increasing or decreasing sentences towards the upper and lower limits according to aggravating or mitigating factors. It's pretty simple: When say, someone causes actual bodily harm in a scuffle and is of otherwise good character and was severely provoked and shows contrition, this mitigates and so the average sentence is lowered. If someone commits the same crime but with malice aforethought and shows no remorse and rather considers this to be jolly good sport, this aggravates the circumstance, so the average sentence increases. All within the limits set in law.

Why people couldn't understand the aggravating nature of the backdrop of joining in with rioting, looting, thuggery, arson etc and doing one's best to disturb the peace, eludes me. But so does much about what people like this think. I imagine some of the sentences will be decreased on appeal, but I thought it showed how our justice system is meant to work. It was too large an incident to be prevented by police (the optimum result), so it was contained, recorded and those responsible as far as could be discerned felt the full force of the law. They weren't indiscriminately battered or shot with baton rounds. The police didn't Tiananmen Square their asses. They committed a crime, they were apprehended, they were sentenced. Like the law says is meant to happen. Next.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Workin' 9 to 5...

This week I was forced to travel through London in the middle of the day. I say forced because I had no other sensible option considering the volume of my load and the multiple destinations I had to visit both in and out of London. You see the other options of not paying congestion charge or paying for the astronomical fuel for the car still come out more expensive, far less comfortable and slower. It's another post entirely one feels but as expensive as motoring is, mainly down to the taxes levied on us apparently to encourage us to switch to other means, those other means are largely unviable.

My mood was tempered by the dulcet tones on Radio 4 and the comfort of my moving sitting room, but even with the aircon humming away I was miffed. Why? Because of course I was stuck in rush hour, only it was midday so I shall just call it rush entire day. There is no rush hour anymore. I queue to get in and out of London and indeed through it at all times of day. So do we all. There are simply too many people with too many cars. Most of them driving badly I might add but I'm sure they'd say the same of me.

What compounded the misery of the polyglot mass crawling through the arteries and veins of London like tar being pumped painfully slowly through a heart is of our own making. Around every corner, past every set of lights or roundabout that you just knew was the cause of the traffic, the road beyond you are certain as empty as the Commons once the cameras turn off at PMQs, was a set of roadworks. Entire stretches of road torn up, to continue with my theme, like open heart surgery. Only instead of having 10 people furiously working per 3 inches of open wound that one expects in an operating theatre, there were 3 people per 100 metres doing very little and certainly nothing furiously.

London is infested with incredibly slow road "works". It pains me to call them "works" so little actual work appears to go on. Boris wrote an excellent article on this very subject here. I suggest you read it so I don't have to plagiarise it all. In essence though he points out not just the irritation, but the sheer cost to UK PLC of queueing through London for roadworks. He points to the laughable situation where just about any utilities company, of which there are now bucketloads, has the right to dig up the road and take their sweet time to do so.

The only way to get them to do this more efficiently is to charge them per metre, per hour. Now people will complain, of course, that these costs will just be passed onto the consumers and that the costs will mean some companies will refuse to put in new lines/pipes/cables and that Mrs Miggins won't be able to get her high speed interweb or whatever. But that is what a free market is there for. Eventually companies will just realise this is another area to cut costs by planning works more efficiently, hiring shift road workers to toil round the clock because time is money and 9 to 5 don't cut it anymore. It will make them talk to each other and co-ordinate digging works to access the same bit of London subterrain. If some companies just keep on with their inefficient methods and pass the costs directly on, some other company will work smarter and undercut them. The knock-on for us is we get less disruption, work happens more quickly and we save a shedload of cash and efficiency lost sat in traffic jams. And I will be that tiny bit less grumpy.

Friday, 22 July 2011

PC PC

This week the Murdochs and Rebekah Brooks have been running the gauntlet of the Commons Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport. Our upstanding Members of Parliament (my, how short our and their memories are?) have been busy lobbing stones through the empty frames that make up what used to be their moral glass houses. Now they have all been grilled to the same extent. The MPs didn't go easy on Rupert just because he's an octogenarian. They even didn't go easy on Rebekah because she had ginger hair. Or because she was a girl. Now it's a good thing it's our non-PC MPs carrying out this investigation because left to Greater Manchester Police it may not have gone quite the same.

Nope, it appears Greater Manchester Police may well have just roasted James, but would probably have stopped short with the old fella and the girl. You see they've just had their fingers burned by the PC Police.  A couple of weeks back it was reported that Inspector Diane Bamber, 51, had taken Greater Manchester Police to an employment tribunal and won after she failed a fitness-based selection (here).

The test comprised a 500m course, wearing full riot gear and carrying a 17lb riot shield. Known as the "shield run" this is the base level fitness standard required to join a public order unit and must be completed in under 2 mins 45 secs. And she failed it. Because she's not fit enough. So she sued them. And won. Apparently she felt "humiliated" after failing the test. The tribunal ruled that she had been discriminated against because of her sex and age.

Now here is a little test to see if you've been reading my blog - what do I think about this?

a) Now that seems perfectly sensible, why would we possibly want riot police to be physically fit? As long as they're nice people, I'm sure the rioters won't go for the fat wheezy policeman who can't keep up with the rest of the riot shield wall. I imagine weak links are positively encouraged as the key to effective shield-based combat - the Romans probably had it wrong. Now I think of it, it's unfair to rule out the elderly or the infirm, they're people too. And let's get the morbidly obese in there as well. Everyone deserves a go as a riot policeman. That's what equal opportunities means.

b) Jesus Titty-Fucking Christ.

Yes, it was a toss-up, but I went with b). If you didn't you can probably stop reading here and go play with the traffic or continue interfering with an animal. Over the years it is an understatement to say there have been incredible miscarriages of justice with totally unjustified age discrimination, sexual discrimination, racial discrimination and more. We have, though, moved on and I'd say we are much of the way there. However, we are threatened with losing the good (and ongoing) work at the expense of ridiculous rulings like this where half-wits mis-interpret the law to their hearts' content and in so doing create terribly dangerous precedents.

Now you've perhaps read my thoughts on discrimination before (here, but most particularly here). In essence I think it's all about motivation - and I'm right, obviously - not about just choosing, which is all discriminating is. For example, fireman need to be strong enough to carry unconscious fat people to safety from their burning sofas after their discarded fag butts have ignited the stacked copies of NOTW forming a shrine to investigative journalism in the corner of their 13th floor apartment. Or rescue people from middle class fires. Or the Queen from whichever palace in which she currently resides.

Now some women will have failed the fireman test - or whatever slightly more official-sounding name they have for it. And some men. They will have been the people who couldn't hack it physically. And we're all the safer for the fire service that has produced - except when they're on strike for more pay. The average 7st woman is always going to find it much harder than the average 13st man to lift a 15st body or whatever the test is. Likewise the average 62 year old is going to find it harder than the average 25 year old. Fat wheezy kids will probably fail as will those with a build akin to the chap from the Mr Muscle adverts.

They aren't, however, being unfairly discriminated against. They just failed an objective test. There is a need for an objective test because you can't do the job if you can't carry a deadweight person. The unconscious victim doesn't weigh less if the fireman is over 50, or female. He or she weighs what she weighs. Some people will be more genetically predisposed to success than others, but that's life. For some things, many things in fact, maybe even most, there has to be one level for all. Equal opportunities means everyone from every 'category' (old, young, male, female, big fish, little fish, red fish, blue fish) gets the same shot at trying for a job or whatever. It does not mean we massage the test to get an equal number of everyone from every 'category' to pass.

Now Inspector Bamber doesn't want to be a fireman, but the physical levels required to join a public order unit are correctly imposed in a direct parallel. There's no humiliation in failing an assessment designed to test even the hardiest of our youths. Likewise you probably shouldn't hang your head in shame for failing selection for the SAS or the Parachute Regiment. Or not getting past youth trials at Arsenal. Or not getting the place at the top university you were after. You see they are all objective tests - are you strong enough to be a riot policeman, a good enough footballer for the Premier League, or a clever enough boffin to study astrophysics at Harvard?

Maybe not - and in all cases it will be a mixture of latent talent and hard work which decides if you make the grade. That is the wonder of objective tests - by their very definition they are neutral, non-subjective, impervious to bias or malevolent discrimination as long as the pass requirements are justified by what they are testing for. Sometimes the effort will not be enough to overcome the genetic disadvantages you start with. That may be because you are a short girl, or a thick boy, or born with the proverbial two left feet. The test takes no account of that though - only your performance. It is not shameful to fail trying. It is shameful to hide your failure, however, behind spurious lawsuits relying on the ongoing spinelessness of the judiciary when anyone whispers "discrimination" in their general direction. Especially if you're a sodding police Inspector.

Monday, 18 July 2011

The Best Laid Plans of Mice and Men...

So by now we have all had time to adjust to the fact that we are all still living our sad miserable lives and are not the proud owners of a £161 million lottery ticket. Hey ho. We shall all have to put off the serious nitty gritty of which yacht to buy to adorn our extremely inland driveways. The fleet of luxury cars is on hold too and stand fast the portfolio of overseas getwaways.

Yes this weekend, as with every day after a big lotto payout, we are all getting to grips with the shocking news that we aren't multimillionaires. I imagine I am not alone in rather enjoying the excitement of spending money in my head on the commute home - purchase number one clearly being a chauffeur to transport me to work.  Actually I probably wouldn't bother going to work now I think of it. I can while away the journey, tailgating to my heart's content, imagining my Shelby Cobra or vintage Aston Martin. I imagine living the lifestyle of the Heat magaziners who seem to need a 'break' or a 'getaway' every 2 to 3 weeks. What stressful work is it that they do that requires so much time to unwind? Poor oppressed people. I think about what percentage I would have to give to charity to make myself feel good and, of course, to make me look generous. I think about upgrading the pavilion on my village cricket green, and maybe hiring Mike Atherton to open the batting - he popped into 'my' pub on Saturday so he knows how to find us.

You see, it's fun. It's also planning. Because I might win. Due to the fact that clearly like almost everyone, I don't ever win, this is the fun part for me - the chase. However it appears that fortune does not favour the planners. He who has already searched out the best investment opportunities to live off the interest of say a £2.6 million win, or investigated if his £4.9 million win will stretch to a villa on Lake Como whilst maintaining sufficient monies to fund a jet-set lifestyle sans work shall not win. If he is planning on moving out of his house even, it seems the Gods do not smile upon him. Nope, the only people who win the big bucks trot out the same old nonsense:

"We shan't let it change us - we like our life here in our crap little house with our crap little cars."

It rather makes you wonder… why on earth did you buy the sodding ticket?

I just don't get it. Why would you buy tickets to win a life-changing amount of money if you want to keep your life exactly as it is? I'm not suggesting our lives are meaningless and hollow without untold millions - contrary to the general tone of my blog I'm pretty contented - but why stick your money in if you don't want to do anything with the windfall?

I'm happy with my lot, but it doesn't meant I wouldn't mind a couple more spondoolicks to throw about the place. Or 161 million of them. I'm not greedy though, I'd be content with one of those pathetic £4 million midweek draws - you know, the ones that are barely worth playing. Plus, it exercises the mind more working out what to do when you have to consider living off interest versus large capital expenditure - the sort of 'problems' £1.9 million wins give you. It's just a bit easy when you win £161 million, because you can buy everything and still have loads left over.

So there it is folks, the great travesty of the lottery system. It seems the cash is always destined to end up with either the yobbish Michael Carrolls of this world who will spend their loot in a way that would make East Coast rappers look both stylish and conservative or the Colin and Chris Weirs who seem to have no desire to do anything differently at all. either way, it ends up with people who simply haven't put in the necessary thought. I don't begrudge them the money, I simply would rather if I'm destined to live my multimillionaire's life vicariously (highly likely), couldn't they at least have a plan? I guess it's like being an armchair critic - you see, I have a feeling I'd be such a good multimillionaire, if only someone would give me the chance. Suppose I should meet them halfway by at least buying a ticket...

Thursday, 7 July 2011

It's the End of the (News of the) World As We Know It

Well I thought up this not that imaginative title on the drive home from work today and was so pleased with myself decided I had to use it, even though what I really wanted to talk about wasn't the NOTW. Nope, I actually wanted to moan about some claptrap I read in the paper yesterday. Having conjured up such a terrible play on words I thought of canning the job and applying to the NOTW themselves for a job, but then remembered they aren't hiring. Ever again.

Today saw the end of the paper's 168 year history of low-end investigative journalism. I'm not going to miss it, but lots of people will. Why? Because we are a snoopy lot who live our vicarious lives of iniquity, perversion and nefarious activities from the comfort of our judgemental breakfast table on a Sunday morning. The only thing we Brits love more than a feel-good story or the building up of a hero is some good old fashioned scandal and watching someone be torn down. Bad news sells in this country and the press know it.

You might say the NOTW broke the golden rule - they got caught. Not that they didn't try to hide it. Totally false submissions to Parliament, imprisoned employees hung out to dry as scapegoats and the mystery of a full police investigation that yielded no evidence of wrongdoing from a press room that looked as guilty as a puppy sitting next to a pile of poo, to borrow a phrase. One wonders if the subsequent 6 or so full-public-judge-led-inquries (still obsessed with these I see) that are being demanded will find any link between the apparent inability of the plod to find any naughtiness at the NOTW and the fact that the same paper has illegally paid the police more for information for stories than Parliament could conjure up expenses for in a whole year.

Not only did they get caught though, more importantly they got caught meddling in lives of the little people. This is where they fatally misjudged the public. We like to see rich people fall, famous people fall. If someone finds out Max Moseley likes peculiar officially-not-Nazi-but-still-definitely-dodgy sex, NOTW readers lap it up, and those who purchase the Sun, the Mirror and any other red top. In fact, lots of the broadsheet readers probably are more interested than they'd care to admit. They don't desperately care that it came via not the most upright of methods. When they find out which footballer is cheating on his wife because of a phone tap, again they just enjoy the scandal.

However this week it emerged they fucked with "our boys" - the military - their mourning families and other families who suffered newsworthy loss. Sainsbury, O2 et al did not pull their advertising (making the NOTW economically unviable overnight) when it became obvious in 2008 that NOTW were engaging in illicit activities, notably phone hacking. Why? Because the people concerned were considered newsworthy - the means justified the end - the people's desire to hear gossip about Sienna Miller etc easily outranked any qualms they had over the illegal means by which said gossip was garnered. But this time advertisers fled like rats from a sinking ship when the NOTW got caught messing with the little people.

It is perhaps our saving grace as a nation. We are not total misanthropes. What motivated us to search for ill in those whose lives are better than ours is simple envy, not an innate desire to see all mankind suffer. It appears we draw the line on a relative scale. Breaking the law isn't cool in the eyes of the British when it hurts those whom they consider worse off than themselves.  Not a ringing endorsement, but maybe the court of public opinion finally came out with a correct judgement. Maybe people power shut down NOTW. It's a nice thought, even if it is far more likely it was just political posturing to salvage the multi-billion pound BSKYB deal...

Friday, 1 July 2011

What Goes Up Might Come Down

The price of Brent Crude is tumbling. We should be celebrating, no? I for one shall not be digging about in the garage for my spare jerry cans to fill up on cheap fuel down at my local forecourt. Why? Because the price hasn't changed.

It will have come as a surprise to nobody that finally both Ofgem and the Federation Internationale d'Automobile have both this year investigated the prices charged by fuel suppliers compared to the price of their raw product, with the latter writing to the EU to complain in June.

Ofgem recently announced that for the first time it has evidence that energy companies are hiking their prices faster when costs have risen than they lowered them when costs fell. Wow. Who knew? It does make one wonder what Ofgem do with the rest of their days.

The two most obvious industries whose profits depend on the rise and fall of crude oil are our energy providers and our fuel providers; in many cases much of a muchness. It would take an averagely computer-literate ten year old to find a graph depicting the rise and fall of say, Brent Crude and the prices on the forecourts for the last few years. I borrowed such a ten year old and he found me these: petrol (here) oil (here). Fear not, I have returned him.

Raw product (oil) accounts for only about 1/3 of our pump price. We have the Government to thank for about 65% in tax (is there an easier way to collect tax?), a percent or two to the retailer and the remainder to the refiner. Numbers vary by business model, but it's around there.

The peaks and troughs of the price graphs certainly roughly marry up in shape, but do they in size? You may remember everyone crying when petrol went through £1 a litre in late 2007. Crude oil was at about 80 dollars a barrel. It peaked in mid 2008 at just shy of 147 dollars when petrol prices were about £1.20. Then when crude oil fell to sub 40 dollars a barrel the motorist had brief respite at just below the £1 mark again, when ratios would have had it nearer 70p. Recently we've been up in the 125 dollars a barrel region and the average forecourt price has been over £1.40 or thereabouts.

Now we have an oil price approaching the 100 dollar mark, so we can safely assume the price should be tumbling with it. Now whenever there is a price rise in oil, it gets passed on essentially instantaneously, yet when there is a drop we hear excuses. I'm sure companies do hedge on prices and buy in advance, so if there is a sharp drop they will be selling petrol or energy fuelled by more expensive oil they bought before the drop. However, by that model when prices of oil rise there should be stockpiles of cheaper oil to keep prices lower. But you and I know it doesn't work that way.

Price of unleaded at the recent peak at my local BP when oil was 126 dollars? 136.9p per litre. Price last week with an oil price of 105 dollars? 136.9p per litre. But we're all British so we bend over and take it without so much as a trembling of the lower lip. You wonder what the point is of having an Ombudsman who can stare such sharp dealing in the face and ignore it day in, day out. It's enough to make you want to take the train, if it wasn't so crap and expensive too... 

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Shortened Sentence

It's a sad old thing to be pleased at U-turns from a Government you (sort of) voted for. As you may have guessed from my hilarious play on words in the title, we're talking prisons today, and the Coalition's latest U-turn on shortened sentences for those entering guilty pleas is welcome to me (and to the right-leaning elements of the press). The last couple of weeks have had back and forths over the sentencing policies of the Coalition, and today we see the culmination in the new Justice Bill.

Our prison system is one I have written about before (here and here), and the way in which successive Governments have approached it causes me great discomfort. Labour's policy was all based on targets. If they could prove that fewer people were in prison, the world must have been a safer place, because that must mean there were fewer baddies about. Unfortunately it meant that they just started letting people out early because there wasn't enough room. The Coalition were seemingly basing their policies on working out how much money they have (or don't have) and therefore how many prisoners they can afford to have. Then they would adjust the sentencing policy to suit the figures. Both approaches are beyond terrible. They have been playing fast and loose with a very serious topic.

There are a couple of strands to pick up on here. The first, is that of what should govern the size of our prison population: The number of people in prison should be in pretty direct proportion to the number of bad people being caught doing bad things. What we want in society is fewer bad people doing fewer bad things. This won't always happen though. If that means sometimes we go through a phase of increasing the prison population then so be it. There is no point massaging the output figures (numbers in jail) cosmetically to pretend the input (volume of crime) is getting better - look where that has got us with school exam results.

The cost of this incarceration is something we have generally to grin and bear (though we can surely find savings). Simply locking fewer people up for shorter periods of time to save money is itself criminal. We cannot allow the question of cost to be the primary factor or even a major factor in determining how long a sentence should be. By all means, it should be considered within the wider scheme of the cost of crime; not just walls, guards and bars but the cost of the justice system, the damage crime does to the economy, to the social fabric of society. Therein we may see more investment in crime prevention, but the costs of physically locking people up should not have a major direct effect on sentencing policy which it so obviously was having under these latest proposals.

The point that they are all missing is that you do not reduce crime by reducing prisoner numbers. It works the other way round. We should not think of the number of people in prison as a measure of how well or how badly we are doing in the fight against crime. Instead we need to look at why people commit crime and how we can have a positive influence there. If there are more criminals we need to address the causes, but in the meantime, build another prison.

Crime is linked with many things; drugs, drink, deprivation, social class, joblessness, geography. Ultimately though, the vast majority of it comes down to one thing - education. Whilst there are a few intelligent, well-educated lags languishing behind bars. they are the exception.

So we lead onto our second strand - what can the prison system do to help itself and help society? Simply put; education - and with this one stone we kill two birds. We remove the well-placed public disquiet at the easy life some lead inside of Sky tv, computer games, pool and generally doing nothing with their lives and at the same time reduce reoffending rates and help society (and the prisoners themselves) by the rehabilitation of prisoners.

Now I'm sure people will tell me education is available in prisons, but that is not enough. For many, they didn't want to learn at school, and there were plenty of alternatives. Prison gives them similar alternatives and very few leave more educated than they entered. I say remove the alternatives - all of them. Let the only thing prisoners can do be educate themselves and work, be it academic or vocational/skills based training. Prisons will be rather better guarded boarding schools. I'm sure there will remain a core of people totally disinterested who will sit in their cells lamenting the "breaches of their human rights" as they have their Playstations removed, but it has to be a step on the right direction for the prison population.

Prisoners cost the state more per capita to support than soldiers or children. Yet we ask nothing of them and are surprised when they give nothing in return. Prison should not be easy, and there is no doubt in my mind we are far too soft in this area. It needs to serve as a deterrent and cannot do so when prisoners can laze about doing nothing, kicking back watching tv, not worrying about where the next meal is coming from. Life on the inside is not meant to be a breeze in comparison to life outside - if it is we have missed a trick. On the other side, the prison system should be rehabilitative, and nothing is more intrinsic to improving the chances of released prisoners not reoffending than educating them and giving them the skills to survive in the real world of straight jobs. Give them qualifications; from basic literacy to manual trade skills and even further education through Open University for the more academically talented. By changing prisons to schools, we remove the soft side to prison that clearly is not working as a deterrent and attracts much negative attention form the press and people, and give prisoners a genuine chance at turning their lives around. The potential benefit for all is obvious.

A third strand we could talk about is sentencing policy, but that is a very large topic. Are initial sentences what we think is the right amount to serve or are they artificially raised (like pre-sale store prices) to account for the inevitable deductions (guilty plea / early release)? Are we sending the right people to prison for the right amount of time? Should we be using community service orders more, or doing more for those with mental problems? They are all key discussion points, but regardless, prison can and should be made to work better for society and for prisoners. Dostoyevsky wrote that "the degree of civilisation in a society is revealed by entering its prisons." I'd say right now such a journey would make us look naive, with a system that neither deters nor rehabilitates. Unfortunately, pleased as I am to see the further shortening of sentences for guilty pleas axed, I do not see the new Justice Bill going far in addressing the systemic issues at hand.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

That's What I Go To School For...

So today saw the announcement from two of the main unions representing teachers in the UK, the National Union of Teachers (NUT) and Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), that they are planning the first of a series of strikes later this month. The news was met with mixed reactions. Some supported the rights of the strikers to do just that. Others lambasted the selfish action of those charged with the education of our future generations.

The strike is, of course, over the amendments proposed by Lord Hutton in his report of earlier this year. Now the crux of the matter was nicely surmised by the union spokesladies. They are seeking to justify their striking stating that the evil plans of the Government meant that they would have to work for longer, pay more towards their pensions and ultimately receive less.

Now I shall sit down to try to deal with this staggering news. Already seated, so there's a moment saved. Yup, I think I'm over it. I'm not sure I should be that impressed that it took an entire two unions' worth of teachers and lecturers to work out the Government's proposals. Maybe I have missed the point? I think the idea the unions are proposing is that this move is in some way a) unfair (ah, the "fair" word again), and b) malicious.

As I have been into in rather more depth already (here), public sector pensions and national pensions were devised when the population was a fraction of what it is now, when life expectancy was far shorter and when people accepted a lower base standard of living. Getting 40 years work out of someone and then paying for 40 years rest probably won't work if they only put a small amount in. It probably won't work if the country doesn't discover endless wells of oil just outside Bracknell. It probably won't work if we continue to define a "fair" amount to live on as what will pay for luxury goods as a staple rather that a luxury.

In short, there clearly isn't enough money to keep on with the original plan. One has to adapt when situations change. Anyone who cannot see that the goalposts have moved is an arse, plainly put. So, anyone planning on striking over this is a little simple for my money. Now I might have accepted a defence of not understanding the exact economics of it all from perhaps the union of village idiots (should such a thing exist, and I'm doing my best to resist the temptation here to liken a great many unions to this one), but from the teachers?

Maybe then it won't be such a shame if they all go on strike as anyone failing to comprehend the need for amendment to pension policy probably shouldn't be teaching our children even basic arithmetic. Get with the program people - you aren't victims, you're not targets, it's just adapting to the realities of modern life, plain and simple. Burying your head in the sand and saying "I want the same pension as they used to hand out", ignoring the glaring impracticalities and unaffordability won't work. Striking over this is idiotic. There are too many of us living too long and not enough dosh. You can't just magic the money out of thin air. Although Ed Balls will probably come out to say he could.