Friday, 28 January 2011

Human Rights or Wrongs? Part 1

Right then boys and girls, a quickie for you all before I go native. No, as you may imagine from my latest, I am not converting, merely assuming the state for a while. Work is sending me off to the back of beyond, which it turns out is even more remote than deepest, darkest, from where I have been keeping both of you occupied these last two weeks. Yes, I am going away from internet signal. Before you ask (they never ask, sigh) I'm not off to Egypt in search of the mythical internet circuit breaker. No, I know my limits; I've seen the Temple of Doom. If that's what Johnny Foreigner does to defend the recipe for monkey brain soup, I have no desire to search for the secret broadband on/off switch. I am no Indiana Jones, though I think I look quite dashing in a hat/stubble combo. Not great with a whip or hieroglyphics though, so I'll just amble out into the desert to where I am told and be done with it.

So a couple of clues so far. It might be something to do with human rights. Yes. It might be the first of many. Yes, if by many you mean two. The cunning lead-in point from current affairs is the demobilisation of 'the internet' (I have no idea how this might happen - I have to pay a 12 year old to log me on to this site) by the Egyptian Government in an attempt to disrupt the command and communication set-up of the rioters. Yes.

Now these are obviously organised rioters, an oxymoronic state to be in if ever I heard one, because I thought the idea of rioting was anarchy, which is no comfortable bedfellow of organisation. However, it turns out in the modern world, we all have to make sacrifices. So to protest at state control and a surveillance society we post all our most intimate details, photos and inside leg measurements on public forums, and then use said forums/repositories of intelligence to organise stands against 'the man'. As they say, if you're not confused, you haven't totally understood what's going on.

Anyway, that wasn't really my point, just a lead-in that got away. My point was since when did your human rights include access to the internet? Now I will say some more things, probably less flippantly about human rights and the general utopian bilge than spouts from the European Court of Human Rights, but today is just a taster. I might even do a little research in the meantime. But for now…

'Human Rights' as a concept that is as old as the hills. Read a little of Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics and you see people were concerned with the proper conduct of man well before there were British milkmen, let alone their twinkling eyes. And these are just the first lot who wrote any of it down that we could find (though that may do a little disservice to Aristotle, Plato and pals). My point is that human rights has evolved over many hundreds of years, but is essentially a study in how man should treat man. It is about ethics - as fascinating and deeply important subject as one who is interested in the progression of mankind could hope to find.

However, it has become a dirty thing in the modern world - the last refuge of the guilty man. This I shall come onto in another post, but the more astute of you probably know where I am going with it. Rights, as I have blogged about many times before, are now ten-a-penny apparently (here for example). Human rights should be a representation of how man should treat each other in the most basic way. We are talking rights to liberty, life, involvement in the rule of law which governs his way of life, freedom from tyranny. Essentially, all the good stuff you see the heroes of the downtrodden valiantly fighting for against the evil, oppressive powers in the epic films. Whichever philosopher's bandwagon you jump onto - Hume's, Locke's, Aristotle's, Kant's, you are signing up to a basic philosophy of human rights. What it has evolved into is the product of arrogant but ignorant men extrapolating the works of geniuses.

The situation now: A mobile phone is a human right. Or even a 'basic human right'. So is access to the internet. These are the big two I'm going to focus on because a) it is late and I want to go bedwards, and b) they are wonderfully typical of the distortion of a once noble cause. So, get you seeing how this is all pump, and I get to go to bed safe in the knowledge you realise all the other new world 'rights' are a load of old hoopla too.

Now the push for this lunacy is unfortunately widespread. 4 out of 5 of us morons (the human race, of rights fame) apparently think internet access is a human right. Check this article out if you don't believe me (I know you didn't all vote, but it was a pretty big straw poll - here). The UN reckons it is. France's High Court agrees. The list goes on. In justifying this madness the perhaps biased Secretary-General of the International Telecommunication Union commented "the right to communicate cannot be ignored". No - good point Dr Flawed Logic. The basic human right you are thinking of is the right to free speech, not the right to 2 megabyte streaming porno. It is rather like thinking the right to freedom of movement is giving everyone a G6 (it's a pretty big, expensive plane) to maximise their movement, and when reading the Constitution of the United States' granting of man's right of the pursuit of happiness thinking that he can therefore rape, pillage and inject heroine into his retinas as long as it makes him happy.

So, before I go any further on human rights, we need to go backwards. Too much balderdash is spewed in the name of human rights by people who are as far from understanding the concept of a basic human right as Our Tony is from understanding he might have been wrong once or twice when in office. Human rights are not dependent on the enrichment or development of technology in society - they are about the basic codification of moral behaviour. Rights are life, love and liberty, not BT broadband, flat screen TVs and more kids than a kangaroo breeding facility. Human wrongs… I'm just getting started.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

TIA: This is Africa

As my more avid readers are probably aware, I am in deepest, darkest Africa, specifically the East. It is not my first time. All told by my next return I will have spent the best part of 4 months here, predominantly with work. Some elements of this continent are fantastic. It is up there for vistas, in general I find the people to be very friendly, and the weather certainly puts London in the shade. However, it is not all roses down here. What could be wrong, you might ask in a land where you can watch the red sun casting the last rays of the day across a verdant savannah, teaming with incredible wildlife? And all this wearing shorts and a slight sunburn, sipping a cool beer putting you in mind of Harry Flashman's era whilst most of your compatriots are complaining about the cold, wet weather or the latest tube strike?

Well now I put it like that I feel perhaps this isn't an entirely warranted rant, but for all Africa's relative advantages, there is an absolute that I feel needs dealing with. I am not going to rant about the Heath Robinson infrastructure, the binary-temperatured showers or the dust. The dust, the dust. Nope, I guess it all adds to the charm - if you wanted to avoid all that there is always Slough. Their roads are fine, I hear. No, what has always nagged at me about my stays here is one thing. It takes a moment to lose and a lifetime to gain. I am talking about trust.

Now before I launch into the meat of all this, take it for what it is. I have not been to every country in Africa, but it would not take a wild leap to suggest the problem to which I am alluding also permeates many other nations of equally limited economic might, African or otherwise. So, you may call my points generalisations, but so prevalent have I seen them in my not inconsiderable time here, and confirmed by many of the people I have travelled with, I think them fair in at least the most local sense of the East African nation I am currently in, and perhaps further afield.

I am probably no different from the next man in not liking being taken for a ride. The one thing that exercises me the most out here is the feeling that you are being ripped off. Now whilst the amounts you are talking about are often relatively small for a Westerner, the all-pervasive nature of the big rip-off leaves a very sour taste in the mouth. I can't help feeling like the golden goose. Falling foul (sorry) of that fable I think is one of the great issues with Africa.

I see short-termism in the actions of so many out here. Prices have a very obvious Western or local tag, and the variation can run into the hundreds of percents. Prices of drinks in the same bar on the same night will often vary with what they reckon they can get away with, and quite often the cash doesn't quite make it to the till. Giving change is often just an option, and it tests all your Englishness to mutter an embarrassed request for the right change, perhaps, please? It all seems to me to be part of an economic plan that must be "we don't know how long you'll be here, or whether you'll come again, so we'd better sting you good the first time."

As an example I played golf with a couple of friends today on our day off. The escalatory nature of the pricing is not confined to Africa - it is very much the Ryanair way. Golf? 1000 blatts. But don't forget the club hire. Or the caddie. Or the balls. Now the final price was still fine, but I rather hear prices delivered as a solid stab of pain than as death by a thousand tiny cuts. It was however, the amusing golf ball calculator that typified my sentiments on the place. You had to guess at the start how many balls you might need and then essentially rent them - you weren't buying them because they took them all back at the end. But buy too few and develop a hook and you'll just be walking the back nine. So you overcompensate and end up renting balls that never left the bag (I was uncharacteristically accurate off the tee today). Now if I just had to pay for lost balls I would understand (it's how the real world works), but instead you paid for something you never got. It left you feeling a little put out even though the round was relatively inexpensive. Regardless of it still being only a couple of pounds here or there, the principle still applies. The problem is, when you see it all around you, you lose trust in the system. Once that is gone, it is very hard to repair, and you begin to assume you are never getting a straight deal.

I wonder if it doesn't spread from the top, down. Countless times in the past, and unfortunately in the present, you see African countries brought to their knees as leader after leader moves into power only to desert the people he supposedly championed in favour of lining his pockets. Now this is again not restricted to this continent, but it is perhaps at its most prolific here.

We know it matters to me on a point of principle, but why does this matter to the country or continent? I think it is because from the outside corruption is viewed as the norm here. It is the feeling that everyone is on the take. Now that certainly isn't true - there are undoubtedly straight people here, but there are enough bad apples to tar the whole applecart (terrible mixed metaphor). The wider problem though, is that I don't believe the issue of trust will just cost them the tourist here and there who will not return. It is that until Africa can lose the image of corruption, I feel real investment in its future is unlikely, so dependent as investment is on trust. In that way, I believe this fault is perhaps the biggest barrier to development as a continent. So, for the time being, the only people playing the long game here are the countries (like China) or major corporations who bring their business to the country but solely to their own operations, exploiting the natural resources and withdrawing most of the resulting funds before you can say "investment in the community." For my money, if Africa wishes to join the developed world, they must learn the value of telling it straight.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Make It Like a G6

Now I understand where the Rt Hon Jesse Norman is coming from; no-one likes being taken for a ride. However, I rather think the Government asking for money back from business when they realise they have been swindled (and contributed almost entirely to said swindling), is a little rich and probably the wrong tack. I am talking, of course, about Private Finance Initiatives (PFIs). Now I shan't recount what has already been said about them. For a precis of this week's offerings since the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee Report, you could glance at these (here, here and here). Indeed, for Mr Norman's plea to business to hand back their profits, just click here. Or you could just take it as wrote that they have turned out to generally be a monumental economic disaster.

The PFIs were an ok idea given the correct application. Of course, the majority of these PFIs were signed duting the last Labour Government, so there was little chance of that. Nope, instead of considering PFIs as alternatives, it appears many authorities were railroaded into accepting PFIs with little thought to value for money. Why? Because Labour liked the idea of being able to throw money at the public sector without having to spend up front. In essence, to Labour, the PFI was a massive credit card. Not only could they spend loads of money on the public sector to show how lovely they were, they wouldn't even had to pay for it, and it didn't appear on their bank statement. Yes folks, you'll never guess what - the nice people of the private sector offered to cover all our debts with the little proviso that we have to make a few monthly instalments to pay it all off. Sound familiar? Yup, welcome again to Ocean Finance. Unsurprisingly, it has turned out a teensy bit more expensive than Gordy and co might have thought when they tuned into channel 888 to deal with the economy.

Legal bills alone ran into millions and the Government locked themselves in to pay off projects well after they became obsolete (they being thankfully Labour, unfortunately also said projects). Now the economic flaws in the PFI argument have been laid bare for all to see, but I wanted to talk about an element of it that rears its ugly head all over. It is the combination of politicians pushing through purchases with drastic economic ramifications that they do not fully (or at all) understand and the help in these debacles of some pretty dubious lawyers.

Now I don't know who works in the Government's legal teams, but I have some suspicions. Firstly, not one of my many friends who have gone on from university to become lawyers talked about one day working for the Government. Nope, it was all Linklaters this and Freshfields that. Maybe the work is dull, maybe the remuneration is not attractive enough. Either way, 'Magic Circle', they ain't, which leads me to suspect the Government may not always get the top of the class. This rash assumption is backed up anecdotally though, and in quite some volume. I have lost count of the number of times I have heard of Government bodies (local and national) being tied into poor contracts, or of contracts that are seen through even when it finally dawns on people they are useless, because it would cost more to cancel. For one specific area where the Government really excel themselves look no further than Defence Procurement. Anyone want a second aircraft carrier? How much was Eurofighter meant to cost? I could go on, but you get the idea.

My point is twofold. Firstly for the Coalition and Mr Norman. Don't cry over spilt milk. Certainly point out the milk to everyone, and show everyone the evidence that it was the last lot's fault it got spilt. But if you genuinely think the companies who recognised PFIs for the gravy train they were might or should give back their profits, you're barking up the wrong tree. It certainly wouldn't happen the other way round. No, instead, take the lessons identified, and try to turn them into lessons learned.

For everyone else. If you want to make your millions, find something the Government want, whether it's hospitals, houses or ostrich feathers. Spend all you can afford on a proper lawyer to draw up the contract - it'll be the best money you've ever spent. As you kick back and relax in your Gulfstream 6, mopping your brow with £50 notes, remember who told you so; because, late, over estimate, not to spec, not fit for purpose, whatever crap you turn out, it seems for the moment at least, the Government is still paying out. Just get in on the act before Dave and co get round to hiring someone competent to write their contracts.

Monday, 24 January 2011

Economies of Scale?

Today I'm going to bang on about relative scales of budgetary tightness. It's a phenomenon I have noticed over the past few years, and one that has been brought to light in particular by a comment I heard today. I think it is easiest to explain by means of an example what I mean:

If you're buying a house, people move prices up and down in the thousands. So a bit of a move in the market and Johnny Estate Agent proclaims the asking price for the house you're looking at has gone up £5,000 or £10,000. No-one bats an eyelid. Once you're up over £200,000 (and I'm talking London prices not UK averages so it's a perfectly reasonable price to discuss), we deal in big numbers. Big. And we're fine with it. No-one puts a house on the market for £273,425. Maybe £275,00, but once we go above £300,000, we only deal in £10,000 multiples.

Then you buy a second hand car, and you might be in the £10,000 region. You'll probably look to get a bit off. You'll feel quite good about yourself if you get it for £9,000, and not too bad if it's £9,700 after the dealer insists it's a bargain.

When you buy a new washing machine, you wait for the January sales if the old one can last that long. Then you can get a £400 one for £300.

When you're in a restaurant, you feel comfortable ordering a bottle of passable Rioja for £20 that retails in Oddbins for £7, but you'd feel miffed if the same bottle was the cheapest on the menu at £24.

Now the obvious link here is percentages - this much hasn't escaped me. It is the idea that if you have got a certain percentage off, it was a good investment. Whether or not you really needed it, or whether it was correctly priced in the first place is rather a secondary consideration. I believe this is the entire idea behind the January sales.

However, what still escapes me, is how the same person can make all the above transactions in a year and only concentrate on the percentages. The £300,000 house moving up to £310,00 is a 3.33% price rise. The discount on the car from £10,000 to £9,700 is 3%. The January sales washing machine reduced from £400 to £300 is a 25% discount. The more marked up Rioja from £20 to £24 is a 20% increase.

Ultimately it all comes out of the same bank account. Just because the numbers are bigger with the house, so the percentages smaller why consider each £1 more you spend there any less important than on the car transaction? If there was a small scratch on the rear bumper you'd be asking for £100 off, so why only deal in £1,000s or £5,000s on the house. That said, if one of two similar washing machines was £30 dearer, that would probably make your decision for you. So maybe the scratch on the car should be £130 off, or £70 off? But then if we can go one way or another for £30 on the washing machine, what's £4 on a bottle of wine? Yet people get tighter the smaller the amount of money involved, yet when you talk about large chunks of their life savings, they willingly spend like a Labour Government in a pre-election budget.

I'm not saying it is wrong that people deal in larger numbers as the asking price of the item increases relatively. I just find it interesting that even when it's all coming out of the same pot, the same person who bought the house for £10,000 more than he was planning and didn't really mind, who just bought a plate of £3 chips he didn't eat, still won't buy an iPhone app he really wants for £1.79, because "it's a bit expensive"...

Saturday, 22 January 2011

The Illusion of Security

Today, I am a touche rouge. Clearly yesterday I was a little lacklustre in the repeated application of my sun tan lotion / sun screen / cooking oil. Hey ho, I have no-one to blame but myself. So, I am not going to rant about it, as uncomfortable as it might make my shoulders feel. No, it simply reminded of a sun cream-related incident last year.

I was heading off on holiday with my long-suffering partner. We had some time booked basking in the Greek sun, and bags packed, had headed to the airport. The airport in question, was London Gatwick. London Gatwick, only slightly less tenuous than London Luton, London Stanstead, or the biscuit-taking, London Oxford. With the advent of HS2 I assume we can all expect flights to be advertised to London Birmingham before long. I digress…

Fool that I am, in my packing frenzy I had placed sun cream in my hand luggage. Two 200ml Nivea sun creamy spray things if I remember correctly. Now I'll admit I wasn't in a fantastic mood having queued for an hour like cattle, then being ordered to remove my dangerous looking shoes (flip flops) and assume a recognised stress position whilst being touched up by a failed police officer. I used to travel a lot with work, so I increasingly resented the portions of my life that I was never going to get back which were stolen from me going through (the illusion of) security. So I was not incredibly happy realising I was the architect of my further misery at wasting the best part of 20 sheets on sun cream I couldn't take through. Of course the staff are always only too happy to offer you the option of going back and checking your contraband in too. Two extra pieces of luggage, or one if I found some sellotape (£60), queued at check in for another hour, and then at 'security' for another hour (missed flight, £500). I don't know what Christmas Day is like at the house of the chap who went through my bag, but I can only imagine it has never been better than that moment. The look on his face as he got to confiscate my deadly sun cream, you would think he had just won the lottery. Simple things...

Still, my fault, and all in the interests of my own safety. Probably. Now I have a few points I am planning on making in this post which fall out of this overly-wordy but typical introduction. The first, I have already alluded to; the illusion of safety that these checks provide. Anyone who has driven around the west side of the M25 in rush hour will tell you, the best place from which to bring a passenger plane from Heathrow down, is the big bush by the lay-by just short of junction 15. It is not Terminal 5. All of these commuters sit and watch 30 planes an hour climb at tediously slow speeds and still relatively low heights above them as they sit in the big circular car park that is the M25. This point all comes down to technology. I hope there aren't too many surface to air missiles in the country out of the control of the proper authorities, but I am not so naive to think that with a UK border more porous than a PG Tips tea bag, if someone with enough means wanted one, they would not be able to get one.

So then we ask how they might do this and what we're doing to stop it. You can't walk a basic bomb onto a plane anymore (thanks to security measures) like you can a tube or bus (as well we know). That's a good thing, I am sure. However, going a touch more sophisticated, you can still shoot them down (see above) pretty easily given the means. One hopes the security services are onto 'the chatter' on those ones. Then even less crude, there are super clever bomb things like the chewing gum from Mission Impossible.

Now forgive me for making light of this area, but weapons development is a big market. As much as I always want us to win, I sometimes wonder what chance we have in the fight. There are a lot of people with a lot of reasons to want planes to blow up in the west; be they terrorists who are rather into that, companies who make money out of world conflict, or countries looking to alter the balance of power, there is no shortage and many other categories. The point is, when you wander through security you don't look at the staff and wonder whether they've just quit the SAS because it wasn't hardcore enough, or have just beaten Jack Bauer in an arm-wrestling and menacing whispering contest. You think McDonalds have been down-sizing.

As illustration of the skills of these employees I will take you about 5 hours later in my story. After suitably embarrassing myself (and my partner) with my tantrum over losing my sun cream we went to Greece. On unpacking my hand luggage I found a knife. A big, hard, shiny, metal knife. Attached to a big, hard, shiny, metal corkscrew. I can't remember when I put it in there, but there is was. I imagine about 2 inches of sharp steel and a 3 inch corkscrew. And again, metal. Not hemp. Yes, so avidly had the chap been searching for a bottle of water or sun cream (the easy wins) that he and his colleagues missed a deadly weapon. One that would be pretty handy in a hijack situation were the mood to take me.

So there you have the first couple of points about airport security. Someone can surely beat the passenger security measures; the desire and the money are probably both out there waiting to find the capability. Or cheaper than shooting it down or developing an undetectable explosive a passenger can take through, one could abuse a number of other avenues: Lesser security measures in other countries (cf Yemen); the thoroughly lax security employees experience air-side; or the legal liquid carry-on (as this lot did). My final point is on just that - the legal carry-on limit.

I am not a physicist, chemist, or weaponeer. So, I can't say this absolutely, but I'm going to take a punt anyhow and risk someone explaining to me why I am wrong. I am not entirely convinced that 101ml is the critical minimum limit for a liquid explosive. That is, I think a bomb made of 100ml of explosives will probably be as fatal as one constituting 101ml. Maybe because the legal limit of 100ml is a round number, maybe because I've seen too many films where we are told a teaspoon of 'this' can level a city block, maybe because I am an enduring cynic. Why I can't take 150 ml of something through, in one bottle, or 50ml in a 1/4 filled 200 ml bottle when Linda Lipstick behind me can take 22 100ml bottles crammed into her clear bag is beyond me. If you don't check all of the liquids, surely my 150ml or 50ml of potential nitro-glycerine poses slightly less of a threat that Linda's 2.2 litres?

Now I'm not saying test everyone's liquids and delay us all further, but at least that would make sense as a policy. This half-way house of arbitrary rules is just annoying - make your minds up. On a side note, the pharmaceuticals industry is cleaning up with its overpriced new 100ml bottles. There's a conspiracy theory in there somewhere...

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Money For Nothing

Today we are going to talk economics. Not Keynesian, nowhere near that level, we're going down to the Daily Hate Mail level. There is a section of society that is disgustingly privileged. They earn disproportionate amounts of money in relation to society and probably to their talent. They do this in a very short time. They then retire early to their various chalets and villas around the world in their Ferraris and Astons funded by you and me, John and Jane Q. Taxpayer. What did they do for this money? It's often very hard to say. They get headhunted from rival firms for vast quantities and get paid enormous amounts of cash. If that firm goes under because of their underperformance, they then move on for another astonishing fee to earn yet more money. They hide most of their money away from the taxman, despite apparently being a proud constituent part of this country, and pay less to HMRC than Wee Jock Poo Pong McPlop, of Scottish loo cleaning fame. Every now and again for a bit of good publicity they do a little charity work which equates to the third Monday in December's pay, but we all suspect it's probably a tax break. Despite ultimately failing on a regular basis, Britain somehow keeps them employed.

You're thinking bankers aren't you? Nope. Perhaps you're thinking rock stars from the picture, but you'd be wrong again. On a side note, Dire Straits are possibly the best ever product of the UK. I just used them because the title of their 1988 Greatest Hits Album worked wonderfully for this evening's post. Anyway, I'm not actually talking about any of those lot. No, the introduction was a cunning draw, to get you full of the fervent 'let's string the bankers up' vitriol that we in Britain love so much. This evening's short (it's all relative) post is about footballers.

Examine the first paragraph again and have a think if Premiership footballers do not fall under every category I mentioned. There are a couple of major differences. Firstly, we apparently love footballers, but hate bankers. Footballers are great. Brilliant role models (as discussed here); cheating on wives, generally with the partners of their friends, gambling away millions, taking drugs and disrespecting every possible position of authority. And getting paid 4 times the national yearly wage every week for it. Luckily, they pump so much of it back into society. Yup, the mean streets of Liverpool, Manchester and London are so much better off for the money paid back (because it is back, the money all comes from them through tickets, shirts and tv deals) by the likes of Gerrard, Rooney and Cole. Oh sorry, my mistake, they didn't actually give any of it back really, did they? If not to their towns, at least to English football? Nope, just cruises, foreign cars, tattoos and fat old hookers (every little helps eh, Wayne?)

Forgive me for going off on my tangent, but talking about this lot leave a rather sour taste in my mouth. There are a couple of Premiership footballer group sex jokes in there somewhere but I think I'll rise above it. The second way they differ is that they didn't 'cause' the international recession of 2008-10 and onwards like the bankers did. Now on that one, you have me. I'm not going to go into the parts about how Governments could perhaps have been better prepared for the bad times (cf. Aesop's Fable 'The Ant and the Grasshopper'). My point is on the remunerative scales of bankers and footballers.

Let's just, for argument's sake, agree that they both fit in the first paragraph. That is, they both apparently are good, we can't do without them, but sometimes they are totally crap. Bankers seem to have at least worked some of this into their remuneration packages. You get a basic salary, and a bonus which is performance-related. Now some argue these bonuses are too short-termist, rewarding short term profit that may in the long run prove a terrible loss for the company. They have a point, but at least there is some kind of performance-related pay system. If you are rubbish, you get at most your basic with no bonus, and possibly the sack.

In football, you get bought for eleventy million pounds from one club by another (probably backed as a pet project by a rich foreigner these days). You sign a multi-year contract worth, let us say £60,000 a week. In this example, we only play for England A, or are a promising young prospect, so we get paid a pittance. Relatively speaking. If we get injured, we get £60,000 a week. If we smash 5 own goals past our goalkeeper to send us tumbling out of the multi-million pound earning Champions' League, we get £60,000 that week too.

Now I know we're talking about two terribly different businesses, but you must admit there are a lot of similarities. There are issues within the banking industry, but if nothing else, know that in this country we need a banking industry, and a strong one, as we need water and air. It was never more true than now with the industrial capacities of the emerging nations eclipsing our manufacturing or service sectors. For all the ills of the banking industry, the utterly morally corrupt football business in this country could at least learn to move towards balanced books by adopting one of their policies; performance-related pay. Then at least when England crash out in the quarter finals of the next tournament to Luxembourg, you know they only got a paltry £10,000 for that week. These small victories...

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

M.Gove B+ : Good Ideas But Must Pay Attention to Detail

Today I'm going to harp on about education. Now I've spoken about it lots before (here), so you might remember my general feelings towards the state of education in this country. If you wish to refresh yourselves (obviously you never miss a post, so it would just be revision), feel free to read my previous articles. If you fancy the 30 second precis, here it is: Children are not getting more intelligent. Grades are being massaged to suggest they are, both in making exams easier and creating useless qualifications. End product recipients of the 'educated' agree with me. In chasing pointless targets we are failing our youth by not educating them properly. Massively increased spending has been all but wasted. We should probably address this.

I'm going to look at the biggest two New Year Education Resolutions we have seen so far: the introduction of the English Baccalaureate and the scrapping of Education Maintenance Allowance. They bring out some interesting points on Government policy in general, and Opposition policy in general (they do have one, I promise), as well as the specifics of the Coalition's education policy.

EMA first. Now the scrapping of EMA is the right decision, and it is nice to see someone as logical and plain talking as Michael Gove explain to the petulant children (Labour benches, not the protesting 6th formers) why. Naturally Labour, in form of shadow Education Secretary Andy Burnham, have decried this as "an attack on the aspirations of young people" and stated that because of it social mobility will be "thrown into reverse."

After Mr Burnham had sat back down, and been soothed with a cup of warm milk, Mr Gove kindly explained the teensy error in his argument. As with many Labour policies, this was delivered in a fanfare of publicity, but was not thought out. The grant is "poorly targeted", Gove explained. Firstly, statistics from his department suggested 90% of recipients would have continued in education without the handout (though we shouldn't rely on these totally). Secondly, your average 16 year old is not generally known as the most prudent of individuals when it comes to distributing his or her wealth. Just chucking over half a billion quid a year at the youf of today and asking them to spend it on books and calculators seems unlikely to have a high success rate. I'm sure lots of the kids did use the money for its intended use, but isn't there an Education Secretary whose job it is to spend the department's money in the best interests of the children? Perhaps, given the disdain with which Labour have shown the post, running through 6 Education Secretaries in one form or another in 13 years, they thought one of the fabulously well-educated GCSE students they created could do a better job?

Now I promised you the sole recognisable Labour policy in Opposition: "All cuts are wrong. Everyone's a victim. They're mean. We're lovely. Have some cash I don't have." Told you they had one. Gove calmly countered, "if we really believe in generating social mobility in this country then the question we have to ask ourselves is - how is every pound best invested?" Therein he strikes the nail squarely about its head. Labour's policy of throwing money around to buy votes has done nothing for social mobility, which apparently they champion. Cutting funding for something that does very little is not a bad thing, I mention it from time to time (here). As he elaborated, "you cannot spend money you do not have." Try telling Gordon that. So the cutting of EMA, whilst it deprives some students of a few pounds which helped their education, in reality frees up hundreds of millions of pounds to be better spent on those same children and many more.

So that's the standard 'I agree with the Tories' part, but I also have some criticism for them, and it's over the Ebacc. Now before you hurl your computer out of the window asking how I can possibly be against such a policy when it appears the embodiment of so much of my education-based anger, I'm not against Ebacc. I think it is a great idea. I deplore the move away from Mathematics to Numeracy, from English to Literacy and the invasion of pseudo-subjects and the ludicrous nature of their apparent equality with real subjects - most of it encouraged by Labour's meaningless targets. Richard Cairns, Headmaster of Brighton College mentions a few of these in his article for the Telegraph (here), with which I generally agree (we differ in that I don't think a 'creative' subject should be included in the core of Ebacc - there are some useful ones out there, but they are not for all students in the same way as the fundamentals included in the Ebacc should be). A classic he quotes is the award of the equivalent of 4 GCSEs for an intermediate GNVQ in Information and Communications Technology, a class that takes only as much time to teach as the single GCSE Maths course.

So if I agree with all that, what is there to disagree with, you might ask? You might not. You might know. Or maybe you're reading Cairns' piece because it's better written. Well if you're still with me, it is the implementation, as we have seen with a few Coalition policies, which has left something to be desired. On some policies, in a bid to a) do a lot quickly because lots of things are in a terrible state and b) to be seen to be doing a lot quickly to prove they were the right choice and are working, the Coalition have perhaps moved too quickly (now I realise nobody actually voted for a Coalition, but I think a Tory majority Government would also have fallen into this same trap, if it can be called such). This impetuousness has left a couple of obstacles over which they have obligingly (for Labour) tripped. Statements have come out in a hurry, then had to be clarified, and not all bases have been covered from the inevitable policy dissection.

The screw-up on Ebacc is typical of this, and I must say well illustrated in Cairns' article. The Government are applying it retrospectively, meaning students who chose fluffier subjects, before Ebacc was a twinkle in Gove's eye, will now be judged by its standards. This obviously screws a lot of kids who could have had no idea of some future policy and now have ostensibly failed the Ebacc. It also screws up the league tables as over a hundred excellent independent schools had already taken matters into their own hands and had their students take the more rigorous International GCSE in subjects such as Maths. Labour had refused to accredit this qualification, and rightly the Coalition have said they will overturn this rubbish decision. However, they have not done it in time so the Maths GCSE taken by thousands of children has not counted, instantly disqualifying them from attaining the Ebacc, and putting excellent institutions at the foot of the tables with a 0% pass rate.

Now I don't mind that the league tables don't make much sense this year; the introduction of Ebacc rather illustrates they haven't made much sense for a while. However, the children should not be punished. Gove must right this wrong. The only possible positive the Tories can take from applying Ebacc from this year is that the headline number of only a 15% pass spectacularly unmasks the dumbing down of GCSEs. Even after the scores of those who were excluded because they took harder exams (IGCSE) are taken into account, it shows how many schools push their students to high mark, low value subjects.

So there you have it: some very positive movement from the Government on education, which they rightly see as the key to so many of society's ills, but they have not passed with flying colours. Gove must see the error in retrospective application of Ebacc for what it is lest a policy with great potential gets lost in negative publicity stories. It should also serve as a caution to the Government for 'more haste less speed' in all policy. Wanting to get quickly to work is both admirable and probably necessary for a Government with undoubtedly one eye already on the next election, but more care must be taken. Luckily, Labour are sticking with barnacle-like adhesion to their sole policy of opposing any cut with the same old financially-ignorant mantra. If they keep going, and Gove and the Coalition tighten their game, he may get to see the fruits of his education policies in a second term in Government.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Ungainfully Employed?

You will have to forgive the slightly dated nature of some of these posts, but I stored up a few bits and bobs before I left, knowing getting hold of current news in deepest darkest Africa might be slightly tricky. So today, a little note on a couple of people not gainfully employed, but paid by you and me nonetheless. Yup, they are a couple of Labour frontbenchers, and quite high up the tree. In McDonalds terms they might have upward of three gold stars on their badges.

Labour have been decrying every Government policy the Coalition have produced, with little positive to put forward in the way of alternatives - I've mentioned this a couple of times. The Employers' Charter is no different in that respect. Coming out in opposition to this planned legislation, The Other Miliband recently held a press conference stating "the first thing Mr Cameron should be addressing at his meeting today is the risk of a lost generation of young people in this country." A bold call. Rather like suggesting the Coalition should busy themselves with fixing the financial mess the country is in, he does rather run the risk of someone pointing out why there was a problem in the first place. A "lost generation", well how long is a generation these days? I reckon 13 years isn't too wide of the mark. That number seem familiar?

Now I am also not surprised that Miniband is toeing the same line as the Trade Unions, who are naturally screaming blue murder and threatening strikes (do they do anything else?). After all, they own him, having put him into post ahead of his far more popular and politically astute brother thanks to the bizarre voting system Labour have. He, therefore, has to oppose any measure which might make employing people less of a burden and so help ease Britain out of the recession Labour helped it into. Why? - because as sensible as it may sound to a level-headed person, that measure is 'an attack on the working classes' as I am sure we shall be told. Again and again.

The other front bencher has it seems taken up the reins of the Harriet Harman Girl Power Chariot. You know the one - it careers all over the place supposedly championing women but ultimately doing them no favours at all by the utterly bonkers arguments behind all of its utterings. Yvette Cooper-Balls has suggested that women will likely be hit hardest by the Employers' Charter because of their shorter than average employment. She rattles on "the Government is already hitting women the hardest in their pockets through cuts in child benefit and child tax credit. Now these plans look likely to hit hardest at women's jobs, because women are more likely to be in shorter term employment."

The bit she's talking about is the extension from 1 to 2 years employment for an employee to be able to claim wrongful dismissal and the introduction of fees for bringing claims to court under said charge. Theses are not drastic measures, but designed to stop the relentless weight of spurious litigation from shoddy short term employees. Ask employers if they think this is right. Ask business. In fact, ask the majority of dutiful and normal workers. Their wages are lower because their companies have to find the funds to either fight these people or pay them off.

Yvette's statement is utter balderdash for a couple of reasons. Firstly, Yvette has fallen into the same trap as her predecessor in supposing that if any one part of society loses out thanks to a particular policy, that policy must have targeted them and be totally unfair. It is co-incidental that women are in shorter term employment, this however is a policy that has nothing to do with women. It has everything to do with relieving pressures on the private sector - the only thing that can save us from a sovereign debt crisis. As I have blogged before (here), we all know the scales have tipped too far in the direction of employees.

Secondly, apparently cutting child benefit and child tax credit is an attack on women. That seems a little odd to me. I would have thought, the clue being in the title, that both benefits were targeted at funding children, not women. So I would naturally assume the only people you could say a cut in those benefits would affect would be children, or perhaps families if we extended it a little. You might be forgiven for thinking that Ms Cooper-Balls is suggesting having children gives women money, either that or I have totally misunderstood the principles behind the creation of those benefits. Now no Labour Government would ever have a policy like that would they?

Monday, 17 January 2011

"The Public Sector: Wasting Your Money So You Don't Have To"

I hinted yesterday that I might one day post on the topic of public sector slogans. That day has come. Hooray. Yes, today we shall look at one of the most overt displays of contempt for taxpayers which the public sector manages to pull off every day. The embodiment of all that is wasteful, pointless and unaccountable about so much in our public sector are the ridiculous slogans, or tag lines that accompany their titles.

Let's see what we're dealing with here by looking at some examples. From Police forces various:
"Serving our communities, protecting them from harm"; "Protecting our communities by reducing crime and antisocial behaviour"; "Keeping our communities safe and reassured". Specifically from Northumbria Police: "Total Policing". From Kent Police: "Protecting and serving the people of Kent".

Let's look outside the police, major culprits though they are, they are not alone. My local authority, South Oxford District Council: "Listening, Learning, Leading". Wandsworth Council: "The brighter borough, number one for service and value". Department for Transport: "Working to deliver a transport system which balances the needs of the economy, the environment and society."

So we have the police, various local government bodies and even central government. Now what do all of these august institutions have in common? They don't sell. Anything. And yet they advertise using our money. If you get mugged, the police who turn up will be the ones (if they bother) who have responsibility for the area you are in. You don't get to call in your preferred police force; the ones with the best crime detection rate or the prettiest police officers. If you buy a house you will pay non-negotiable tax to the council in whose district you find yourself. You can't ask the neighbouring council to collect your bins because they collect them weekly as opposed to fortnightly. Likewise, whilst you may choose the airline or train company you use, the DFT is all-encompassing. You can't opt out, they have a say over all the roads, all the railways etc.

So why on God's green earth are they trying to sell themselves? Why advertise when you have nothing to gain from it? I get why Nokia are "connecting people", why American Express suggest you should "never leave home without it". Advertising is, broadly speaking, there to increase your market share by increase in product or brand awareness in a competitive market. It's not just business that advertise though - the armed forces all have tag lines because they're competing to sign up people from the same target audience. UK political parties have them because there is a choice there. However, if you're the only option, it's either an exercise in futility (as the police/local council examples are), or part of a wider brainwashing program (Hitler or Pol Pot campaigning and advertising whilst representing the only legal parties).

So let us have an end to this expensive, pointless rubbish (not all of local government, tempted though I am - just the advertising part). Let the police have just that on their cars and letterheads. We know what they're meant to do, they're the police; if anything they aren't helping themselves with these slogans by pointing out jobs they often fail to do. Again, as with all these waste issues, when the strikes come around or complaints at budget cuts, remember where they choose to spend our money first. You can bet your bottom dollar all you will hear is "there will have to be cuts to front line services". What price the announcement "we might have to get rid of our stupid slogan, or at least stop changing it every 3 years"? Thought not...

Sunday, 16 January 2011

Moving Swiftly On...

You must forgive my absence from the keyboard; I am 'travelling'. A most enlightening experience it is too. Not in the 'gap yah' sense of the word, but with work. My next few posts will be from abroad as I struggle with the somehow ludicrous expense of wishing to access the World Wide Web from, well, the wide world. You might think that this post will focus on the profiteering telecoms companies who charge eleventy million pounds to call, text or access data abroad. There might well be such a post in the future, because as you know I am not one who likes the general populace to be taken for a ride, but today is not that day. Today, we will discuss (I will speak, no-one will listen), speed cameras and the police.

More specifically, I suppose we are discussing the role of both of them in society. That is, their duties to their employers (us - John and Jane Q. Taxpayer), and the reasoning behind the way they discharge their duties. Yes, after a couple of days of sweating on planes, trains and automobiles (actually no trains, but you see what I did there), I have arrived with a desire to blog about something totally disparate to my current situation, but one that came up in conversation down route.

Now I was spurred on to finally blog about a subject, with which I have bored many of my friends, by a recent news article. Being a generally 3-7 times a week blogger I will generally be a little behind most stories. As it is I am still prioritising the venting of my ire at some New Year idiocy, but I figured this one should jump the queue a little. I speak today of the conviction of 64 year old Michael Thompson for obstructing a police officer. How? Did he block the path of a bobby chasing a fleeing felon, stolen handbag in tow? Or perhaps lie to send said bobby up the wrong street in pursuit of aforementioned criminal? Nope, flashed his lights at an oncoming car to warn of a police speed trap.

So we have a police service and crown prosecution service petty enough, and a Grimsby Magistrate stupid enough to think a crime has been committed here. Not just a crime, but a crime worth the costs of the prosecution. Taxes paid for the salaries of every fool involved in this. They paid for every expense said fools incurred whilst on this case. They paid for the court room. They paid for the PR officer desperately trying to make it not look as pathetic and wrong as it is. Yup, we paid for all this crap. The way we throw around money that isn't ours (the public sector), you'd think we had a surplus not a deficit.

So let's look into the two main parts of this farce I wish to discuss. Firstly, speed cameras, and secondly the police.

Speed cameras; I am not the first, I shall not be the last. If their job is to prevent speeding (as claimed), one should rejoice if they collected no income. If nobody sped past them, we have won the 'War on Speed', which makes for better reading than the whole 'Terror' one which is on most optimistic reading, a score draw. Point being, pressure has made the police signpost fixed speed cameras and mark them with shiny yellow bits. Yes, people got annoyed at the stealth nature of a policy that if it stuck to the principles on which it was voted for, would have given us 20' high, luminous pink cameras blaring out Roberta Flack's "Fast Car". Her melancholy verse alone would have got us all slowing down and thinking about life and thus saving it. So we are warning people to slow down, so why prosecute a man for doing the same? I could go on about the nature of speed cameras, and given a dry news month, I probably will, but the argument is very simple.

Further arguments on why else this conviction was utter hoop shouldn't be required, but apparently are. First off, Thompson's defence of flashing because he wished to alert motorists to a potential threat holds much water. He stated he had previously been involved in a crash where an unseen speed trap caused the motorist in front of him to brake very sharply. He braked and stopped in time, but the chap behind did not and hit him. We've all seen it. People driving at 45 in a 50 instinctively braking on seeing a speed camera despite driving legally. They get quite close to you. I will wager if all the cars in the UK were placed on all the roads, spaced out at the correct stopping distances from each other at the relevant speeds for those roads, some of us would have to leave our cars at home. Speed traps do cause braking, which can cause accidents, and in this case Mr Thompson did what he though right. The fact is he should never have had to resort to this defence.

The second obvious flaw in the conviction is that there is no way anyone can prove he prevented the detection of a crime. The oncoming cars were not stopped for speeding. They may not have been speeding. They may have been. Doesn't matter, as previous judgements have dictated, if you don't know someone is going to commit a crime, how can anyone else be prosecuted for obstructing the police from catching someone perpetrating said imaginary future crime? All gets a little Minority Report for my liking.

On a side note, the fine Mr Thompson paid included a £15 victim surcharge. Did they just use it to buy doughnuts for the poor policemen who didn't get to catch a speeding motorist?

So we have discussed briefly that speed cameras are supposed to be there to stop speeding not to catch it. We have discussed that the police and judicial system involved in this could be better employed unemployed because they're morons. So now I move onto why the police were there in the first place.

I shall start with a case study, and a confession. I have 3 points on my licence. If you feel the need to stop reading because you feel reading and agreeing with this would be like reading Mein Kampf and nodding sagely, I understand. I am an enemy of the state. Probably not Public Enemy Number 1, but I like to think I'd make the UK Top 40, downloads and all.

I did 35 in a 30. Luckily I was stopped. By 5 policemen.

Yup, pulled over by a mobile speed trap operated by (I thought) a sole policeman, I was ushered into a side road by a second. There I saw three more, and three vehicles between them. I explained I had no particular reason for my immense speed but asked seeing as though I had no points and was only doing 35, if a warning might suffice. I was informed by the sergeant that he had no discretion available to him. After realising I was screwed anyway, I decided I may as well get my £60 worth. I asked him if he felt this was a worthwhile use of his time? No. If this was a worthwhile use of his many colleagues' time? No. If this was what he signed up to do? No. If they could all be better use to society elsewhere? Yes. I thanked the officer for his honesty, took my stupid ticket, explained why I was right to be "so embarrassing" to my better half, and drove home thinking of how to apologise to her later.

The police are trained at the UK taxpayers' expense because they are there to stop baddies doing things, or catch them once they have; an idea for a new £500,000 slogan perhaps (the subject of a post soon I feel). We are constantly bombarded with crime statistics - apparently more baddies, and fewer goodies to do the preventing/catching job. The police are up in arms and I imagine will probably march (the longest many of them will have ever spent on the streets) on Downing Street to complain at budget cuts soon enough. Yes, budget cuts = cuts to front line services. Now tell me if I'm wrong, but when asked (as a UK taxpayer) to prioritise which bad things I would like to see UK Police PLC stop, I would put traffic crime pretty low down. Certainly below murder, rape, violent crime, robbery, and pretty must the majority of crime that I can think of off the top of my head. So why are they so keen on traffic crime then?

Simple: It's simple (I have resisted saying 'and so are they', but only just). Yes, traffic crime is the slam dunk of all crimes, as open-shut as it gets. As soon as it is detected, it is prosecuted. You have the culprit, you don't need a motive, no investigation, no Colombo-esque "one last question" (why not ask that one first - the episodes could have been so much cheaper to make?), no wriggle room. Forgive the pun, but as quick as a flash you have the case solved. And £60.

In my mind, they are hot on this because a) it is the only crime which pays (who ever said it didn't), and b) it's the easiest stat to log. In a police world mired in red tape and prosecution or detection targets (thanks mostly but not exclusively to Labour) where stats are king, when you have a crime that takes the shutter speed to detect and an envelope and a stamp to process, it makes sense to put your men on a bridge over the A40 rather than work out who killed the person lying under it. The latter might take a while, and it's still just one conviction at the end of the day.

So, where for the police? The Tories have suggested they are planning on removing much of this red tape and get bobbies back out on the beat. Good luck to them; they will have their work cut out. I would go further though. I would not pay for someone to be taught how an entire bank worked and then get them to open the door for customers. So why would I pay for full police training for them to sit at the side of a road with a camera?

After someone finally mans up and tells us exactly why we have speed cameras and exactly their impact (not anecdotal evidence that could be attributed to a myriad of reasons), we need a new strategy. If cameras are to stay, but are deemed not enough, the British Transport Police can be expanded. They can have a traffic division. No need to teach them how to document a breaking and entering case, no need to teach them to deal with the victims of assault, just sit them at the side of a road with a fancy hairdryer. The envelope and stamp can do the rest, and then maybe the police can get on with their real jobs. If cuts to police funding means cuts to front line services, bring on the cuts because this service can happily go. The only thing front line about it is the cost to all of us.

Friday, 14 January 2011

Some of Us Are All in This Together

On the radio a couple of days ago, I listened to some wonderful reverse snobbery. Apparently the "we are all in this together" slogan of the Conservatives is misplaced. That is, apparently, because the Tories are all fabulously rich beyond our wildest dreams, and they burn the poor for fuel on their open log fires in their enormous castles, they can't really say it. Because they're not 'in it' with us. They're not poor, so have no right whatsoever to talk about what the poor might be experiencing in these straightened times. So because David Cameron has unlikely filled up his own car on a forecourt recently he cannot talk about the pain of rising fuel prices.

Unsurprisingly, this leftist dictum came from a BBC radio station, the neutral press we fund and love.

Bizarrely, it is absolutely fine for the man on the street to have his say on how we should be taxing millionaire bankers. No-one raises an eyebrow at that. Why? Because in modern Britain it is ok to slag off from below. If you're poorer / lower class / a minority of some sort you are allowed to have a pop at anyone who is richer / higher class / a majority. Now that's society in general, and it's true.

Radical Islam can say all it wants negatively about Christianity, but my, oh my must Christians in a Christian country be careful what is said in reply. It's fine to bash someone for attending Eton or Oxbridge, but could you imagine how it would play for an old Etonian to criticise someone for their poor schooling? Or alternatively it is positively accepted that one can criticise the aristocracy for their airs and graces and pampered lifestyles that they enjoy because of the chance of their birth into such a family. Now think of the public uproar to a member of the landed gentry criticising the lowly birth of someone born into a sink estate. Reverse snobbery is a dangerous thing, and never more so than in Government. It leads to the politics of class envy, about which I have said a little before (here and here).

The idea of Government in a democracy is instead of 65 million people all voting on everything (you'd need a bigger House of Parliament for one, and probably a bigger Speaker of said House - you simply wouldn't see him), they all get to vote in representatives. It is that last word that is being mis-represented here. The politicians sent to Parliament are there to represent the views of the constituency that voted for them. That is, firstly by their political colouring their views will broadly represent the views of the majority of people in that area, and secondly they will then represent their constituents in Parliament, by which I mean speak up for them.

Now only a fool would think everyone in a constituency is the same. Therefore one man or woman cannot actually be all things to all men. He (for ease) cannot be rich and poor, black and white, a banker and builder. The essence of democracy though is she (for balance) will do all they (grammatical compromise) can for all of those people that they represent. To suggest that a politician cannot represent the views of someone to whom they are not identical (i.e. physically represent) is farcical. If you genuinely believe that, you have an issue with the deepest concepts of democracy and of the British political system.

So, let us have no more of this idiocy. Would it be wrong for a Labour MP who came from a council estate, worked his way up say a transport union before standing for Parliament to sit on a committee deciding on bankers' bonuses? Would it be wrong for him to say how these people, with whom he shares perhaps little and has little experience, should live? Of course not, because he is an elected representative of the nation.

Government is not about having one person in government to represent each type of person in the country - you simply couldn't do it. It's about picking the people who will do the best for everyone, irrespective of their means, background, race, religion, sex, the lot. Therefore the Tories have every right to talk about all being in this together, rich or not. You wouldn't accept Labour politicians being criticised for speaking about private schools when they went to state schools. That said, it wouldn't just be because it would be politically incorrect, but because these days it wouldn't be correct at all, independently-schooled and Oxbridge-educated as most of them are now. Goes to show education isn't that much of an advantage in life - just look where you might end up…

Thursday, 13 January 2011

I Am Not Alone in Thinking

Well it seems I am not alone in my frustrations over both Simon Hughes and his daft university quota (here), nor on the nation wrapping itself in petty bureaucracy (here). The usually too right wing for my tastes, the Telegraph's Simon Heffer also has his doubts over Hughes (here). On the very next page of the same paper, the level-headed Philip Johnston also laments the state of the nation (here).

Were my modesty to allow I would almost think Simon Heffer and Philip Johnston had been reading my blog. Probably not though. But they're worth a read if you thought somewhere in my interminable, multi-comma'd sentences, there was a point. See what the professionals say about it all...

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

New Year Sledging

Yesterday I got rather carried away and posted twice (though there was a healthy sleep in between the posts). I had been attempting to blog daily since my second wind came at New Year. Unfortunately, the final touches to my price rises blog took me just past midnight. Perhaps it is as well that I failed only a week or so; the more I built it up, the harder the blow of my eventual failure would have been to my fragile confidence.

I simply couldn't resist because I have rather a lot of 'material'. It seems the people in life who irk me have also received a New Year second wind. I suppose I should keep a couple of them back for the bad times (the good times) when nothing is that irritating and when I might actually have to accede to a request for an overwhelmingly positive post. The English are often at their happiest when all around them is in ruin, so they can get a good moan on. Think how down in the dumps English cricket critics must be now.

Today's short intrusion into your spare time is about a couple of news stories of the last week or so. They are quite different scenarios, but what exercises me about both is common ground. The first: a near octogenarian being ejected from a shopping centre for taking pictures of shoppers for use on his Christmas cards and postcards. The second: a design technology teacher being sacked for bringing in a sledge to class as an example of good engineering and letting a couple of children (who just survived the terrible ordeal) use said sledge on a snow-covered bank. The second allowed me the pleasure of my sledging pun, for which I am almost grateful to Cefn Hengoed Community School, Swansea. I have wanted to use it for ages...

Now I hope you know where I'm going with this. If not, you either haven't read anything I've written so far, or you think both of those cases are perfectly sensible. In the former case, that's totally understandable. If you like this one, feel free to scroll backwards, though not all at once or you might realise I only ever make roughly the same 2 or 3 points and just jiggle around the words, toss in the odd synonym, that sort of stuff. In the latter case, I might ask you also to scroll through my back catalogue in an effort to help you see the errors of your ways, but I think you are probably beyond my average-at-best powers of persuasion. Go work for your local council, they have plenty of spare cash for jobs for people just like you.

The folly behind both the ludicrous examples is twofold -

Firstly it is the risk-averse culture we have allowed to develop. The culture that would rather be safe than sorry, or really just rather be safe. Safe from everything. Like life. The culture that behind every accident there is blame, and with it, a claim. It is this that makes it seem normal for schools to have to do a risk assessment on allowing children to decorate the school Christmas tree (branches poking eyes out, sharp broken baubles, and don't even get me started on using stepladders). This is also the culture that has allowed society to sleepwalk itself into a surveillance state. As Benjamin Franklin wrote, "those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary security, deserve neither liberty nor safety". This is the first folly, one of general acceptance in society that this is right, and the actual laws that have fallen out of this. In the second example these are the "Health and Safety" laws that Richard Tremelling was found guilty of breaching by the General Teaching Council for Wales. Yup, taxpayers' money well spent. Yes, the obviously overly-funded school which chose to dismiss a successful and innovative teacher via a costly disciplinary hearing stated "he failed to carry out the appropriate risk assessments and failed to provide a written risk assessment" and "he didn't ensure the pupils wore protective headgear and protective clothing." Crazy.

The second is even more annoying than the first. More infuriating than a crap rule is someone in an arbitrary position of power totally misunderstanding it and applying their version. There are no laws that ban you from taking photographs in a public area. You will no doubt have heard of breaches of this public freedom country-wide. From a parent banned from recording a school production, to a well-wisher being stopped taking photos of a military parade, you have heard all the excuses - "data protection", "human rights", "child protection", "anti-terrorism". All of them total bollocks. Take all the photos you want. In the first example this is demonstrated in the totally incorrect statements made by our noble police service that the 78 year old photographer was breaching anti-terrorism laws and must leave the area. Utter crap.

It is difficult to work out which is the worse problem: the malaise of society and the weakness of the judiciary that have allowed this malevolent, litigious culture to grow; or the eagerness with which the mentally sub-normal bizarrely in charge of much of this country seem to have grabbed it as a jolly good idea. Either way, David Cameron must deliver on ridding us of the pointless bureaucracy and regulation in which we are so mired. Maybe that would be a starting point for a widespread reset of the British psyche on norms, for we are way off track at the moment.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

The Wasted Excesses on Youth

I wanted here to provide a link to Iain Duncan Smith's commentary article in the Torygraph yesterday, but cannot find it for love nor money. In its absence I shall paraphrase: under Labour youth unemployment remained constant throughout 1997-2008 (until the recession) despite the booming economy. It then increased throughout the recession to its current levels. Youth unemployment is therefore not a recession only problem, but one Labour failed to address in 13 years. Instead they threw money at poorly designed headline policies, none of which made a significant impact. They now say cutting these policies (New Deal for Young People etc) is betraying British youth. In fact this is what they did. What the Coalition is doing is cutting the enormous waste here and starting a coherent policy in the form of the Work Programme, Universal Credit system and expansion of the New Enterprise Allowance. He sums up: "It isn't enough to say 'something must be done'. That approach saw billions spent over the past 13 years- money that could have made a real difference to young people's lives but was instead wasted on ill-thought through programmes."

The Labour attack on Coalition cuts to basically anywhere are pretty one-dimensional and require one to ignore a rather important premise for them to be considered sensible. The argument is always that any cut to funding anywhere is hurting someone and therefore the Coalition are mean and nasty. The premise that we are to ignore is that the extra funding they splashed around to buy votes and headlines actually did anything.

They don't want you to think about this. Why? Because the concept of doing more for less is not their thing; by political alignment they like doing less for more (Big Government), because it is what the Coalition are doing (who they must Oppose), and lastly, because it points out how the terrible deficit we are left with due to their spending wasn't even worth anything.

So, before we believe the Labour mantra, have a look at previous success rates, however the may be measured, look at the increased funding, then look at the current success rates. Do this in education, umemployment, health, welfare, anywhere. Then decide if removing funds from that area actually will hurt anything other than Labour's credibility.

Merry Christmas and an Expensive New Year

Quite a short one here, but thought with the backdrop of people complaining at tax rises it might be nice to put it all in perspective. No, I'm not planning on highlighting the plight of the poorer in far flung countries, it doesn't really soothe people. It's too far displaced, them and us, so one needs to present something closer, but worse. Actually it is not even someone else's plight in a slightly worse position I am trying to compare; no, instead I am comparing the causes of the belt tightening.

Now we know about the VAT rise, which I blogged about here, and the New Year increase in fuel duty which have been met with complaint. We know the VAT increase has added just over 2% to some items. The fuel duty perhaps another 1%. So fuel is the biggest riser at about 3%. We also have the general budget cuts which average out at about 5% per annum over the course of the Parliament. Now these numbers are quite small, but of course they must hurt a little and sometimes a lot. I shall not dispute this. I filled up my new grown-up family car yesterday and parted with nearly £100. I nearly cried. I suggested to the cashier that at least Dick Turpin wore a mask, but the blank expression informed me my rapier wit was lost on him. My experience will naturally be dwarved by some people's who are closer to the breadline and more dependent on newly dearer items. However, are these the real culprits behind the New Year's feeling of destitution?

I would say not. As, for example, the employees of the BBC who eat in the corporation's canteen found out these last couple of weeks, sellers all over the country have been hiking prices in the New Year. Perhaps to make up for the loss of profits on all those lovely Christmas sales prices, or just to regain equilibrium after the joyous and giving nature of the festive period, prices have taken a sharp rise. Perhaps they though nobody would notice because the holidays disrupted our thought processes. The BBC example is typical. The BBC canteen has increased prices by up to 25% on some items and on average 12.3%. Look around you, prices are soaring as people use the excuse of VAT or an increase in costs to mask massive price hikes...

O2 text message - up 20%
T Mobile text message - up 10%
Fitness First membership - up 25%
London Congestion Charge - up 25% (after a 60% rise a few years back)

Most of those were all nabbed from the Torygraph, but just check your bills for more examples - train fares (despite terrible service), energy bills, food prices, you name it. In particular it is the smaller items where this rounding up is more prevalent. One can quite easily add 2 or 4% to £1000. It's harder to do it to 10p, so screw it, make it 20%, what's 2p in total between friends? A bucketload when multiplied by the number of texts and users.

So, remember when you hear people complaining about a 2% VAT-induced rise or budget cuts, that that's not the full story; it's just the one that is easiest to score political points with, because it is the one the Government control. Next time you feel the need to lash out at the forces making you poorer, think perhaps of the energy giants increasing prices to boost bumper profits rather than a Government trying to repay someone else's debt to stop a nation going bankrupt.

Sunday, 9 January 2011

Simon Hughes: Moron or Machiavelli?

Perhaps in an attempt to temper his criticism of the Government's higher education policy, which I wrote about here, the Coalition have incorporated Simon Hughes into the fray as an advisor on the topic. This was probably a mistake for the Coalition and certainly for Nick Clegg, because Simon Hughes is either a moron or a Machiavellian. Either way, his presence and the populist decrees that come out of his mouth are as dangerous as they are foolish. I wonder though if he is genuinely trying to alter Government policy on higher education of if he is merely positioning himself as the next leader of the Lib Dems after the kicking he believes Nick Clegg is leading the party towards.

We shall get onto the whys and wherefores of Hughes' bizarre thoughts on higher education, but first let us look at what he says. Hughes has decided on two main threads to his argument, and it is hard to work out which is more idiotic.

1. That there should be quotas forced upon universities to limit the number of private-educated school children who are admitted.

2. That higher education has 'failed miserably' to take on a fair proportion of state school students.

In case you were uncertain of my views on this, on which side of the fence I sit, I consider this argument to be one of the most anti-aspirational, negative, idiotic, illogical and counter-productive you could ever conjure up.

Mr Hughes thinks that the private/state school-educated make-up of the student body in higher education should exactly mirror the private/state school-educated make-up of the country. So in his mind, we should go from over 25% to 7% - that is, remove over 18% of the students in higher education on the basis that they were private-educated and replace them with state-educated students. He thinks that this should be and will be enshrined in law, and that this will "allow the recruitment process to work better."

Now what does Mr Hughes mean by work better? On what fantastic advice has he decided that the best thing for UK PLC would be this exact quota of state- and private-educated students? I am sure he's done his research properly, for one would hate to think a Government advisor and deputy leader of one of the Governing parties would jump into such an important debate with just soundbites and votes in mind. It surely can't be possible that Hughes would spout some liberal nonsense to curry favour with the three or four remaining Lib Dem supporters knowing his twaddle to be ideologically pleasing to them but that it will ultimately be ignored because it is ill-thought out and utterly wrong for the country?

Let us be clear on one thing - there should be no quotas. Not just in education, but in everything, employment, the lot. They are insidious. It is the very essence of unfair discrimination. If you want the best, you need a meritocracy. If you go for a quota, you all but guarantee variance from meritocracy. They are evil and wrong. Clear?

On his second point, universities have not failed to take on enough state school students. I was at university a few years back and they were bending over backwards to encourage state school students to apply. Under the constant barrage from Government and press, Oxbridge in particular, I cannot imagine they have since receded from this stance. Ultimately what has failed is the state system. It has consistently failed to realise the potential of many if not most of its charges. Many state school students do well at school and subsequently at university. The problem are the very many who struggle to challenge academically from school, grade for grade, because of the failings of the state system. Hughes and his true yellow Lib Dem supporters, to whom he panders with this crap, are going down the same incorrect road travelled by the Labour Party.

Private schools are efficient. They do not always get the best raw product, but they are brilliant at unleashing their potential and marketing them. That's why they are still in business. This is admirable, not deplorable. It is what we would like the state school system to do too. To penalise those who can afford (or quirkily can't afford: the poor but talented who get bursaries at private schools would be penalised by this crap proposal) private education is utterly wrong, morally and logically. It is the politics of class envy (which I spoke about here and here), and can lead only to drag down those to whom we should aspire.

I could go on with how utterly idiotic this statement by Hughes is, but you get the idea. In summary - there's a reason we pay for higher education, and it's not out of some altruistic desire for all to have the chance of bettering themselves. It is from a selfish desire to make the country better. For that, the best need to go to university. That will not always be those with the best grades, but simply limiting those who get good grades is not the answer. Admissions must be improved in terms of potential talent vs results, but also the state must improve. It must improve in both realising the potential of its children and also in encouraging them to apply, for much of the negative feeling on 'university is not for me' comes from negative teachers.

If you think you're unsure of whether I'm right or Simon Hughes, perhaps look to the Russell Group. They represent the top universities in the country, were you unaware. Unsurprisingly, they also view the idea of quota-based admissions to be farcical - "admission is and should be based on merit" (Dr Wendy Platt, Director General of the Russell Group). Oh, and incidentally, quite the one for pulling up the ladder up which you have ascended, Hughes was privately schooled in Wales before heading to Selwyn College, Cambridge.

So now onto why an MP for 27 years can come up with such total and utter rubbish…

Either he genuinely believes all that he says, in which case he is a moron, or he is saying it for party political reasons. Now I'm open to either. The case for the former is rather detailed in the many boring paragraphs above. For the case for the latter, read on…

Hughes has not taken a Cabinet position, despite clearly having the political weight to demand one in the big Coalition Cabinet Chop-up. Yet the lighterweight Huhne, Alexander and Laws all ended up with posts ahead of him. Why? In my opinion, because Hughes prefers the politics of the minority opposition. That is, he likes that being a Lib Dem means that he can take the moral high ground on every point of governance safe in the knowledge he will never have to face the harsh realities of implementing his policies against the economic and social position of the day. These are the lessons that Nick Clegg is learning now. Thus, Hughes in taking the deputy leader job whilst spurning the Coalition and mouthing off against all the Coalition policies that make Nick Clegg most uncomfortable, is setting himself up for the big non-job next time. Or he's a moron. You decide.

Saturday, 8 January 2011

Faith in the System?

I am sure you are all aware of the assassination of Salman Taseer, the Governor of Punjab province. As you might imagine, this is a rather more serious post than my last. Whilst obviously tragic for Mr Taseer and for his friends and family, the repercussions of this murder resonate around the world. Or perhaps, more specifically, the repercussions of the Pakistani reaction to it.

When I first heard of the assassination and the reasoning behind it (his view that the blaspemy laws were too harsh), like most I was stunned. My thoughts then went to the reaction. Would Pakistan take this opportunity to declare itself a modern country, a democratic country, a moderate country? Would the Government, the people and the leaders of its majority religion, Islam, condemn this extremist fanaticism? Would they decree that this is not what Islam is about - cold-blooded murder justified by a radical reading of the koran, by an extremist stance on the Islamic faith?

Thus far, the answer has come back a resounding 'no'. Hundreds of Pakistan's religious leaders have publicly applauded the murder, suggesting Taseer brought it on himself and deserved to be killed. Both clerics and politicians alike have given their support to the murderer. There have been warnings that no-one is to grieve for Taseer or they will suffer a similar fate. As the murderer, Mumtaz Qadri, was driven to court supporters threw rose petals at the vehicle carrying him. These death threats, this unashamed support of illegality, seems to be meekly accepted by the Government and the people. Very few speak out, and they are drowned by the voice of fanaticism.

These people are our allies in the region. They also have nuclear weapons. Brilliant.

Recall, if you will, the case of Nadia Eweida, the member of BA cabin crew suspended for wearing a crucifix. Now imagine that the BA executive who made that decision was gunned down in London by a devout Christian. First off, could you imagine it happening? No, of course not, for the strains of Christianity in the UK have long moderated themselves from within since their crusading, witch-burning and generally rather colourful past. Secondly, could you imagine anything but disgust and condemnation for the murderer and his act? Again, of course not. You would get the same reaction in every properly civilised country around the world.

Were Afghanistan an island, the war would most likely have been won a long time ago. Instead, we are fighting a war where we have no safe zone but the enemy do. The Afghani/Pakistani border is more porous than a kitchen sieve, and the bordering Pakistani regions, lawless badlands controlled by religious extremists supply safe haven and support for pro-Taliban fighters. This is where our upstanding British nationals go to train to kill their own. For all the Pakistani Government's assurances it is stamping out extremism, tackling support for the Taliban, what hope is there when this rabid extremism is condoned at the heart of its own politics?

We might say we can ill afford another enemy in the region, but what use are allies like these? Ultimately Britain has no option here; this dilemma is for Pakistan and Islam to tackle. Issues of religious dogma are rarely solved from the outside. As with Islamic extremism in this country, the moderating voice must come from within. Islam must show that this abhorrent violence is not the way of the majority, for they are all too silent at the moment. They must be strong for currently it is clear that Salman Taseer was right in complaining of his Government that it was "not willing to tackle fanaticism head on", and worryingly it is a charge easily levelled at moderate Islam the world over.

Friday, 7 January 2011

What's Driving Me Mad Today...

After a furious session of New Year posting, I feel I should take a small step back from the political blogosphere and vent about something a little more mundane. I drive. You probably drive too. This one is about just that. Driving, or more specifically, drivers.

Driving can be quite enjoyable, given the right blend of company, car, scenery, and music. In my mind I am picturing something approaching a Martini advertisement. But we can't all slalom around the Italian countryside in Ferraris with Charlize Theron/Brad Pitt/Ian Hislop (chac'un à son goût) in the passenger seat; so for most of us driving is rubbish.

It revolves around traffic. More likely than the Martini advertisement, for company you will either be bored on your own or, for the parents among you, with horrible screaming children for company. The car is probably not your dream car but represents the life/money compromises you wish you didn't have to make. The scenery will be litter being discarded onto the verge of said highway by the local ASBO brigade. The music will be some brainless berk on the radio.

However, I can deal with all of this as long as something else remains - a modicum of manners. I'm not asking for doffed caps and waved hankies, but when I let someone in and they don't thank me, I don't think it a total over-reaction to wish I had heat-seeking missiles mounted on my bonnet.

Is it because of the isolation one is afforded inside the protective shell of their own car that people feel detached enough to be rude? I wonder if the same people are as rude on a pavement, in a shop, in a restaurant. It's pretty easy to stick your hand up in thanks or flash your hazard lights. It's probably a small step too far to suggest this is representative of the crumbling of the moral fabric of society, but manners maketh the man; remember that next time someone lets you in.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

VAT: Value Absent Twaddle

A lot of total and utter rubbish is being spouted about the VAT increase, by my current two favourite pillars of lefty politics; Ed Miliband and the BBC. Ed has been in the pulpit preaching about the evils of the VAT rise telling us how it is an insidious plan to lead the poorest in society to rack and ruin. Again, as I mentioned here, the Opposition have no actual realistic alternative plans, but this doesn't stop Red Ed and pals sermonising about the terrible VAT monsters in Government. The Beeb is, of course, more than happy to explain why he's right. Only he's not.

The statistic on which Labour love to hang their collective hat is that some of the poorer in society expend marginally more of their total expenditure on VAT than some of those better off. We need to look at this claim on a couple of levels. As Disraeli apparently once said, "there are lies, damn lies, and statistics". I'm not sure if he intended the Oxford comma when he said it, but I like it.

Firstly, the proportion argument is somewhat ridiculous when we look at the actual numbers we are discussing. For the poorer households, the VAT rise will add a whole pound a week to their expenditure. For the middle income bracket, £4. For the richest, £10. So as a proportion of the total extra tax paid, to use Labour's favourite method of comparison, higher earning brackets pay 400% and 1000% of the total of the poorer bracket. Seems progressive rather than regressive, yes? You might also want to compare these increases to your energy bill. I'll bet dollars to doughnuts your gas and electricity rise is a hell of a lot higher. And was last year. And the year before.

Secondly, we need to look into why there are sometimes poorer people paying more of a percentage of their expenditure on VAT. Food and children's clothes are exempt, that sorts a large part of the necessities of life. Then VAT comes on all things car related, all booze and fags, all phone bills, all your energy, all household items (electrical and otherwise). Pretty much everyone pays those, regardless of income bracket, some elements of that category more by choice than necessity. Then as we move into the middle and top income brackets we have mortgage bills, no VAT there, some shares or other investments, again no VAT. Now the richer people pay more VAT too - more expensive versions of everything, simply more of lots of things, but ultimately investments including houses often account for a large part of their expenditure. These are taxed elsewhere - capital gains, corporation, dividend taxes and the like.

So we see that the already excessively taxed middle to high earning classes do pay a bucketload of tax. Sometimes, though, despite VAT increases hitting them in total harder than the poorer classes, their other taxed expenditure means that as a proportion of expenditure some poorer people will spend more on VAT. It is this utterly tenuous statistic to which the Labour party clings when wanting to gain some opportunistic press over a tax rise their last chancellor championed. Kept that quiet recently haven't they - anyone seen the eyebrowed one of late?

So, let us then look at the coverage the BBC gave the 'enormous' price hike. Wall to wall 'VAT losers' and 'VAT victims' stories for 2 or 3 days. Every now and again they'd find time to publicly try a man who as yet has not even been charged let alone tried, for murder. Or for having blue hair - it should have been red, of course. Everything was about the cost to people of this tax. Not even a murmur of what the cost would be of a double dip recession. If confidence in the UK economy fell because we played along with Labour and didn't make any cuts because 'cuts = victims', and we defaulted on our stupendous debt, what would then be the cost? Not even mentioned. Watching the coverage as an outsider you would be forgiven for thinking there was no need to raise more money and this was done because the Government is vindictive. Bring on News Corp - they still only control just over 1/2 of what the Beeb does as a percentage of UK news coverage, so maybe they might balance things up a little.

The cost of doing nothing would be horrific. Not a 2% increase in the cost of your television, but a 4, 5, 10, 15% increase in everything as inflation goes through the roof, and borrowing becomes prohibitively expensive as lenders pass on the increased costs of lending to a now wobbly nation. The only hint of a Labour alternative has been whisperings about income tax or national insurance rises (employment tax). These are the worst tax increases for the economy - ask anyone with half an economic mind.

The Beeb's one sided coverage was typified by their insistence on using the benchmark of the 37 inch flat screen TV to represent the harsh price hikes the poorer faced. Now I don't have an economics degree but I don't think I'm wildly off target in suggesting that anyone who can afford to spend £500 on a luxury item, can probably live with a quid a week on their bills.

Ed Miliband's hollow leadership was typified by his insistence that on the basis of his pathetic 'percentage of expenditure' argument, the Coalition had betrayed the poorer in society to such an extent he demanded that they apologise. Wouldn't it be rather more apt if Red Ed apologised for Labour totally and utterly screwing everyone, regardless of their income, nearly bankrupting the nation and ultimately making these measures all necessary, and many more after them no doubt?