Wednesday, 31 December 2008

What a fine year it has been

I have rather enjoyed 2008, rarely a day went past without something interesting happening and some events were truly monumental even if not yet understood as such. The saddest note is that the year ends just as it began with justified public outrage at the failure of the powers that be to secure a knighthood for Bruce Forsythe. Clearly he has failed to make substantial donations to the Labour Party, a change of government is required so that justice can be done.

The state of the economy has dominated the year. In January thoughts were predominantly on the credit crunch and the state of the housing market. Northern Rock had recently been nationalised and the government was seeking to assure everyone there were no systemic problems, a rogue lender caught a cold but all was otherwise well. They were desperate to halt the slide in house prices which had begun in the summer of 2007 because they knew the illusion of increased wealth caused by prices forever rising was necessary if they were to be able to afford the grossly bloated state machine. Even the budget in March failed to acknowledge that the continued slide in house prices combined with a lengthy period of food price inflation was having a significant effect on peoples perception of their ability to live as high on the hog as in the recent past. Their delicious incompetence in abolishing the 10p tax rate combined with staggering mendacity in asserting that no one would be affected adversely brought home to even the least avid observer of matters economic that poor Gordon and the hapless Mr Darling were utterly adrift from reality, swimming in a sea of their own defecatory product and inviting all to "come on in, the Brown water's lovely".

And then, of course, that which was in the sea rose up and hit the fan. Northern Rock was not an isolated player in the game of incompetent lending, merely the tip of the iceberg. Bank after bank was seen to have made loans to people who never had any realistic prospect of being able to repay them, secured against properties which were reverting to their true value. Poor Gordon's response was to hide away behind a bank of denials. It really was a delight to hear the pitiful oaf boasting that it was full steam ahead along exactly the path which caused the problem in the first place. No change of tack, no change of speed, no acknowledgment of the problem, all we heard were the rantings of a deluded incompetent that he was correct all along and therefore things must continue as before.

By late summer poor Gordon was nowhere to be seen. Even he could no longer deny there was a serious problem so he hid away again, this time behind a bank of accusations. It was America's fault, it was the greedy bankers' fault, it was the Bank of England's fault, it was the regulators' fault. He claimed to have been warning them for years, oblivious to the recorded fact that his speeches contained no warnings and were packed to the gills with praise for the economic miracle they had brought into effect by following his wise guidance. He it was who needed the tax from the bankers' massive salaries and bonuses to pay for his pet gimmicks. He it was who removed the Bank of England from day-to-day supervision of the banking industry. He it was who set the parameters for banking regulation by the Financial Services Authority. They were all doing exactly what he wanted them to do and, indeed, what he required them to do. To read his press releases and hear his occasional witterings in the House of Commons you would have thought he was the only Chancellor of the Exchequer for more than 150 years not to have had anything to do with the economy. It really was such fun.

The curious upshot of the disaster poor Gordon manufactured is that some people seem to believe it really did have nothing to do with him. Almost overnight he became the man who can save us from the monster and his ratings in opinion polls rose sharply. Of course that is the way of the world. Nobody is obliged to take an interest in the economy or to follow politics. Many are guided in their assessment of a Chancellor of the Exchequer by the state of their own budget. The man on a £30,000 salary who sees his house rise in value by £15,000 in a year sees himself as having made £45,000 only £30,000 of which was subject to tax, £15,000 tax-free is equivalent to a salary of about £20,000 so he could perceive himself as being a £50,000 a year fellow. Yippee, well done Chancellor. Because Chancellor Brown made him rich he listens to Prime Minister Brown for an explanation of why his wealth is diminishing and hears that it is all the fault of matters beyond the government's control. But, not to worry, just as Chancellor Brown made him rich so Prime Minister Brown must be the man to restore that wealth now that wicked outsiders have attacked it. There is a degree of myopic logic to that approach so it is hardly surprising that many people take it.

Perhaps the greatest challenge for the Conservative opposition in 2009 is to hammer home the message that there never was a massive increase in personal wealth over the last decade. It was pretend money manufactured at poor Gordon's behest in order to take as much of it as he could in tax without taking so much that he lost the votes the pretend money bought him.

The other great feature of 2008 has been the dramatic collapse of the great global warming hoax. There is still a long way to go. This year we saw the annihilation of the hockey stick graph by devastating analysis of both the source data and the statistical method used in its compilation. Its author, a redoubtable fellow with a Brownian approach, claimed to have answered all the criticisms and to have proved that the hockey stick was correct after all. He created a new hockey stick using what he claimed was a different method. This was reduced to rubble in a matter of moments. The English High Court was invited to examine some of the claims made by St Al of Gore in his film and concluded them to be an inconvenient pack of distortions. St Al himself was exposed for having bought a hugely expensive seaside property which will be destroyed if his claims about rising sea levels prove to be even a quarter true and to have a main home which uses more electricity than many towns. And the naughty planet has frustrated every single prediction the hoaxers' computers have made. We have now reached the truly farcical position of hearing today apocalyptic warnings about the next ten years which match exactly the apocalyptic warnings of ten years ago. "Ten years to save the planet" they said then, "ten years to save the planet" they say now. With any luck when they say it again in 2018 they will do so to the only remaining receptive audience, the convention of those convinced they have seen Elvis behind the bacon counter at the Co-Op.

Of greatest interest has been the back-tracking of sensible governments. Canada elected a government opposed to cap-and-trade schemes and handed a thorough drubbing to the main opposition party which proposed a wholly unaffordable system of carbon taxes. Australia elected a government committed to wholesale slaughter of industry, only to realise after the event that this was the plan, so now that government cannot bring in 90% of what it proposed because of the risk of a popular uprising. The German government decided carbon taxes are a jolly good thing provided they don't affect Germany and the Baltic states won't have any of it. Most significantly both India and China continue to laugh at the absurdity of the west taxing its heavy industry out of existence and continue their steady path of modernisation for the continued betterment of their people. Only in the UK and America are there signs of suicidal lunacy continuing to rule the roost. I'm optimistic that the cost will eventually hit home as it has with Germany's political leaders, time will tell.

So much more has happened to make 2008 a fun year, but these are my favourites. We will read and hear a lot more about them in the twelve months ahead. I look forward to chipping in my contribution for the continue delectation of both my regular readers.

A very Happy New Year to everyone

Monday, 29 December 2008

I told you Father Christmas is real

I think it was the cheese that started it. It might have been something else, but I think it was the cheese.

A modest lump of cheddar that cost £2 a year or so ago now seems to be £4.50. That's when I first noticed how much normal everyday food has been rising in price. Meat too, rice more than meat, fish more than rice, flour a bit less but with a knock-on effect on bread and the butter to go on the bread is also significantly pricier. Even the cheaper options in these lines have been hit with shin of beef, that most glorious casseroling cut, today fetching the price of 2006 rump steak. Those of us who grew up knowing what can be done with middle neck of lamb, pig liver and cheap minced beef are having a degree of fun dredging recipes from the backs of our minds. Retrenchment is definitely the order of the day.

Retrenchment was also the order sent out from the recession bunker at FatBigot Towers prior to the festive season. It was decreed a happy coincidence that presents and parsimony start with the same letter, adults were limited to one gift for any other adult and a strict price cap. No limits applied to purchases for the younger generation, that would be wholly wrong. Fortunately I received everything I wanted, including an electronic cigarette.

Back in October the subject to the electronic cigarette adorned these pages and received interesting comments. Since then I resisted the temptation to buy one myself, not least because the number on offer required a degree of decisiveness unknown to my dithering mind. By inviting a Yuletide gift of same it was unnecessary to make a choice, thereby adding a much needed downward influence on my blood pressure. It was one thing using it for the occasional puff around the house over the last few days but that could not really test the utility of the item, it was necessary to eat out and put it through its paces in a harsh restaurant environment. Today being a day of bitter cold, the like of which always seems to come just after Christmas, it had to be a warming curry, so off I waddled e-ciggy in pocket and breathless in anticipation of a vital and exciting experiment.

The curry was no experiment, it was taken at a tried and trusted establishment and proved excellent as usual. With permission of the proprietor the e-ciggy was allowed free rein. Should it be shallow drags or deep? Long or short? Frequent or occasional? All options were explored and the device passed with flying colours. Long deep drags, just as with a real ciggy, proved highly beneficial and spared me the need to venture into the freezing Islington air. Mr Holborn's experience of queaziness, as reported in a comment in October, was not repeated nor was there any sign of a sore throat or an urge to have a real one to make up for a perceived deficiency in the electronic alternative. Altogether a thoroughly pleasing experiment.

One thought I had while enjoying the envious stares of those who had to brave the bitter cold to get their fix between starter and main course was that it must be thoroughly bad for them to go from a warm restaurant to a truly freezing pavement and back again in about five minutes. Could it be that the smoking ban causes more illness and greater cost to the NHS through forcing people to be exposed to inclement weather?

Both the recession itself and the government's hapless efforts to fight it bite hard on the resources of retired folk who thought careful and ample provision had been made for their old age. Many investments have fallen substantially and the return on savings is now negative due to low interest rates and tax. Retrenchment might have to take second place to a return to the world of work. The greatest obstacle so far has been the thought that a day of paperwork would be impossible without a constant supply of Camel Lights to oil the braincells. Contrary to popular belief many barristers spend little time in court but weeks on end battling with problems on paper. Now that my e-ciggy has proved up to the challenge of a lamb vindaloo hopes are high that it will allow a return to work should that prove necessary. Deep joy, as the late Professor Stanley Unwin used to say.

Sunday, 28 December 2008

"Sack 'em" say the Bishops

What fun it is to watch the government squirm under a sustained attack from the seniors of the Church of England. Ministers simply don't know how to react so it has been left to some of their junior number to throw out a few tractor production statistics and insults then see how the wind blows before those at cabinet level decide what they are going to say. Part of the government's difficulty is that the attack has been contradictory and confused so defending themselves against one part could be seen as conceding another. To be on the safe side they decided to stick to standard soundbites combined with the usual petty minded personal counterattack that is rolled out against anyone with the temerity to suggest that anything is less than wholly rosy in poor Gordon's garden.

The personal attack chosen on this occasion is an Old Labour favourite, namely to allege hypocrisy because the Church of England is an organisation of great wealth and should not speak about the least fortunate in our country. This is an amusing little tactic they use time and again. One day it will dawn on these morons that the richest organisation in the country is the government and their attack on hypocrisy rebounds on them many times over. But that is an aside, let's get back to the big boys in purple frocks.

The criticism of the government covered a whole range of issues, not just the economy, according to reports here, here and here. One aspect of the Bishops' ire is of particular interest. Both the chief prayermonger and his main helper in Manchester seem to have concentrated on the way the current government has encouraged people to borrow money. They pointed out that this has two consequences, first it makes the things they buy more expensive (because you have to pay not just the price but interest on the money borrowed to pay that price) and, secondly, it encourages the acquisition of things as an end in itself. This is a particularly powerful criticism because it goes beyond issues of mere money and addresses the destructive effect of placing value on having things to the detriment of less tangible but far more important aspects of the quality of life. It is a good example of looking beyond the direct effect of a political policy to the wider and more long term consequences of that policy being pursued over a lengthy period.

I'm with the Bishops on this one. I have long thrown up my hands in horror that people scramble to buy overpriced tat bearing a designer label when a far cheaper, sturdier and more practical alternative exists. Having the best dressed child rather than the best read child seems a source of pride. When something like that happens you know values are wrong. So much of it results from being able to borrow money cheaply so that everything appears accessible even to a modest wallet. It removes "we can't afford it" from everyday thinking and leads to a failure to appreciate the value of money. Less obviously, it leads to a failure to appreciate that having to save in order to buy something makes one look more critically at that thing itself. Do we really need it? It is really worth the money? If the answer to both those questions is in the affirmative, saving and buying it with your money rather than the money of a credit company provides a satisfaction that adds enormously to the quality of life.

Of course the Bishops don't stop there. They always have the need to argue for the impossible. While decrying consumerism they also decry unemployment. What they do not seem to recognise is that a vast number of jobs rely on unsustainable consumption. Additional spending funded by unaffordable credit does not happen in a vacuum. As demand for goods rises so those goods have to be manufactured, packaged, delivered to wholesalers, delivered from wholesalers to retailers and sold in the shops. More demand means more goods, more goods means more people to make those goods, deliver them and sell them. Many thousands of extra jobs were created by the consumer boom. We are now starting to see those jobs being shed in vast numbers as demand falls. We hear of something in the region of 30,000 people losing their jobs at Woolworths as the shops close yet it goes almost unnoticed that as many jobs again will go in the businesses that supplied Woolworths and provided the services required to maintain the shops and keep them stocked.

The truth the Bishops have noted is the need to remove reliance on credit from the everyday lives of a vast number of people for the simple reason that they cannot afford it and will get in huge difficulties by living now and paying later. That requires a massive re-alignment of values which will delay all sorts of optional expenditure until we have saved and can afford to pay for it with cash. It will also eliminate a lot of current expenditure completely and return us to the ways of the 1950s and 1960s, before credit cards came into widespread use, when very little was spent on pointless fripperies. This can only be achieved at the price of significantly increased unemployment at all stages of the consumer sales process. Hundreds of thousands of jobs will have to go if the Bishops' aim is to be achieved.

We have reached a stage at which a re-alignment is needed just as it was needed in 1979 when the previous incarnation of the socialist economic dream brought the country to its knees. This time it is all about removing pretend money from the system and starting to live within our real means. The Bishops argue for this because they see a serious adverse consequence in the lusting after material possessions. I hope their message is adopted because it will help to provide stability in the economy and, if maintained, prevent a future destructive credit bubble. But don't let's have them bleating about unemployment. The choice is between people living within their means or living beyond their means on the back of unsustainable credit. The former will result in jobs going now, the latter will allow jobs to be saved now but will require them to go later and in larger numbers. There is no middle ground in which customers buy less but the same number of people are employed in the retail sector. It is one or the other.

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Father Christmas is real

So here we are, it's Christmas Eve again, and an air of expectation abounds. I am not going to say anything about how quickly years pass as one gets older, still less am I going to say that last Christmas seems like yesterday, true though both statements would be. What I am going to say and do say is that Father Christmas is alive and well. To me he will never be Santa Claus because he was Father Christmas when I was a little boy. That's it, issue closed, Father Christmas he is and he is real. I know he's real because I see his influence every year.

What is Christmas? The answers to that question provide proof that Father Christmas exists.

For some Christmas is a celebration of the birth of the most significant figure in their religion, a real man who was not just a human being but the Son of God. It is the second most significant celebration in their calendar, Easter being the most important, yet they do not put up trees and decorate their homes for Easter as they do for Christmas. Despite it being of secondary importance to their religious beliefs Christmas seems to have a little something extra.

For others Christmas has no religious overtones but is still the main family party of the year. No doubt the timing of that party is a consequence of it being a major religious festival historically, yet the absence of any religious belief does not lead to Christmas being any less significant or exciting for most atheists and agnostics. They also decorate their homes, send cards and exchange gifts. An elderly neighbour of mine refuses to wish anyone a Merry Christmas because he is an avowed atheist, but he shakes hands and wishes the Compliments of the Season. And he means it, it is the season of goodwill for him just as it is for Christians.

What about our Jewish, Islamic and otherly religioned friends? There are a few rude and disrespectful ones who will not acknowledge that Christmas is an important time for almost everyone in this country, however their numbers are so small they can be ignored. The vast majority wish us a Merry Christmas. In the area around FatBigot Towers all the Turkish businesses decorate their shops and I know from talking to the people who own them and those who work in them that a great many also decorate their homes, invite guests, exchange presents and treat it as a special day even though they have their own significant religious festivals at other times of the year.

When we go out and about in mid to late December there is a lovely atmosphere. Wonderful trees and street decorations help to make it a special time of year. There must be something that draws us all together to celebrate and enjoy Christmas whether we are Christian or not. Something makes an octogenarian atheist wish the Compliments of the Season when for him there is nothing to separate this time of year from any other apart, perhaps, from the change of calendar a week later. Something makes people of non-Christian religious beliefs have Christmas dinners. Something gives us a tingle of excitement no matter how many Christmases we have lived through before.

I have no doubt there is something special that transcends religious and cultural differences and makes Christmas the most important festival of the year for almost everybody in this country. It cannot be explained by either religious or secular reasoning. It is an atmosphere, a pervading aroma, a feeling. Despite our differences something brings us together at Christmas and, most significantly, it creates unity between those with mutually exclusive views. That takes a great power. It cannot be Christ because he is a mere prophet to Jews and Moslem and is of no importance at all to those without a god and those of a different god. It cannot be the date because the 25th of December is neither Arthur nor Martha, it is not the winter solstice nor is it the change of the year. It is a mystical force that turns the latter part of December into the Season of Goodwill. The only mystical force to fit the bill is Father Christmas. He does it every year and I hope he will continue to do so.

Merry Christmas everyone.

Monday, 22 December 2008

The winter madness of Bob-be-Quick

You don't normally expect collective insanity to strike in the middle of winter, somehow it is usually a consequence of prolonged exposure to the blazing summer sun. I speak, of course, about the acts of all parties in the matter of Bob Quick. Mr Quick is a senior anti-terrorist policeman and is in charge of the investigation into the leaking of little bits of inconsequential information to the Conservative MP Damian Green. At the weekend a newspaper disclosed where he lives. This information was already freely available but Mr Quick decided it put his life in peril and panicked. He is reported to have claimed the publication of his address was the result of a spiteful and corrupt plot by "the Tory machinery and their press friends" to intimidate him into dropping the enquiry into how Mr Green received the leaked information.

Yesterday he withdrew the allegation of corrupt behaviour and today he used a most extraordinary phrase in the course of withdrawing his comments and apologising, he said "it was not my intention to make any allegations".

The Conservative Party has formally accepted the apology and said the matter is now closed; Dominic Grieve, the shadow Home Secretary, making sure the depth of Mr Quick's stupidity was exposed by describing his comments as "completely deluded".

The hapless so-called Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, could do no better than say "Bob has retracted some of the things he said over the weekend" and then say that he should get on with the job.

I think they've all gone barmy.

Let's assume that Mr Quick felt in genuine peril for the safety of his family. In that event it is perhaps understandable that he would let his true feelings be known even though more mature judgment would have kept them under wraps. That isn't the point, though, the point is that he said what he really felt. That there was no evidence to support it, thereby forcing him to retract today, does not stop his comment from reflecting what he thinks. Here is one of the most senior police offices in the country who believes the main opposition party has colluded with a newspaper to undermine a police investigation and has expressed that belief in language showing blatant bias against that party. To make matters worse he thinks an apology in which he tells a clear and obvious lie will make things better. The lie, of course, is his assertion that he did not intend to make any allegations. Nothing could be further from the truth. If he didn't intend to make any allegations he would not have used the words he did. What he did not intend to do was make a complete fool of himself and show his bias, but he most assuredly did intend to make allegations.

He intended to allege: (i) spite, (ii) corruption, (iii) collusion between the Conservative Party and a newspaper, (iv) a desire by the Conservative Party and that newspaper to intimidate him and (v) a criminal conspiracy by the Conservative Party and the newspaper to obstruct the course of justice. He intended all those things because you cannot what he said by accident. Either you mean them or you are mad. Giving him the benefit of the doubt in this season of goodwill I will rule out gibbering insanity, which leaves intentional conduct. He intended it every bit as much as I intend to say he is unfit for office when I use the words "he is unfit for office", no other meaning can be intended and there is no scope for it being a slip of the tongue, it is what I genuinely believe just as he genuinely believed what he said yesterday.

The reaction of the Conservatives is equally baffling. How they can say the matter is closed when a senior policeman has shown bias against them is beyond me. To see just how baffling it is all we have to do is pretend the Conservatives are in government and that Mr Quick was investigating leaks to a Labour MP, what would happen if he alleged that the Labour Party spitefully and corruptly colluded with a newspaper to intimidate him and obstruct his investigation? The answer is obvious, there would be outrage led by the BBC and the man's head would be on a metaphorical spike within a week. His attempted apology would be exposed as based on a lie and he would be required to explain how he could have used the words he did if he had not meant them. On it being established that he did mean them he would have to resign for showing blatant party political bias. The Labour Party, in that reverse scenario, would be ill-advised to lead the attack because to do so could be construed as an attempt to frustrate his enquiry, but they would not need to, the BBC would do it for them and before long the government would support the BBC's line. The Conservatives will get no support from the BBC but they should not say the matter is closed when the fitness of Mr Quick to remain in his post is under question.

And that is why Jacqui Smith's position is simply bizarre. She should be saying that it is completely unacceptable for a senior police officer to disclose enmity towards one political party because to do so is contrary to the necessary independence of the police from party politics. Instead she made three monumental blunders, all caused by the simple fact that she is a party functionary who is completely out of her depth in one of the great Offices of State.

The first was to refer to Mr Quick as "Bob". I cannot recall any occasion in which I have heard a Home Secretary refer to a senior police officer in public by an abbreviation of his first name, it's completely and utterly wrong. When they are sharing a cup of pureed tofu while discussing plans to reverse the burden of proof they can call each other "bunnykins" for all I care, but when performing their official functions in public they must keep to surnames or ranks. To do otherwise is to confuse their personal positions with the official duties they have to perform.

Secondly, she said Mr Quick had withdrawn "some" of the things he said. He had, in fact, withdrawn every substantive point he made. There are two equally plausible explanations for her saying he had only withdrawn some. One is that she hadn't bothered finding out exactly what he said yesterday and exactly what he said today. That would be consistent with the incompetence she has shown throughout her time as Home Secretary. The other is that she wanted to keep alight the flame her friend Bob lit yesterday. There could be votes in an allegation that the Opposition were obstructing a police investigation and by saying he had withdrawn some of what he said she keeps alive the possibility of a small party political advantage.

Thirdly, she endorsed Mr Quick in his present post. This is the most bizarre part of all because, not only has he shown party political bias inconsistent with his duty (and particularly inconsistent with him having any further involvement in the leak enquiry), but he has shown himself to be a man capable of panicking under pressure and making serious errors of judgment. He's meant to be in charge of anti-terrorism activities. If ever a job needs a cool head under pressure it is that, yet he shouts off at the mouth with a lunatic conspiracy theory when information in the public domain is spread more widely than he would like. In sensitive areas a single incident of this type always used to be enough to have someone quietly retired to take charge of counting traffic bollards in Cornwall.

Of course hopeless Jacqui cannot distinguish between what is good for her party and what is consistent with her duties as Home Secretary. She knows her friend Bob is anti-Conservative. In her lacklustre brain that means he supports the Labour Party. Maybe he does, maybe he doesn't, all he has disclosed is that he is anti-Conservative but she will see that as support for Labour. Her mission, therefore, is to keep him on board. Her duty is to condemn overt party political bias of any kind in the police. I doubt that she knows this but even if she does it will always come a poor second behind promoting her party.

Saturday, 20 December 2008

The great Christmas tree caper

Today I went in search of a Christmas tree. On a trip to B&Q early in the week I saw some fine examples at just £10 but didn't have room in the car so decided to return today. Sadly the cupboard was bare, hundreds sold in just a few days. Fair enough, they were a great bargain. So to the garden centres I went. Lots of garden centres.

FatBigot Towers is a modest property with one fine quality, high ceilings. Not Buckingham Palace high although, at a touch under eleven feet, high by the standards of things generally. The great problem with trees is that they tend to get broader as they get taller and intrusion by branch can rather hamper festivities. A few years ago I discovered a particular type of tree for sale which benefited from height without excessive breadth and have managed to secure one of that type every Christmas since. It has stood in the bay window in the living room and provided a most suitable decorative adornment, providing seasonal pleasure both to those in the house and those lucky enough to pass by on the street. I can never remember the name, it's a something spruce but then most of them are, but I know it when I see it.

And that was today's difficulty. I couldn't see one anywhere. For anything between £50 and £80 I could have something suitably tall but too fat or suitably thin but too short. The same story was recounted everywhere "you're too late guv, we had a few but they went last week; I can do you a good price on a ..." by which time I was off and away to the next emporium more in hope than expectation. Over the length and breadth of north and east London I drove, no doubt causing the death of countless polar bears and a tribe of thin brown people in an African backwater. I was a man on a mission. There was a nice six-footer in Alexandra Palace at £75 and one of almost seven in Walthamstow for £60, experience proves such items to be less than satisfactory in the eyes of my regular Christmas guests, so eventually I gave up, determined to venture west and, if push came to shove, south tomorrow.

The return journey was spent in a state of muttering frustration until I happened upon a small and rather sad parade of shops in Stoke Newington. There, outside a modest general grocery store, stood a nine-foot nine beauty, their last remaining Christmas tree and, I knew at first glance, the answer to my prayers. It now stands in the window awaiting decoration and will be a splendid festive centrepiece.

And only twenty five quid.

Libel and the loudmouths

My attention has been brought by the great Mr Leg-Iron to some recent complaints of Labour MPs about the courts upholding the law. The instance he mentioned concerns the law of defamation. Some MPs seem to believe it should only be applied in certain circumstances, I fail to see how that is a complaint about the courts rather than about the laws MPs have the power to change, but we can leave that observation to one side for the moment because I want to look at defamation more generally.

The current law is, in essence, quite simple. If you publish an untrue statement about someone he has a claim against you provided your statement is more than mere insults, it must involve a slur on his reputation. Obvious examples include allegations of theft, adultery or corruption. The thing you allege need not be a crime but it must be behaviour which people generally would consider improper. There are numerous qualifications to this general definition, particularly when it comes to spoken defamation (slander) but also in relation to written defamation (libel), but it will do for present purposes.

Personal reputation is what other people think of you. It is a rather nebulous concept which is more important to some people than to others and is certainly of great importance in some fields of work although sometimes a bad reputation can be far more lucrative than a good one. Many a lawyer or accountant with a reputation for being less than honest can pick up a lot of business precisely because their clients want someone clever and crooked to get them out of trouble. Nonetheless, the vast majority and lawyers and accountants would consider allegations of dishonesty to be potentially damaging to their careers and might feel it necessary to sue to put the record straight.

It is entirely understandable why someone might want to sue where something written about him could ruin his career but it is a dangerous path to take unless you are absolutely squeaky clean. In a well publicised case a few years ago a solicitor was accused of using confidential information for his own benefit in a commercial transaction, a very serious allegation against someone under a strict duty of confidentiality. In fact he did not use confidential information but he was competing against a client in the transaction, which is also a serious breach of his professional duties. Although what was written about him was untrue he lost the case because he had acted in breach of his professional duties albeit in a different way from that alleged against him. His high reputation was damaged but because he had acted improperly that high reputation was not justified and the false statement only lowered his reputation to where it should have been anyway. It cost him a lot of money because he had to pay the other side's legal costs as well as his own.

Another risk exemplified by that case arises from the fact that court proceedings are public and can be reported in the newspapers. The original allegation against the solicitor was made in writing to only a few people whereas the debunking of his reputation made it into all the serious newspapers and guaranteed that any harm he might suffer was magnified a thousand times. And there we face another of the great quirks of defamation law - how often does a false allegation of misbehaviour actually harm someone? It goes without saying that it will hurt their feelings and might cause some people they deal with to be reticent to put business their way, however I find it hard to believe that anything other than very serious allegations will cause more than a minor blip to any career. The solicitor I mentioned is one of the country's leading experts in a complex area of law and still sustains a large and successful practice today because he is very good at a very difficult job. There is no outward sign that the lowering of his reputation has had any lasting impact on his career. That case, like many (but not all) defamation cases, seems to provide proof of the old saying "sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me".

One of the most curious aspects of English defamation law is that it is up to the jury (where there is one, the parties can agree trial by judge alone) to decide how much should be paid by way of compensation for loss of reputation. This is separate from the question whether any financial loss resulted. Where money was actually lost the defendant will be ordered to pay that sum in compensation. In addition he will have to pay for what is, in essence, hurt feelings. While you might get £5,000 for a badly broken arm or £50,000 for losing a leg, someone who harms your reputation can be ordered to pay far more even though the defamation has not cost you a penny. Most high awards by juries appear to reflect their disapproval of the defendant's conduct much more than a genuine attempt to quantify what the defamed person has suffered. By all means give full compensation where actual financial loss can be proved, but for loss of reputation alone a limit of £2,000 would be more than adequate.

The case that troubled MPs recently concerned a Saudi businessman who was accused in a book of giving financial support to terrorists. The book was published in America (where the Constitution guarantees the right of free speech and defamation actions are rare) and the defamed person lives in Saudi Arabia. It is no surprise to find members of the current governing party complaining about the English courts applying established English law to a proven defamation occurring in England, I gave up pretending we could expect sense from them several years ago. Their specific complaint in this case, as reported by The Times, was of "libel tourism" and Soviet-style censorship, in other words that someone chose to sue in the English courts because other countries have different laws and he might not have succeeded there. It is difficult to know how accurate the report is because the reporter tells of the judge "fining" the publishers when he did not such thing - a fine is imposed for breach of the criminal law, a judge or jury in a civil defamation case can award damages but cannot impose a fine. It is also reported that the book was not sold in this country, which might well be true, but unless a defamation has occurred in this country the English court has no power to do anything about it, so there must have been some distribution of the false statement within England.

Be that as it may, the substance of what a junior minister in the Justice Department and a rent-a-quote back bencher are reported to have said is deeply worrying and tells us more about their ignorance of the law than it does about any deficiency in that law. "Libel tourism" is all about people suing in this country because our law gives them a remedy they might not get elsewhere. If MPs don't like it they have to change the law. Neither lawyers nor judges can refuse to apply the law once a case has been brought, so rather than accusing those two groups of being at fault the MPs should seek to persuade Parliament. The allegation of Soviet-style censorship is quite breathtakingly and staggeringly stupid. English libel law imposes censorship in one sense only. It has the power to prevent lies being repeated. It does not have the power to prevent the truth being repeated, however unpalatable that truth might be. Print the truth and you are fine, print lies and you risk being required to withdraw your book from sale in its current form. There is nothing in that process to justify hysterical squeals about Soviet or any other style of censorship.

How curious it is that senior members of the Labour Party want to prevent foreign victims of lies having access to our courts while also wanting to clamp down on blogs that criticise their policies. No, it's not curious at all. Just another example of a party that's been in government so long that it will say anything at any time to grab a headline or stifle debate in a desperate attempt to cling to power. There will be many more examples of this sort of contradictory loud-mouthing in the months before the general election.

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

It's all about compost really

Recycling is one of the bedrocks of the environmentalist religion. Every local council exhorts us to sort out paper from metal from plastic from glass and put them each in different bins so they can be taken away and turned into something else, failure to do so can result in hefty financial penalties and being named and shamed as a murderer of fluffy seal pups. The problem I have with the religious fad for recycling is that it conflates two distinctly separate points and, at least to some degree, can do more harm than good.

First, let's take what tends to be called green waste. Grass cuttings, weeds, wood, vegetable peelings, leaves and the rest are the original recyclable materials because that is what happens to them in nature. Every plant eventually dies and every leaf, twig or branch that falls off it also dies. They break down and become part of the soil, in doing so they improve the quality of the soil for the benefit of other plants. That is why gardeners make compost heaps and have done so since the garden of Eden. The apple core and intimate fig leaves did not go to waste. Today councils collect vast amounts of compostable material from their own parks as well as from household collections and build enormous compost heaps. The resulting product is then used in the parks and, in some areas, sold to the public at a competitive price. The choice for councils is to reuse all this green waste or throw it away, and if they choose the latter course they have to buy compost for flowerbeds in parks at a far greater cost than the cost of piling up the stuff they have collected and leaving it to rot for a few months. All natural products should be recycled by composting for the simple reason that it is part of their normal life-cycle and will always save money.

Wool, cotton and paper fall into this category. All my newspapers and cardboard boxes go on the compost heap at FatBigot Towers - mix grass clippings 50-50 with paper and/or cardboard and you get a wonderful compost. Old socks, shirts and bedding take longer to rot down, so undecomposed bits are just added to the new compost heap when the old needs to be used. Apparently the market for paper waste has fallen through the floor, that should not be a problem it should just be added to the huge council compost heaps and recycled in the most efficient and economical way possible. As an informative aside, I will add that I have a separate heap for leaves because they take longer to rot down and do so by fungal action rather than bacterial decomposition; the resultant material is not rich in nutrients but wonderful for conditioning soil.

In an entirely separate category sits all the plastic, metal and glass they collect. This will rot down over time, in many instances a very long period of time, but the resultant product is not readily useable; so recycling these items is all about finding an alternative use for them. If there is no economically viable alternative use the whole exercise is futile. Unlike green waste there is no natural element to the process. They are potential raw materials for businesses to put to use and whether time, effort and money should be spent recycling them depends entirely on whether it is economic to do so.

When I was young glass was recycled by being washed and reused. Pills came in bottles which were taken back to the chemist, milk came in bottles which were returned to the dairy, beer came in bottles which were returned to the brewery. Such a simple and sensible system. To encourage customers to return bottles a deposit was often charged, quite a substantial deposit in many instances, up to tuppence (1p) on a bottle of lemonade that cost two shillings (10p). It was far cheaper for the producer to wash and reuse bottles than to buy new ones and the customer would have to pay two shillings whether or not he returned the bottle so there was an obvious incentive for him to do so. These days we put bottles into big bottle banks from which they are sent to a crusher for the start of a whole process of turning them into something else. I can't help thinking it would be much more sensible to encourage glass bottles and jars to be kept whole and reused in their current form. Those that do break and those glass items which are not reusable (such as broken window panes) should be turned into something else if possible, but many a bottle can be reused safely time and time again; it seems a great shame and a great waste of effort to destroy something that does not need to be destroyed.

I would guess there are far fewer metal or plastic items which can be reused in their existing form, so for them the only question is whether they can be turned into a raw material for use in a future industrial process. Metals present fewer problems in this regard than plastics because they can always be melted down, purified and reused, whereas the same cannot be said for all plastics. What can be said with absolute certainty is that nothing is saved, least of all the planet, if there is no market for used plastics. Collecting them separately, chopping them up and turning them into something else is a waste of time if no one is prepared to buy or use the new product, it is equally a waste of time if the stuff produced by the recycling process is more expensive for manufacturing businesses than alternative raw materials.

Green waste is one thing; plastic, metal and glass waste are another. The two should not be treated the same.

My further point is that religious recycling of plastic, glass and metal diminishes the incentive to avoid using these materials in the first place. We are all familiar with excessive packaging and how much waste it produces. I recently bought a memory stick because I was planning a journey by train and these days it seems compulsory to leave a message stick on a train seat. I suppose it's a quaint British tradition like a minty chocolate on a posh hotel pillow. The item is about two inches long, half an inch wide and weighs less than one of poor Gordon's fingernails, yet it came encased in a moulded plastic package six inches by three with a cardboard insert and staples to hold the cardboard in place within the plastic. To my mind that is a complete waste. All I needed was the memory stick and some instructions ("before leaving your seat ensure you have loaded confidential material on the memory stick, do not put it down the back of the seat, the memory stick must be visible to any passing journalist"). Put them in a little cardboard box if you have to, but a large plastic package is just absurd.

Although many of us would prefer not to have the plastic packaging in the first place our guilty consciences are salved to some extent by the knowledge it can be put in the recycling bin. We are expected to feel we do good by giving the council our plastic. I wonder how much greater the pressure would be for dispensing with unnecessary plastic packaging if that fluffy sentiment did not accompany disposal of the offending item.

I don't want it to sound as though I think councils have got it wrong because my view is that they have done the right thing by encouraging recycling (albeit that they have been forced to do so by the EU's landfill tax). My concern is that everything with the recycling genre is seen as the same when the reality is that some material will always be recyclable from its very nature whereas other stuff is only potentially recyclable depending on cost. Now that the market for recycled plastic and for many metals is lower than for many years, attention should be concentrated on using less rather than using the same amount and pretending what we use can be reused.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

A disappointing meal

I visited a local restaurant last week when my usual enthusiasm for cooking had gone AWOL. It first opened about four or five years ago and has changed hands at least three times since then. It has been a winebar, an Italian restaurant, a French restaurant but nothing has worked. The current owners bought the place about eighteen months ago and have struggled for about a year. It seems to be one of those unfortunate businesses that is incapable of making money. I have been trying to work out why.

The building itself is new, stylish and in a good location, right on the corner of a park with lots of passing traffic both vehicular and on foot. In the summer there are shows in the small open air theatre in the park which gets very busy at weekends. One drawback is that parking is restricted, although that shouldn't be much of a handicap in a heavily populated area. The restaurant itself is roughly circular and seats about forty people at tables with a bar area capable of seating a further eight or ten. Many smaller establishments around here have done a roaring trade for years, so size can't be the problem.

When FatBigot Towers was undergoing serious refurbishment last year I was left without a kitchen for a while and visited a number of local eateries. It was a fascinating experience to see how they operate and, in particular, to spot differences between the most and least successful. Those which are always packed to the gills have two things in common, reliable food and excellent service. There are some at which the food is nothing special but every customer is looked after efficiently without having their evening interrupted unnecessarily. By contrast, some serve excellent food yet are rarely full because the service lets them down. For me nothing spoils a meal out more than having to wait too long for food or drinks, having to make a huge effort to get a waiter's attention or being badgered every ten minutes by that most annoying question: "how is everything?"

There was a time when last week's restaurant of choice was reasonably busy. The new owners retained a waiter who was already employed there and his professionalism in his work kept the customers happy. Although employed as a waiter he was in reality the manager and kept the whole "front of house" operation moving very well. I learned later that the previous owners had made a loss for most of their time there but saw taking go up markedly when that man was engaged, so they ran profitably for six months then sold at the peak of the market. The new owners, a married couple, decided they could save on costs by running it themselves and the waiter moved on at the end of last year. Taking fell almost immediately so the chef was next on the chopping block and the wife took over in the kitchen, thereby requiring a waiter to be employed. No doubt they thought it would be better to save the relatively high cost of a chef and substitute with a boy, then a girl, then a different girl, then a boy, then another girl, all on the minimum wage.

I hadn't eaten there for several months and was saddened by what I encountered. The waitress took my order but forgot to bring my drink. The sirloin steak I ordered was not sirloin steak but a cheap cut (the type sold in supermarkets as "frying steak" usually meaning a thin cut of topside or silverside) which had been bashed to the edge of next Friday with a wooden tenderiser. Prompting from me finally resulted in a beverage appearing but my plate was not cleared away until at least ten minutes after I had finished. It was a very shabby performance all round and all of it caused by self-defeating attempts to cut cost. At 8.30pm, which should be peak time for a restaurant during the working week, only six customers were present. Poor food and poor service are combining to kill the dream the owners had on taking over such a short time ago.

Perhaps the place is just blighted, after all a quick succession of owners points to it making regular losses. More likely, it seems to me, it simply hasn't been run properly. The final sign that it is approaching death came in the form of a poster in the window which caught my eye on the way out. It advertised that the establishment has been nominated for an award. I had never heard of the particular award before, and am not prepared to give it credence by naming it here, so I looked it up. Anyone can nominate a business for the award but nomination costs money, rather more money than the cost of the trophy and certificate awarded to each winner. The organisation making the awards also sells business services and a cynic might think that those who buy most receive the highest level of award. It is just an advertising scam and a last desperate attempt by a failing restaurant to attract customers by telling a blatant lie - nothing about it could win a genuine award.

As a, now, former customer I could tell the owners what they have to do. They should increase the quality of ingredients not reduce them and employ an experienced and professional manager to ensure service is of a high standard. In the summer they should operate part of the restaurant as a snack bar selling sandwiches and take away drinks to users of the park. Easy for me to say, of course, because I won't have to fork out the extra costs and risk not recouping them through additional trade, but it is either that or continue in their present way losing cash until they have none left to lose. A recession is not the time to be uncompetitive.

Six months of blogging

Today it is exactly six months since I started preening myself in public. I started this blog not long after encountering blogology for the first time. If my memory is correct it started with John Redwood because I was searching for something about him and Google invited me to his blog. From there I followed a few links and discovered all sorts of wonderful stuff. Within a month or so I pictured myself as a ranting addition to the clan, throwing about foul-mouthed abuse while destroying the heart and soul of everything I found offensive with a penetrating analysis previously unmatched in the published word, and chose the name under which I write still with that in mind. I soon found I do not have it in me to swear (except in the mildest way) nor to write things I do not believe and my powers of analysis are pretty good but nothing special.

What I have found most interesting is that people write in different ways and their style seems to reflect their personality. Some choose to offer essays on their topic of the day while others prefer to make brief points without detailed explanation; some give a lot of references and links while others concentrate on expressing their view on a matter whether or not it is supported by any other writer.

When I sit at my keyboard to compose a piece of verbiage I rarely know what I am going to say, or to be more precise I rarely know what conclusion I am going to draw. Many a time in the 180-odd essays I have published here I knew the topic I wanted to address but had not previously had to arrange my thoughts on it. I certainly knew what my general opinion was and often I was pretty sure that opinion had been reached by careful analysis, but actually sitting down and committing thoughts to paper (so to speak) requires you to think about many details you have not previously considered. And when you do consider them you find they do not support every aspect of your previous conclusions.

One of my earliest pieces was about common sense. In the course of writing it I had to think more deeply than before about certain aspects of the global warming issue and came out of the exercise even more sure that St Al of Gore and his acolytes are very dangerous people. When first putting fingertip to keyboard that day I had no intention of mentioning global warming at all, it just seemed appropriate to bring it up to illustrate the main point I was trying to make, and from there things snowballed. Although my essays are not very long and are of varying quality they often take two or three hours to complete because side-issues like that arise and need to be dealt with in a way that fits the article.

It is, perhaps, a sign of my disorganised character and short attention span that I have to write an essay in order to justify my conclusions to myself. Perhaps it is also a sign of insecurity that I have to write an essay because I would not expect anyone to agree with me unless I gave reasons for my view. Not for me the one-line comment expressing my disagreement with something a politician has suggested - why should anyone pay any attention to one line from an anonymous blogger? Surely my disagreement can only carry weight if I give a full(ish) explanation? Others get away with one line, but it's just not in my character to even try.

The last six months have been fascinating for me and highly enjoyable. It's quite a thrill when something you have written is referred to by others with approval and when supportive comments are left, not quite such a thrill when a commenter tells you you've got it all arse-over-tit but flattering nonetheless that they have taken time out of their lives to read what you have written.

I suppose I'd better write some more in the next six months.

Monday, 15 December 2008

Causing death by careless driving

In response to my offering of yesterday Mr Pogo expressed concern at the criminal law being changed to reflect the result of what the offender did rather than the degree of fault in his actions themselves. The example he gave was the recent change in the law which make causing death by careless driving an offence whereas the previous offence was causing death by dangerous driving. It made me think about the way different crimes are defined and whether such a change is objectionable.

If we take the most obvious offences - theft and assault - it is clear that they involve acts which cause harm to another and which can be readily predicted by the offender to have that effect. Within those two broad categories there are several specific offences. For example, a theft accompanied by breaking into premises is burglary and theft accompanied by violence or threats of violence is robbery. The additional factors are generally seen to make the offence more serious and to justify being given a legal significance of their own. That is not to say that all burglaries are more serious than all thefts. A burglar who breaks into a house and steals a computer might do £500 worth of damage to the window and remove an item worth £500, whereas a pickpocket might take a watch worth many thousands. There is no anomaly involved here, the categories exist because, generally speaking, burglaries are more serious than straight thefts and, generally speaking, adding threats makes robbery more serious again. In each of those cases the aggravating factor is under the control of the offender.

Assault also comes in many guises. I might push you or grab hold of your arm without having any intention to cause you to suffer pain or injury, yet each is a common assault. I suppose in modern language we would describe it as invading your "personal space", the law has long known it as an "assault upon the person". Were I to punch you it would be different because I know my act is likely to cause you an injury, possibly only bruising but an injury nonetheless. So we have the offence of assault occasioning actual bodily harm (often referred to as "ABH"). Provided my act shows that I must have intended to do you some physical harm it does not matter whether the actual injury suffered is the one I thought most likely. A modest punch to the jaw might be intended to cause only bruising, but it could result in dislocation, a lost tooth, a cut to the skin or concussion. I would be guilty of ABH and the sentence I receive would reflect the actual harm I did. Things change again if I intended to do serious harm, such as if I used a weapon. Where only minor injuries result I might be lucky and get away with ABH but where, as would usually be the case, serious injury is caused we get to the next level - assault occasioning grievous bodily harm (GBH). As with the various grades of theft, so the different levels of assault reflect not just the outcome but also the state of mind of the offender. And, as with theft, an offence falling into a lesser category might actually cause more harm than one falling within a higher category - a dislocated elbow from falling over after being pushed (ABH) can be considered more serious than a small nick caused by a stabbing which is frustrated by the knife going through a wallet before grazing the skin. However, the categories exist to provide a division between types of offending of generally different levels of seriousness - seriousness both in their usual outcomes and in the state of mind of the offender at the time he does the evil deed.

When it comes to acts which cause death the law draws a distinction based on the state of mind of the offender. If I intend to cause you death or really serious injury and I do in fact kill you, I am guilty of murder. Absent that specific state of mind, an assault resulting in death is "only" manslaughter. Other countries break down the law on homicide into more categories and it seems likely we will follow suit because it is hard to justify lumping together all circumstances that currently amount to manslaughter. The husband who feeds his wife an extra helping of morphine because she is in unbearable pain and has begged him to end her suffering cannot easily be equated with someone who is involved in a fight and punches his opponent who then falls, hits their head and dies. Each is manslaughter but the state of mind of the offender and, some might say, the moral turpitude of each is so radically different that it make sense for them to be seen differently in law.

In what I have discussed so far every offence has involved someone choosing to act in a way the laws defines as impermissible. The pickpocket, the burglar, the robber, the fighter, the mercy-killing husband have all chosen to perform a specific act which is contrary to law. Their crime is not a by-product of doing something essentially lawful but doing it badly. The same can be said of almost all criminal offences. In a different category are offences committed because you are doing something essentially lawful but not doing it correctly. A chef who serves undercooked chicken and gives his customers food poisoning can be guilty of various crimes. That does not mean the cooking and serving of chicken is unlawful, of course it isn't, but failing to do it properly and causing physical harm by your failure turns an otherwise lawful act into a crime. The same applies to driving.

Driving is a lawful activity for all those licenced to do it. But if you fail to drive in accordance with certain quality standards you will infringe the law. Since the early part of the twentieth century it has been unlawful to drive carelessly but it was not until the mid 1950s that causing death by driving became a specific offence. Until then you could be guilty of murder if you used a car as a weapon and intended to kill or do serious harm, or manslaughter if you drove when it was obvious that you were likely to kill or cause physical injury by doing so. Such cases were few and far between yet people were being killed by drivers who drove badly. Those drivers were often prosecuted for manslaughter but acquitted because they had no intention to do harm. Ever since the offence of "causing death by reckless or dangerous driving" was introduced in 1956 the law has vacillated between punishing the standard of driving and punishing the state of mind of the driver.

Reckless driving essentially involves ignoring an obvious risk that you might harm others. Dangerous driving is concerned not with your state of mind but with the standard of your driving itself. You might think you are perfectly safe, you might do everything you can to notice the other traffic around you and to avoid accidents, but you might just be so incompetent that your driving does in fact present a danger to others. Such a driver is dangerous but not reckless.

In 1977 the law changed and the offence became "causing death by reckless driving", thereby excluding the dangerous drivers who had no appreciation of the danger they posed. Then in 1991 it changed again to "causing death by dangerous driving", thereby avoiding the need to prove that the driver had any appreciation of the risk he posed. These changes were made after thorough reviews of how the law operated in practice and whether it represented a fair and balanced approach. Another review was undertaken before the most recent change. That review was far less analytical that the earlier ones and relied on a great deal of anecdotal evidence. The new law of "causing death by careless or inconsiderate driving" is, as I understand it, an additional offence to catch cases where the driving itself was not so far below a reasonable standard as to be caught by the definition of dangerous driving, but was careless and resulted in death.

This new law is a strange thing because I am not sure what it is meant to achieve. The biggest problem with the previous law was not in its definition or scope but in the sentences that were imposed. They did not equate to sentences imposed for manslaughter because an aggravating feature present in manslaughter cases (the mental element) was not present - if it had been the charge would have been manslaughter. Many a family has been seen on television or read about in newspapers complaining that the killer of their loved one only received four, five, six, ten years imprisonment and this was no reflection of their loss. They have a point, but not much of one because no sentence can undo what has happened. There will, I have no doubt, be even greater anguish when shorter sentenced are passed for causing death by careless driving - after all the new offence means nothing if it is not a lesser offence than the one resulting in what are perceived to be inadequate sentences.

The real problem in this area lies in the fact that driving is an inherently lawful act for all those with a licence to do it. As such any offence must have reference to the quality of the driving involved. Hare around like a brainless hooligan and you will be hit harder than someone who suffered a momentary lapse of concentration. I share Mr Pogo's concern that creating new offences based on the consequences of actions achieves little. It fails to recognise that the actions themselves must define the level of sentence otherwise we will be approaching the thin ice of strict liability in which consequences are everything regardless of whether your conduct was at fault. That is not a proper basis for the making of criminal law in a civilised society.

Saturday, 13 December 2008

Canoes and self-pity

A couple of weeks ago I emitted a piece of waffle about the Crown Prosecution service. In a lengthy and interesting comment Mrs Raft raised a number of points including one I want to look at today.

Last year a man reappeared having been missing for five years. It was thought he had drowned following his canoe capsizing, in fact he was alive and well all along and the canoeing incident was part of a fraud perpetrated by him and his wife on an insurance company. In July this year they were both convicted of obtaining money by deception and given lengthy prison sentences. As the BBC reported at the time, the judge described their sons (who had been misled by their mother into thinking their father was dead) as the "real victims". Mrs Raft, took issue with this, pointing out that the insurance company was the real victim and commented that the judge had stepped outside his judicial function by making the remark.

If it were not for the context in which the judge used those words, I would agree with Mrs Raft entirely. In fact he said it while giving the reasons for imposing the stiff prison sentences he did. That the couple's children had been misled in such a cruel way was an aggravating feature justifying the imposition of a longer prison sentence than would have been appropriate had the sons been told the truth. There are many factors judges have to consider when passing sentence and for him to describe the couple's boys as the real victims helped to put in context that they had been told their father was dead and found out years later it was all a hoax, and all for the sake of £50,000. It's hard, I think, to criticise the phrase in that context. He was not saying they were victims of crime in the conventional sense but that they were victims of their parents' behaviour.

Although I think the judge was justified in using the words he did in that case, there is a wider point raised by Mrs Raft, that of "victim impact statements". I can't actually remember whether that is the correct term for them, but I find them so offensive that I can't be bothered to look it up. The concept behind them is that victims of crime can tell the court how they have suffered. It is not something that can affect sentence in most cases because the judge would be told of the consequences of the defendant's conduct and would take that into account anyway, as the judge did in the great canoe caper case. Sentence does not and should not increase with the number of tears shed by the victim. The one real impact such a statement can have is to reduce sentence if the victim informs the judge of mitigating circumstances which were previously unknown. This does not happen very often, but talking to friends who are judges in criminal courts I am aware that it does occur from time to time.

The real purpose of victim impact statements is to add to the general weight of hippyisation in the country. "You must tell the judge how you have suffered, it will help to bring closure, then we will make more counselling available for you" is the typical approach of those who promoted this ridiculous exercise in public pity-seeking.

I wonder whether it really does help the victims to get over what happened to them. All of us who have been victims of crime react to the experience in different ways. I encountered a burglar in the living room of FatBigot Towers a few years ago. On being asked what he was doing here he said "sorry mate, I've got the wrong house, I thought this was my house". This would have been a perfectly plausible explanation had he been blind drunk and staggered in through an open front door, but my house has steps up to the front door, the living room window is at the same level and a good twelve feet above the concrete path outside the basement window on the floor below, to get to the window ledge requires walking up the steps and stepping over a three-foot gap; he climbed in through the living room window. He knew the game was up when I appeared and exited peacefully through the front door as I ushered him out. I, on the other hand, was shaking for hours and did not feel safe in my own home for many months.

Had he been apprehended and convicted my statement to the court would have described how scared I was that he might have a knife and pierce my flabby frame, thereby causing severe stains to the carpet and, no doubt, a degree of discomfort to me. But what would it have achieved? Shit happens in life. To everyone. You have to put it behind you and get on. The idea that telling a judge about it would somehow alleviate any lingering worry is simply absurd. Any trial would not occur until months after the event by which time the last thing that will help a victim of crime is to have to relive the whole horrid experience again. Of course you would have to relive it if you gave evidence, sitting down to try to work out exactly how unpleasant it was and then having that recounted in court does not seem like something to reduce that trauma.

The most worrying aspect of victim impact statements is that they add to the torrent of well-meaning wishy-washy advice given by the caring-and-sharing raffia munchers ("the Righteous" as the great Mr Leg-Iron describes them). It builds the idea of victimhood being a permanent state, something that is with you forever and which you must milk for everything you can get. They talk of "closure" yet their practises require the nasty event to be reopened. They call for justice yet encourage a plea of aggravation to be made when all relevant aggravating facts will already be before the court. The supreme irony is that the very people who encourage the permanency of victimhood are the first in line to describe offenders as victims of society and bleat about the savagery of imprisonment and the inappropriateness of punishment as a response to crime.

Victims are victims, every crime has at least one and every victim has a life to live. There is far less chance of them putting bad experiences behind them if the prevailing attitude is that they must consider victimhood a status rather than the result of an isolated incident. I suppose I'm just advocating the stiff upper lip. Yes, that's exactly what I'm doing, because I think it is a much more positive approach than wallowing in self-pity.

Thursday, 11 December 2008

I'm too old to understand child minders

Some political ideas just cannot get through my thick skull. It's my fault entirely for being an old fuddy-duddy. For years the government has been encouraging mothers to go to work and leave their children with childminders. My fuddy-duddy brain says this is upside-down. If children are so young they need to be looked after during the day I cannot see any circumstances in which it is best for that to be done by anyone other than their parents, in reality that means their mothers in the vast majority of cases. I leave to one side that small number of mothers who are unfit to look after a wheelbarrow let alone a child, I am interested in the dedicated loving mothers who want their children to grow up safe, secure, well behaved and well educated.

It wasn't very long ago that being a parent was seen as a career in itself. My late mother took that view. She worked as a secretary after leaving school and up until a few months before her first child was born. I have no doubt she was a very good secretary and could, had she been so minded, have had a long and successful career doing something she enjoyed very much. But she wanted to have a family and she wanted her children to have the best upbringing she could give them. That required her to be in charge of our care when we were very young. Any suggestion that she should go back to work and leave someone else to look after us would have been met with gasps of incredulity and the question: "What do you mean 'go back to work'? This is work. This is my career now and it's a bloody sight tougher and more worthwhile than anything else I could do."

To my mind her attitude is unquestionably sound. Bringing children up is a difficult job; not just the long hours, the mess and all the other physical strains it imposes but also the need to nurture the brain as well as the body and turn the little pink potato shaped thing you brought home from hospital into a fully functioning, sensible and fair minded adult who will be a useful addition to the world. How can it possibly be thought right to pass that heavy responsibility to another when you are the only person those children will ever be able to call "Mum"? I just don't see it.

In an excellent piece today the very fine Mr Stan wrote about this topic and discussed how feminism has affected the issue. I agree with every word he wrote but I want to address a different aspect of it because feminism is, I believe, only one of the factors that has led to the extraordinary situation of mothers delegating their position to others. I am intrigued by the potential self-interest of the government in encouraging mothers to take paid work and pass their children to child-minders.

Unemployment statistics treat every adult between the ages of 18 and 65 as a potential worker. If they are not engaged in paid work they are treated as unemployed. A housewife (what an antiquated term that now seems) is unemployed in the eyes of the statistics. Still worse for the government is that a housewife in a family that is paid tax credits is not only unemployed she is claiming welfare benefits too. Put her back in the office or the factory and the government receives a triple statistical boon. First she is no longer unemployed. Secondly the household income might rise above the level which entitles them to claim tax credits. And thirdly, someone else is paid to look after the children and is either removed from the unemployed list or receives extra income which might take them off tax credits too.

No one can say with any authority whether children suffer by being looked after by child minders during working hours rather than their parents. No doubt there are some instances in which there is a huge benefit because the child minder is a better influence than the parents would have been and, equally, there will be some instances in which the child minder is a disaster. Looking at things in the round I would not expect any great harm to result because the vast majority of child minders are probably like the vast majority of people and work hard to do the best job they can. What can be said with a fair degree of certainty is that a few years hence there will be an awful lot of parents who will ask whether problems their children have are the result of being left to the care of child minders rather than having their mothers to guide them throughout their childhood.

What can also be said with certainty is that a government obsessed with statistics will pursue policies that improve their statistics. Having people "in work" is an end in itself for such a government. That does not necessarily mean they will pursue statistically favourable policies regardless of the consequences, but where the consequences cannot be measured, as in this case, statistical advantage can only encourage the push for more mothers to be in paid employment.

I wonder how many mothers who have felt compelled to return to work while their children are young will look back in the years ahead and regret their decision. Their children might well turn out to be fine people and will be a cause for pride, but they only had one chance to bring them up and once it has gone it has gone. How many will say "I wish I had been with them all the time when they were little"? I guess the number will be vast, people who missed some special thing their child said or some milestone in their lives because they were at work at the time and another woman witnessed it not the child's mother. You cannot put a price on momentous occasions like the time your child takes his first step or utters her first word, stirs their first cake mixture or first engages in "I'll show you mine if you show me yours". They are little things implanted in your mind forever, part of your personal history as well as the personal history of your child. They are things that matter because they are natural parts of the parental process, hearing second-hand what you should have witnessed yourself deprives you of something that is your right as a parent.

Perhaps one day a government will think beyond statistics and balance sheets and realise that parenthood doesn't have a price either for children or for parents themselves. My mother didn't live to see her children grow up but she knew her second career was successful because she spent every minute being a mother while still able to do so. It is sad to think that many will live to a ripe old age without being able to say the same. No government policy should pressurise mothers into abandoning such an important and natural part of their lives.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Balancing blame for the recession

When something goes wrong it is often easy to try to identify a single culprit. If what has happened has caused people pain or expense, having someone to blame somehow makes things better, especially if they are subjected to punishment. All those victims of crime who complain about their assailant receiving a light sentence would complain so much more had no one been apprehended and convicted at all because the fact that the guilty party has been identified and suffered some adverse consequences gives solace even where their punishment does not match the suffering they inflicted on others.

In some fields it is simply unrealistic to suggest that one person or organisation is to blame. The current recession is an example of this. Was it all the fault of the banks for lending to people who could not repay the loans? Of course not. Nor was it all the fault of the borrowers who should have known better, or the government who encouraged the illusion of borrowed wealth in order to further their own ambition for power, or the government appointed regulatory authority. All of these groups are to blame in different measures because each made very serious errors of judgment and the consequences for everyone are bad now and look set to get a lot worse before there can be a real recovery. (Although I say "banks", much of the worst lending was carried out by finance companies unconnected to banks, but I will use "banks" to describe all lenders for present purposes.)

One group which has escaped serious censure to date is the banks' shareholders. This is a curious omission because they were in a better position than government to see what was happening and take steps to prevent disaster. The most common structure of a company is pretty much the same the world over and is based on a system devised in this country over a hundred and fifty years ago. The company has directors who are responsible for the day to day management of its operation and shareholders who put up the capital with which it operates and hope to make a profit from the company's activities. Shareholders have great power, if only they choose to exercise it. They appoint directors and can pass resolutions requiring the directors to do (or refrain from doing) certain things. Where the business practices followed by the directors are patently risky (like 125% mortgages or failing to investigate the means of the borrower) that risks falls on the shareholders not the directors themselves (obviously directors might also be shareholders, but that does not alter the substance of my point).

So what should you do as a shareholder in such a situation? Essentially you have two options: licking your lips and grabbing the profits while they are being made (then, if you have any sense, selling your shares before the excrement hits the fan) or taking steps to bring the directors' activities under control with an eye on the long term. Take the first option, as banks' shareholders did, and you are as much to blame as the directors themselves.

In saying this I don't pretend it is easy for shareholders to secure the majority required to pass a resolution forcing directors to change tack. Many shareholders are only interested in immediate profits not in the future, still less do they feel compelled to consider the effect on the wider economy of the business that is reaping them a nice reward. Even those who are sure a big mistake is being made know the easier option is to sell their shares rather than try to change the way a massive business is being operated. In all this there is a type of shareholder who really should have known better, the institutional shareholders with a duty to look to the future, in particular pension companies. A great many pension companies hold shares in banks because they have been a safe historic investment producing a steady return.

Pension companies are themselves huge businesses, administering vast sums of money on behalf of those who will call on them for income when they retire. There are some people who invest a lot in pension funds and build up a pot of a million pounds or more, in some cases many millions. A far greater number put a little aside every month, maybe a hundred pounds or so, to give a modest boost to their basic state pension when they finish work. It goes without saying that 1,000 people investing £100 a month is the same as one person investing £100,000 a month, it's an awful lot of money however it arrives in the pot and it has to be invested sensibly to give the best return over a lengthy period. Pension fund managers know they have to spread the risk they are prepared to take, so they invest some in rock-solid investments with relatively low returns (such as government bonds), much less in fairly risky ventures which might make a packet or might fold tomorrow and most in solid long-term performers like banks. The precise balance they choose to strike between risk and return differs from fund to fund, but shares in banks loom large in almost all.

Shares held by pension companies represent a large proportion of the total number of shares issued by many banks, which means that the pension funds have the muscle to influence the way the banks do business. A pension fund owning, say, five percent of the shares in a bank has great power, far greater power than a five percent shareholding might suggest. If they are worried about the way the bank is doing business and start selling shares they can cause the price of shares to plummet. Some selling is part of the natural way of things and rings no alarm bells, the sudden sale of a lot more than average suggests the bank might be in trouble and causes others to sell just in case there is a problem. Such an event causes a problem in itself and the banks know it. Large shareholders can have a huge influence over how a bank does business if they express concern about lending practices. They won't do it publicly unless they have to and they won't do it at all if they fail to appreciate the need for concern.

One might think pension funds and other very large shareholders would have found a way to get the banks to avoid taking undue risks, after all there were plenty of warnings in financial circles about the difficulties that could result from loose lending. All to often, though, the pension funds fell into the same trap as the banks themselves, they looked only to what they can make this year without consideration for the damage their own business could sustain a little way down the line. No doubt one factor in this was the whopping bonuses payable to pension fund managers if they made a big profit this year, bonuses which would not be recouped if a loss is made next year. That cannot, it seems to me, have been the only factor. There was also the simple fact that the banks were making a lot of profit and to make a move which would result in that profit being lowered would be harmful in the short term to the pension funds those managers had to administer. Even those who saw difficult times ahead could, perhaps, be forgiven for thinking that difficult times would affect other potential investments more than bank shares.

Despite all this, institutional shareholders must look to the long term in order to protect the funds they are running because pensions are a long-term business. Most of their customers will rely on them for more than fifteen years of investment returns before they retire, so jam today is only part of the equation the question must always be asked whether tomorrow's menu will feature jam or humble pie.

The failure of institutional shareholders to exert influence on banks was not just bad for the banks it was bad for the funds those shareholders administer. Their duty to their customers was to protect the funds and if that meant getting heavy with the banks they should have done exactly that. I know it is easy to say this with hindsight but I do not speak with hindsight, I speak with foresight because the problems caused by lending too much against too little security was exposed, painfully, in the early 1990s. During the latter part of the 1980s we saw 100% mortgages and borrowers only having to say they earn £40,000 a year for a bank to accept it and make a loan. It was exposed as appallingly bad practice not just by the housing crash from 1990-1992 but also in a long series of cases in the courts in which banks sought to recover their losses from solicitors and valuers who were alleged to have been negligent in their work during the course of a house purchase. Time after time the damages recovered by the bank were reduced substantially because they contributed to their losses through negligent lending practices. Many an eminent judge accepted the evidence of experienced expert witnesses and concluded that lending without proper assessment of the borrower's ability to pay was a recipe for default.

Those cases were publicised throughout the banking and pension industries, yet within ten years the same thing was happening again. The banks should have known better and so should the pension funds. I think it's time they took their share of the blame.

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

The cruelty of non-jobs

Over recent months much has been written about "non-jobs". Positions like Street Football Coordinator (paid by the taxpayer to organise impromptu kick-abouts into a more formal structure), Five-a-Day Adviser (paid by the taxpayer to guess how much fruit and veg people eat and suggest ways to force them to eat more), Climate Change Response Manager (paid by the taxpayer to suppress rational debate) and thousands more. Many are in the employ of local authorities who have felt compelled to engage them to meet some central government target or another.

Non-jobs are a fine way to reduce the unemployment figures and the tasks they carry out are, no doubt, thought to be of value by some people (usually a lobbying group paid by central government or the EU). I could bleat on about the cost. Just a thousand such jobs (a tiny fraction of the number in existence) at an average total remuneration of £20,000 each costs a massive £20million a year. Every year. I'm not going to go into the total cost, I don't know enough about it to do so and the figures are available from such luminaries as Mr Tyler.

When poor Gordon convinced himself and others that he had invented the money tree it wasn't a problem. He reached up to the ripe fruit, each one bearing the slogan "a billion quid", picked a few, peeled them and said "yummy". Now that the country is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy it is a rather different matter. Sensible budgeting demands that these unnecessary fripperies are abandoned as we enter a decade of thin gruel. Tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of these positions must be abolished if there is to be any hope at all of balancing the books by the end of 2018. And that gives rise to the point I want to make.

It really is very cruel and shortsighted to entice people into work when the cost of employing them is so much greater than the value of any benefit they could bring. Say you are a Street Football Coordinator employed by Bogshire County Council at a salary of £17,500 plus pension. Previously you were working as an assistant at the municipal sports centre on £14,000 but you have ambition and are keen to get more children playing football and enjoying competition so you put yourself forward. Your old job is then given to someone else and your new career starts. You are told your work is important and that you are a pioneer, you are told the future holds bright things with the possibility of promotion, higher remuneration and an even larger pension. But it is all guff. It's not your fault, in all good faith you took an opportunity to further yourself. After a couple of years in the post and with help from your parents you buy your first small flat. The future looks rosy but you have been misled. You read in the newspapers that others doing your work are being laid-off. How can that be? You were told it was vital work for the future and you planned your future around the rock solid security of working for a local authority. You find yourself made redundant with a small cheque to pay into the bank, a large mortgage and a flat falling in value. Funding for the sports centre is being squeezed so there are no openings there and you are now overqualified to go back to your old job anyway. And all because someone with more money in his budget than sense in his head decided Bogshire needed a Street Football Coordinator.

Of course neither central nor local government is yet making overt noises about such positions being dispensed with, they are saving that until after the next election. But dispensed with they will have to be because, frankly, they are a waste of money and now there is no money to waste. The position of people employed in these jobs is similar to that of those taken on by nationalised industries in the 1960s and 1970s. Those industries were loss making machines and the time would inevitably come when they had to be slimmed down or closed completely, yet people were given work in the hope and expectation that affording the unaffordable would go on forever.

Non-jobs create false hope in real people. Real people undertake financial commitments and plan their lives on the assumption their jobs will be safe. Many, like the sporty fellow in my example, leave other stable jobs to take the new positions. They do not do so out of greed or because they are trying to use the system for their own benefit. They do so because they believe the guff they are told.

Every sensible small businessman and woman knows what a very big thing it is to employ someone. They know that they must choose he right person for the job in order to get the maximum benefit for their business and they know that the person they choose will become reliant on them and will plan their future according to what that business can offer them. No doubt there are some hire 'em and fire 'em employers who simply don't care, although I have to say I've never met one. I have met plenty of businesspeople who hate having to let a loyal employee go and go to great lengths to avoid doing so, often at significant personal expense to themselves. No one is taken on at a substantial salary unless the job they are engaged to undertake is real and has real value. Still less is anyone taken on to massage the unemployment statistics. Yet that is exactly what has been happening over and over again in the public sector for the last nine years or more.

It is bad enough that it wastes taxpayers' money, it is simply cruel that it gives false hope to people acting in good faith.