Thursday, 13 April 2017

Inequality exacerbated


On of the functions of the central state is to re-direct funds from the wealthier parts of the country to the poorer parts.  This is done in the UK by central government grants to local government.

The intricacies of how these grants are calculated  are beyond the comprehension of most of us, but it seems odd that, when these grants are reduced, as they have been over the past seven years  as part of the government's misguided "austerity" policies, the biggest reductions are to the poorest areas and not to the richest.

An article written a couple of years ago  but still relevant,states:

The variations in individual councils are striking. Some 23 councils will see spending power reductions of over 5%, with Labour-run London borough of Hackney the biggest loser at 6.46%. But 17 home counties authorities will see an increase of over 2% in their spending power: all are Tory-run, with Reigate and Banstead seeing the biggest increase, at 2.92%.

How do they get away with it?  I suppose it could be argued that the areas with the biggest problems get the largest grants, so consequently are able to bear the greater cuts, but it all sounds a bit fishy.

More recently the overwhelmingly Conservative Surrey County Council felt it hadn't enough income  properly to fund its Social Care Services, so it proposed to have a referendum  to permit an "above the norm" rise in council tax.  For some reason the government found this was embarrassing, so a deal was done, the government found extra funds, and there was no need for the referendum.  The government denied that this was a "sweetheart deal" but rather a "gentleman's agreement."  Seemingly there aren't enough "gentlemen" in such as Labour dominated Newcastle and the North East  to facilitate a similar accommodations there.

Then we look at education.  London's pupils are alleged to have forged ahead in their achievements over the past few years. Government expenditure per pupil per year in the City of London was £8 595 when this article was written, compared with £4 648 in my own area of Kirklees.  The lowest was in Cambridgeshire, at a mere £3 950. Of course, London property prices are higher so  the business rate will be too (for local authority schools, though private schools which are charities get an 80% discount), and the teachers have to be paid more. (Disclosure: I benefited from the London Allowance in the early stages of my career - I think it was just undert £1 a week)

And a final thought.  Figures recently revealed show that, on average, Labour-led councils have taken in 11.6 asylum seekers per 10 000 population: the equivalent figure for Conservative-led councils is 0.7.  There are apparently just four asylum seekers living in Mrs May's Maidstone constituency.

The prevailing philosophy of the government appears to be "unto him that that shall be given," and of Tory councils " what we have we hold."

Monday, 10 April 2017

US Constituion stymies Trump


The thoughts behind  this post were formulated before President Trump's volte face in foreign policy and his illegal bombing of Syria.  Whether this is the start of a changed and consistent  foreign policy, a caprice or a temper-tantrum remains to be seen.   The situation is so complex that I have no firm views on the tactics the international community should be following, but  I deeply regret that we do not have a strategy which enables the "great powers" to work together to stop armaments reaching this desperate country, even if they are incapable of brokering a peace.

However, on the (US) domestic front it does seem that the American Constitution is sufficiently robust to prevent the wildest excesses of Trump's campaign rhetoric  from being put into practice.  I believe this is because the US Constitution has an effective and functional separation of the powers of government: the executive, the legislature and the judicature.

So we have seen Trump's illogical banning of entry to the US of citizens of seven largely Muslim countries blocked, twice now, by the judiciary, and his threat to abolish Obamacare blocked by congress.

I suppose it is nothing to do with the Constitution, but I do also admire the courage of the Deputy Director of the US National Security Agency in dismissing Trump's claim that President Obama had asked the UK's CCHQ to "wire-tap" the Trump campaign as "errant nonsense."  I cannot imagine and British civil servant standing up to the Prime Minister in this manner.

Sadly the concept of the separation of powers is hardly apparent  in the British Constitution.  The executive (government) has by definition control of the legislature -  it is formed by the political grouping which "commands the confidence of the majority in the House of Commons."  The party whips are so powerful and our MPs so supine that we have in effect an "elective dictatorship,"  - the government can do more or less what it likes for five years and is then answerable to the electorate. So we have seen Mrs May's s erroneous policies, not just for Brexit but for "hard" Brexit, believed to be mistaken by the majority of MPs, railroaded through parliament.

Our judiciary remains reasonably independent, and, in defiance of being labelled "enemies of the people" by the  government's chief supporting newspaper,  forced the government, twice, to give Parliament a say in the triggering of Article 50.  Unfortunately MPs didn't have the guts to take advantage of the power they clearly hold.

Given that the resources and energies  of our political class are to be entirely devoted to the minutiae  of Brexit for the next two years (and possibly longer) there is little hope of any serious attention being given to constitutional affairs.  Yet, if nothing else, the Brexit d├ębacle demonstrates that our constitution is no longer fit for purpose and needs root and branch reform.

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Self-harm Wednesday, 29th March 2017


Our calendar already has a Black Wednesday (along with a Bloody Sunday and a Black Monday)
so the options for a suitable appellation for last Wednesday, when Mrs May triggered Article 50 for us to leave the European Union, are slightly limited.  "Dismal" Wednesday? "Disastrous" Wednesday (no, not really - we shall survive, but poorer and with less prestige), "Dismaying" Wednesday (a pleasantly unexpected pun), Stupid Wednesday (hardly strong enough). So "Self-harm," because it's the most accurately descriptive.

I've been interested, and actively involved  at a minor level, in  British politics for most of my adolescent and all of my adult lifetime, and I cannot remember a time when I've felt so ashamed of and bewildered by an action of my government. Perhaps the Suez Invasion of 1956 comes nearest, though that did have the silver lining of permitting learner drivers, of which I was one at the time, to drive and therefore practise unaccompanied, because of the petrol shortage. So I could crash the gears without the accompaniment of my Dad's wincing, and also avoid the expense of the instructor.

I would never have believed that a mature and sophisticated political system such as ours could be responsible for such a catalogue of ineptitudes as  led to last Wednesday's destructive action.

  •  We should never have had a referendum in  the first place.  Politicians of both left (Clement Attlee) and right (Winston Churchill) have pointed out that referendums are alien to our representative democracy, and devices used by dictators to give a spurious legitimacy to their autocracies;
  • Just 20 years ago, in the General Election of 1997, the Referendum Party, financed by multi-millionaire Sir James Goldsmith, polled a mere 2.6% of the total vote, and that's where the level of their support should have stayed; 
  • Yet agitators, described by Sir John Major as "bastards" and David Cameron as "fruitcakes," have managed, with the support of a poisonous press, to turn our world upside-down;
  • In spite of this agitation,  EU membership was not even among the top ten issues which concerned the electorate only a short time before the referendum campaign;
  • Yet in his campaign for the 2015 General Election, David Cameron promised an In-Out referendum if the Conservatives won.  It cannot be emphasised enough that this promise was made not in the national interest, but solely in the interests of the Conservative Party, who feared a haemorrhage of support to UKIP;
  • I claim  no special insight into Cameron's mind, but it's a fair bet that he made the promise in the expectation that he wouldn't win an over-all majority, but be forced again into a coalition with the Liberal Democrats who could be relied upon to veto the referendum;
  • Having unexpectedly won a majority Cameron  felt compelled to keep his promise, but was so complacent of victory, or criminally negligent, that he failed to introduce into the Referendum Bill provisions for the normal super-majority necessary for such an important decision, or measures to ensure a reasonably honest campaign;
  • Both the Labour and Liberal Democrat members in both Houses of Parliament share the blame for these omissions. Were they asleep? What do thy think the get their massive salaries and allowances for?  The House of Lords at least is full of gifted lawyers who should have spotted the omissions;
  • The campaign was disingenuous on both sides, but particularly on the Leave side;
  • Hardly had the narrow Leave victory been announced but their promises began to unravel and their leaders walk away;
  • Given that the referendum was legally only advisory, MPs, the overwhelming majority of whom believed we should remain in the EU, had every excuse for rejecting the advice and moving on to tackle the real and urgent problems facing the country;
  • But they were too chicken and fell for the nonsense that "the people had spoken."  (Again it cannot be said too often that, of those entitled to vote, 27% didn't, 37% voted to Leave, 34% voted to Remain, and the 16 and 17 year-olds, thought to be overwhelmingly in favour of Remaining, were not allowed to vote);
  • For some reason completely beyond anyone's comprehension, rather than try to minimise the damage, the government has chosen to opt for a "Hard" Brexit.  Assurances from the leading Leavers during the campaign that voting to leave the EU would not involve leaving the Single Market or the Customs Union have been ignored;
  • The Labour Party's opposition to the government's approach has been pathetic.  There may, just, be an excuse for their MPs being whipped to vote for the triggering of Article 50 (fear of being seen to oppose the so-called "will of the people") but there can be no excuse for whipping their peers to vote against the amendment to require the government to try to remain in the Single Market
So, with no effective opposition, we are to spend the next two years implementing our national self-harm.

As an antidote, last Saturday's Guardian contained an article by Natalie Nougayr├Ęde which gives a welcome positive spin on the EU.  Here's and extract:

Europe is one of the best places to live in today..  It is a rich part of the world with high living standards.  Hardly anyone  who resides in Europe wants to flee it. On the contrary , many strive to reach it, to settle in it and build a future in it for their children.  Likewise many who live outside the European Union  dream of seeing their country join it one day, or, at least, hope it might emulate Europe's standards and quality of life. 

That's why we Remainers must continue to campaign, as vigorously and as indifferent to scorn as the "bastards " and "fruitcakes" who precipitated  this stupidity, for a return to sanity, to stop the process if we possibly can, or to rejoin the Euorpean Union if the present lunatics now in charge of the asylum bring their misguided objective to fruition.

Friday, 24 March 2017

Westminster atrocity


My computer has been "down" for the past 48 hours so I have been unable to give immediate responses to the atrocities committed at Westminster.

On reflection I still find my feelings are a combination of sympathy, admiration and embarrassment.

Sympathy, obviously, for the relatives of those who have died, for those who must live with life-diminishing injuries, and those with minor injuries or who are traumatised by the shock of what they have witnessed.

Admiration for those, and especially PC  Keith Palmer, who did their duty and ran towards the danger in order to help, rather than ran away.

But embarrassment  and some disquiet at much of the  political and media reaction.

Most disconcerting was the prime-minister's statement,  in which. she claimed that the attack was on "the world's oldest parliament."

Westminster is not the world's oldest parliament.  For what it's worth, that honour is usually accorded to the Icelandic parliament, the Athling, which dates back to 930.  Britain's  parliament is usually thought to have its origins in Simon de Montfort's Parliament of 1265, or maybe the Model Parliament of 1295 - either way, some three hundred years behind the Icelandics.  This may seem a small niggle, but there is far too much exaggeration of Britain's role in and contrition to the world,  much of which seems to fuel the ardour of the Brexiteers

Then Mrs May went on to speak of how no attack would  divert us from our devotion to democracy and the rule of law.  That's a bit rich coming from a prime minister who  refuses to give parliament a "meaningful vote" on the result of her Brexit negotiations, and did her level best to prevent the courts from ruling on whether or not parliament should have any say of triggering  Article 50. (Her supportive press went so far as to claim that the judges of our Supreme Court were "enemies of the people.")

So there's a clear case of our government talking the talk rather than walking the walk.

I noticed how quickly the attack was attributed to Islam.  This, said a policemen only hours after the incident, was their "working assumption." Given the delicacy of inter-faith and inter-racial relations at the moment, this was at the very least  tactless.  In these circumstances the police and media should wait until there is real evidence  rather than mouthing populist knee-jerk assumptions.

I'm in no position to make an informed  judgement, but do I wonder why the killer was shot dead?  Surely, with trained marksmen, it should have been possible to wound him sufficiently to disable him rather than to kill him outright.    Then not only could he have had a proper trial and received the justice which we hold so dear, but  the authorities would be able to question him to discover his motivation and contacts.  Instead they have to  mount the massive and expensive investigations which appear to be necessary now that he is no longer available to speak for himself.

So far, happily, the calls for further surveillance powers for the government have been subdued, but I'm sure they will soon increase in volume.  The fact that the killer was already known to both the police and the intelligence services, and yet they were not aware of his plans, shows the futility of collecting an indiscriminate mass of information.  Those who wish preserve our liberties, which Mrs May says she is keen to do, and so  limit, or even negate, the scope of the Snoopers' Charter, should contact:

https://www.liberty-human-rights.org.uk/campaigning/people-vs-snoopers-charter

It's perhaps inevitable that media coverage, like charity, begins at home, but is is disquieting that  my newspaper devoted its first five-and-a-half pages to this atrocity, and the killing of "at least" 33 by a coalition air-strike on a Syrian school received just half of page 23.

Monday, 20 March 2017

MPs who let the side down.


Our former Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, is the latest  of our MPs to be accused of bringing parliament into disrepute by taking a second job (four days per week) as editor of the London Evening Standard, on top of earning a whopping salary (is it really £650 000 a year, as the Sun claims?) for advising a global hedge fund, along with £800 000 he's made this year for making a few speeches.

The point is not that he's earning (oops - no, "receiving" ) so much money - as an ex Chancellor I'm sure he's meticulous about his tax returns - but what time has he got left for representing his Tatton constituents in parliament?  There's a case for MPs continuing to involve themselves  in some aspect of the economy and society other than politics: lawyers continuing to do a little bit of legal work; accountants to keep their hand it by being on the odd board; journalists doing a bit of writing; academics a bit of lecturing; trade union officials representing a few cases on industrial tribunals.

This is alleged to help them keep in touch with the "real world."  The question is, how much, and this is where Osborne seems to have overstepped the mark, not just by a little but by a mile.  A maximum of 25% of the time, or ten hours a week if we think in terms of a 40 hour week, seems to me about right.

And as for remuneration, the parliamentary salary should be reduced by a proportion of their earnings, just as social security recipients have their benefits reduced when their earning increase.  In Osborne's case, that would lead to his paying to be Tatton's representative, but he can well afford it.

There is another way in which politicians are bringing parliament in to disrepute.  I haven't seen them, but  and pretty confident that in their campaign leaflets for the 2015 election both Jamie Reed, successful Labour candidate in Copeland, promised something akin to undying love and devotion to the people of Copeland, and Tristram Hunt, successful Labour candidate in Stoke, promised something akin to undying love and devotion to the people of Stoke. 

Yet both, less than two years after their election, jacked in parliament and went to what they presumably thought to be better jobs (maybe with better career prospects?) - Reed to work for the nuclear power plant at Sellafield and Hunt to be director of the V and A Museum.

Less blatantly, perhaps, Tony Blair resigned from his constituency on the same day as he resigned as prime minister, and David Cameron, having promised to continue in both positions whatever the result of the EU referendum, resigned as prime-minster the day after it was lost, and a few weeks later as MP for Witney.

No wonder so many of the public  believe that politicians are "only in it for what they can get ."  This accusation becomes more and more difficult to refute as the years go by and the evidence to support it accumulates.

It seems to me that when  MPs resign from parliament* without a good reason (illness, changed family circumstances) they should do so without any severance pay, and be forced to pay the public costs of the subsequent by election,

*  Yes, I know they don't technically resign, but apply for an "office of profit under the Crown" and so become ineligible

Thursday, 16 March 2017

"U-turn" on national insurance contriutions


I do not see why it should necessarily be a cause for derision that a government reverses a decision, as our government has done in deciding not, after all, to increase the rate of some (my emphasis) National Insurance Contributions (NICs) by a modest 1% next year and another 1% the year after that.  Listening to people, and responding where appropriate, are essential aspects of democracy (aka "government by discussion") and should be applauded.

However, a great deal depends on which people are listened to.  For example, this government is turning a very deaf ear indeed to the 48% of those who cast their votes for remaining in the European Union.

I do not claim to understand  all the intricacies of National Insurance Contributions, or even why  there should be four (or possibly even more?) classes.  What I do know is that the increase was restricted to Class 4 contributions, that these applied to the self-employed, and that those self employed who earned less than £16 250 a year (I suspect most of the involuntary self-employed and those just starting out) would have had a reduction in their payments.  The increase would have applied only to those earning more than £16 250, admittedly substantially below the median wage, but  many would be earning very much more than the median wage.

The reasons for the change were, we were told, twofold.

1.  Historically  the self-employed received far fewer benefits (for example, in terms of pensions) from the  system  than those in normal employment (ie working for someone else), so it seemed right that their contributions should be less.  However in recent years the benefits for the self-employed  have moved upwards towards those in normal employment so it is fair that their contributions should increase too.  Our Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr Hammond, was correcting an anomaly.

2. For employers, (eg UBER) declaring their workforce to be self-employed can be seen as a tax dodge, in that it relieves the employer of paying the employers' contribution of the NICs (as well as responsibility for sick pay, holidays etc).  For the employee too it can be a tax dodge in that he or she pays a smaller contributions, as in the scheme  dubbed "the lump" in the building trade years ago. Thus the move was part of the government's campaign to reduce tax avoidance.

These seem perfectly reasonable to me.

But a few well-heeled self-employed and 18 or so Tory backbenchers (and for some incomprehensible reason, the Labour Party) with the vociferous support of the right wing press  have caused a furore and described the move as a tax on enterprise. And the government has caved in in favour of their mates.

Would they had listened to those speaking up on behalf of the disabled, whose Personal Independence Payments are reduced as from today.


Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Scotland - be brave!



In the 2014 Referendum on Scottish independence I argued that that the best result would be for Scotland to vote to remain in the UK, but for the Westminster government to grant the Scots full  home rule, that is full autonomy, including tax-raising powers, on domestic matters.

Now I'm not so sure.  Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon (who talks more sense on the economy than any other British politician except perhaps Caroline Lucas) is right that the Westminster government's determination to take us out of not just the EU, but also, in spite of contrary assurances during the campaign, the Single Market and the Customs Union, is a game changer.

But it's not just the economics.  I find to my surprise that, if I were Scottish, I'd rather be  in the EU than in the UK. 

For years the Tories have dominated English politics, and we have needed the Scottish and Welsh Labour parties to hold, however imperfectly, some sort of balance.  But now that Labour looks unlikely to recover in Scotland in the foreseeable future and is maybe losing its grip in Wales, who wants to be in a Union dominated by a Conservative party which,  to all intents and purposes, is in craven hock to its right-wing, xenophobic fantasisers?

I am ashamed to live in a country that:
  • suggests we shouldn't rescue refugees and asylum seekers from drowning in  the Mediterranean because that might tempt others to try escaping from starvation, civil war or despotism;
  • promises to admit 3000 unaccompanied displaced children and then cuts the number to 350;
  • gives yet more tax cuts to the rich and further squeezes the disabled to below the poverty line, (Personal Independence Payments, PIPs, are reduced as from tomorrow);
  • is determined to spend up to £200bn on an irrelevant  nuclear weapon system the use of which is in not independent but entirely dependent on the good-will of the Americans, and will probably be out of date by the time it becomes operational;
  • presides with indifference over the disintegration of its health and social care services 
  • toadies to the most unfortunate president the Americans have ever elected; 
  • entrenches privilege and exacerbates inequality;
  • supported by a client press, survives on lies and distortions;
  • balances the books by selling off vital national assets, either to private profiteers in this country  or to private profiteers or state-owned (sic) operations in other countries; 
  • in spite of the evidence of the1930sand the last seven yeras, sticks blindly  to the counter-prodiuctive policy of austerity;
  • is determined to turn our back on the bravest and most progressive example of international liberal co-operation of the last century and turn our island into an insular, sulky, low-wage, low-cost arena for short-term predators..
If I had the option I'd opt out. 

The Scottish have. There'll be complications: not least the Scots need concrete assurances hat they can remain in the EU once they are independent. 

But  a divorce from the  backward-looking Tory dominated England  is something I'd want thoroughly to explore if I lived in Scotland.