Thursday, 30 April 2009

The irrelevance of MPs' additional income

The latest government initiative is to try to deflect attention from the dishonest profiteering of Labour members through the generous MPs' expenses rules. Gordon Brown wants MPs with paid employment outside the House of Commons to declare how much they earn because he believes, probably correctly, that more Conservatives than Labour members have such jobs. As I understand the current rules they have to declare sources of additional income but not the amount received. On tonight's Question Time we had the usual "balanced" panel of two Labour Party supporters, one hard-left Welsh Nationalist, one Lib Dem and one Conservative. On this topic being reared we heard exactly the type of confused, ignorant and envious arguments Gordon sought to elicit.

Those arguments were three: (i) MPs should work only as MPs otherwise they can't do the job properly, (ii) they get paid enough so taking other work is just greedy and (iii) they shouldn't do other work because being an MP is a career in itself.

The first of these points is quite stunningly absurd, yet it was pressed to the hilt by the Labour MP on the panel, Hilary Benn, a cabinet minister. Perhaps the heat of the studio lights caused him to forget his own position. He has two jobs. He is an MP and he is a government minister. I have never heard anyone suggest he is unable to represent his constituents adequately because of the time taken to do his other work. I have to be fair and acknowledge that ministers receive additional secretarial assistance to help them deal with constituency correspondence. No doubt some routine enquiries from constituents which would otherwise be dealt with by the MP himself are instead delegated to assistants, but that does not mean that the heavy burden of cabinet office leaves the minister's constituents unrepresented.

In any event, whether a particular MP represents his constituents adequately cannot be judged by whether he has other interests (be they paid work, needlepoint or watching large ladies wrestling in mud), it can be judged only by how he does his job as an MP and his constituents are the sole judges of that. Some MPs don't do a good job as constituency MPs even though they devote all their time to it, others have the ability to do all sorts of additional things without ever providing a less than first class service to those they represent. I would rather have as my MP someone who is able to do a lot of things well than someone who is either frustrated by being limited to only one role or struggles even to do that. We have all met people with extraordinary amounts of energy and who operate at a level of efficiency we could not dream of meeting. You see it in every walk of life and no one would think of saying that those who are capable to doing more should be prevented from doing so (although the EU does its best through the working time directive).

On the second point a lady in tonight's audience bristled at the thought of the Conservative MP on the panel earning £24,000 from a non-executive company directorship in addition to his MP's salary. She observed that many can only dream of earning £24,000 for their only job at which they work long hours. No doubt that is true, but it is neither here nor there. After all, those people would not be filling the vacancy if the MP were forced to resign that directorship. I wasn't sure whether her point went any further than just expressing envy at the MP's fortunate position. I suppose it is possible that she was arguing for an absolute income cap at the rate of pay received by MPs (£64,700, I believe), no, that can't be possible, it's just too absurd for words. It seems to be part of the character of many Brits these days to act with spiteful envy towards those with more money than them. Perhaps this is not surprising given the levelling-down culture that permeates state education and much of the output of television, it will take a long time to turn it round if ever the will exists to do so. In the meantime all that can be done is to argue against it point-by-point. In the case of the MP earning an additional £24,000, there is no benefit in depriving him of that income (and the Exchequer of the top-rate income tax paid on it).

In relation to this second point a further and very important issue arises. Learning how much MPs earn from consultancies or directorships tells us the cube root of nothing about anything relevant to how they do their work as MPs. As I mentioned above, some have the ability to undertake all sorts of additional work while representing their constituents very well, others do not. Take two MPs of identical ability who each can take on one consultancy or directorship requiring twenty days' work a year and still be good MPs. Twenty one days and their constituents suffer, nineteen days and they have a wasted day on their hands. One takes a consultancy for twenty eight days and received £10,000, the other takes an identical job for twenty days and receives £25,000. The amount paid to them tells us nothing, indeed it is entirely misleading because the one earning less is compromising his role as an MP whereas the other is not. The figures of how much they earn are meaningless except in stoking envy among Labour's core voters and, presumably, increasing their chance of voting Labour at the next election.

The third point is, perhaps, the most worrying of all. For a good twenty years we have seen a steady fall in the calibre of MPs and ministers as more and more "career politicians" have filled the House of Commons. Only one member of the current cabinet had anything even vaguely approximating to a successful career before entering politics. Some of them practised law at a junior level for a few years, at least one was a teacher for a decade or so, the rest (apart from Alan Johnson) have been full-time career politicians since university. Mr Johnson was a postman and rose through the ranks of a Trade Union to a senior position. Only he had a career first and then entered politics, all the rest have so little experience of the outside world that it is hardly surprising the current government is a complete shambles with no grasp of the real consequences of their policies.

I am sure poor Gordon will shore-up a tiny part of his party's core support among the bitter and envious by this measure, but it is yet another piece of shallow and meaningless political gesturing from a man who is proving every day how he has nothing else to him.

An exception for exceptional people

Honour is a difficult thing because it is at risk of being hi-jacked by self-interest. I believe it was Ralph Waldo-Emerson who said "the louder he proclaimed his honour, the faster we counted our spoons", or words to that effect. It is in the nature of human beings generally, not just politicians, to seek to win an argument by professing that they should be believed because they are good people.

Honour is not just about what someone thinks of himself or how he behaves in his own life. It is also a substantive concept setting a standard for how we should deal with others. At heart it no more than good manners. If someone acts pleasantly to us we are inclined to act pleasantly to them, if someone goes out of his way to help us we would be pretty shabby examples of humanity if we did not return the compliment when they heed help. Normally these issues arise privately or at local level, rarely do they arise as part of national political debate, but they did yesterday and honour won the day.

Hats off to Nick Clegg for leading the charge and to the Labour backbenchers brave enough to stand up to their bullying leader and whips to do the right thing by the Gurkhas.

For my few readers from outside the UK, the Gurkhas are a regiment of the British army drawn from Nepal (not all members are Nepalese, but many are). Huge numbers apply and few are chosen, they have a long and distinguished history of impeccable service. They consider it an enormous honour to be among the chosen few and act accordingly. Their record of bravery is second to none. Recently the question has arisen whether they should be allowed to settle in the UK at the end of the time of service. The government wanted to impose various restrictions, the House of Commons approved a motion from the Liberal Democrat party that there should be no qualifications. One Labour MP resigned a junior position in the government in order to vote against the government position and sufficient of his colleagues abstained or voted for the Lib Dem's motion that the government was defeated.

It is a classic example of the problem with one-size-fits-all politics. The Gurkhas are not a one-size-fits-all entity, they are unique and dedicated. Their devotion deserves recognition even though they might not qualify to settle here had they chosen any other career. Is sentiment involved? Yes, to a degree. But the issue is much more about making an exception to the normal rules so that we can give a little back to a brave and loyal group who have given this country far more than they ask or ever will ask in return.

The vote is not determinative of the issue. If the government has any honour it will stand by the view expressed in the House of Commons, if it fails to do so it can be assured of defeat when the matter is voted on in the House of Lords. The Commons voted for an exception for exceptional people. For once we have good news.

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

It's the court of public opinion again

Some ideas are just bound to result in confusion and disappointment. Today I read of a plan to consult "the community" on various aspects of criminal justice, not as a consultative procedure prior to enacting new laws but as an on-going part of the system of justice. The plan is set out in detail on the Ministry of Justice website (here). At first glance it looks like a lot of well-meaning guff, my fear is that it is rather more dangerous than well-meaning.

It doesn't help that the announcement is framed in management-speak twaddle, including such concepts as "proactive and accessible community-facing district/borough Crown Prosecutors" and "a toolkit ... to raise awareness and streamline processes". Digging through the nonsense, the plan for "community" consultation seems to involve three parts. First, employees of the Crown Prosecution Service will have to consult "the community" when deciding whether to prosecute in particular cases. Secondly, "Community Impact Statements" will be used at all stages of the criminal justice process. And, thirdly, "Citizens' Panels" will be involved in deciding the type of work done by those sentenced to carry out community service.

What isn't said is what "the community" means. Of course it's one of those cuddly words our government likes to use but which doesn't really mean anything and tends to divide people rather than unite them, as I mentioned a few months ago (here). What is it meant to mean in relation to the prosecution of criminal charges? Who counts as part of "the community" for that purpose? Are you disqualified from being consulted if you have a criminal record? Is there one local community when considering theft from shops and another when considering domestic assaults? And what criteria will be sued to select those to be consulted? Will it be for us to put our views forward or will they seek us out? I don't know. But my guess is that we will find special interest groups pressing their positions and the little people being sidelined. So, what of the three proposals themselves?

I have enormous difficulty with the first idea - Crown Prosecutors having to consult the public when deciding whether to prosecute and, if so, for what offence. In any given case either there will be sufficient evidence to justify a prosecution or there will not. The test to be applied cannot change just because "the community" wants more people to be prosecuted for particular types of crime. After all, in the court of public opinion it is not prosecutions that are called for it is convictions. Calls for more prosecutions where the evidence does not justify prosecution are in effect calls for more acquittals and, therefore, for greater public disappointment. No matter how reasonable it may be to demand a crackdown on shoplifting or stabbing, it achieves nothing to prosecute more people only to find that the rate of convictions falls from, say, 70% to 50%; the public perception will, quite rightly, be that the crackdown has backfired.

"Community Impact Statements" are new to me, although the Ministry's website suggests they have been compiled by the police for some time. I can understand them being useful to the police who have to be able to identify particular types of criminal behaviour that are weighing heavily on Mr and Mrs Ordinary in order to adjust their policing strategy to address topical local problem, how well they achieve this is open to debate but in principle it is sensible. How, though, does that affect anything other than policing? It can't affect sentencing otherwise you have convicted people being given potentially radically different sentences in different parts of the country which is fundamentally incompatible with the administration of justice being even-handed. I mustn't overstate that point because the prevalence of a certain type of criminal behaviour in a particular area has been a legitimate consideration for decades and can justify a slightly higher sentence being passed by way of deterrence to others. However, the scope for increasing a sentence on this ground has always been limited otherwise you can find someone being given a substantially greater punishment than his conduct warrants because of what other people have done not because of what he has done, which is wrong in principle.

The third idea might have something going for it but only if it applies in a particular way. There is sense in "the community" identifying worthy projects to benefit from the free work of those serving community sentences. In reality, of course, it will be individuals or existing groups who identify such projects and bring them to the attention of the Probation Service and I can see a benefit to creating a simple channel through which their ideas can be put forward. Selecting which projects are appropriate must remain in the hands of the Probation Service themselves who have to consider the resources they have available for supervision and the suitability of those projects for the unskilled attention of a group of spotty glue-sniffers.

If this whole scheme is pursued with any promise that "the community" will get what it wants there can only be two consequences. Either the lynch-mob will be kept happy, in which case the whole thing will collapse under the weight of the Human Rights Act before you can say "disproportionate"; or the lynch-mob will find itself ignored in which case the system will be held in even greater contempt than it is already. There is no half-way house because there is no way of preventing a promise of contentment from giving rise to a lynch-mob mentality.

Without a promise that "the community" will get what it wants, the exercise can be nothing more than window-dressing.

If we want a true measure of "community" involvement in the criminal justice system we have to look at other things. For more than twenty years criminal charges that were once heard by a jury have been transferred to the exclusive jurisdiction of the Magistrates' Court, that process has accelerated over the last decade. Although lay Magistrates are members of the public rather than of the professional judiciary they are more remote than a jury from Mr and Mrs Ordinary. A further change has taken place with increasing pace over the last five to seven years. There are some Magistrates who are full-time professional judges, they used to be known as Stipendiary Magistrates and are now known as District Judges. In most cases they sit alone without any other Magistrates being involved in the cases, hear the evidence and decide everything that has to be decided. "Stipes", as I will always think of them, generally get through cases much faster than a bench of two or three lay Magistrates and help keep delays down. Most of them are astonishingly good at their job. It cannot be ignored, however, that they are professional judges and their massively increased numbers have removed "the community" from the decision-making process in more and more cases each year.

Against that background it is hard to take seriously the pious pronouncements of the Justice Secretary and the Home Secretary that they are dedicated to the notion of the little people having any serious role in the criminal justice system.

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Cats and teeth are expensive things

One of the blogs I follow contains the thoughts of Mr Stan. He has written about a recent report that people are abandoning their pets to animal welfare organisations because they cannot afford to keep them. The specific point he addresses is vets' bills. I am not an animal man unless the animal is in front of me on a plate, with gravy, I have never had a pet and do not understand the concept of pets at all, but I do understand that others derive some sort of pleasure from having creatures roaming around their homes. So be it, it's their choice.

The particular example Mr Stan gave was of a visit to the vet more than a year ago which cost £250 for a consultation and the supply of antibiotics for a cat. It made me think of my visit to the dentist last week for an examination and the removal of tar and plaque from my stubby brown teeth. That set me back £70, I need to have one filling replaced which will cost between £150 and £200. It seems an awful lot of money until you think of what is involved in running a dental practice, and I presume similar points can be made about veterinary work.

I happen to know a little about the costs my dentist incurs in running his practice. The surgery is very pleasantly appointed in premises which would otherwise be a shop of some kind. He pays £23,000 a year in rent and business rates to occupy those premises. The practice requires a receptionist (salary, £18,000) and a fully qualified dental nurse (£24,000). He has only recently moved into his present building and had to pay for it to be kitted out for his needs, the building work and purchase of furniture and equipment cost more than £70,000. He requires professional indemnity insurance, insurance for the building and contents and must pay National Insurance contributions for his staff. He budgets for £12,000 each year for the next ten years for capital expenditure to cover the cost of kitting out the surgery and replacing furniture and equipment as necessary. There are also various other necessary costs such as cleaning, electricity and telephones. Before drawing a penny himself or using a single dose of anaesthetic or a taking a single x-ray he has overheads of around £90,000. Assuming he works 45 weeks of the year even I can work out that he must bill £2,000 a week or £400 a day just to stand still. If he wishes to draw, say, £45,000 himself that figure goes up to £3,000 a week or £600 a day.

There will always be some voids when patients don't turn up or no one is booked-in, so out of an eight-hour working day he might only average six billable hours. So, he must bill £100 an hour after the cost of materials used in order to pay his overheads and draw the salary I have assumed for him; actually, make that £115 because he has to charge VAT at 15%. Add in a couple of x-rays, fancy modern white filling materials, porcelain caps and all the rest of the necessary paraphernalia and necessary billing rates might have to average well over £200 an hour even if he restricts his pay to £45,000 (which would be modest in London).

£250 for the examination of a cat and the supply of antibiotics might seem a lot but I think I have some idea why it is so much.

Monday, 27 April 2009

Another day, another slap in the face for Gordon

There was always something slightly surreal about Gordon Brown's intervention last week into the debate on MPs' expenses. With the Committee on Standards in Public Life only part-way through its research and deliberations he tried to short circuit the whole process with a clumsy announcement projected through YouTube and the proud assertion that the House of Commons would be voting on his big idea on Thursday of this week.

Today his plan has been abandoned, so certain is he that putting the matter to the vote will result in yet further humiliation for this most incompetent of Prime Ministers. It is not the substance of his argument that I want to address today but the way he chose to put it forward. If there is one thing that runs through the blood of people who have had to argue points for a living it is the knowledge that there is no such thing as a guaranteed winner. So often we think of a proposition and cannot see how it can fail to be accepted, only to find that our opponent in the debate or the arbiter of the proceedings throws out a question or counter-argument that cuts the ground from under our feet. It's not that we have been careless or sloppy in our preparation or presentation, it is just that no one can think of everything from every angle. That is one reason we choose to decide legal proceedings and settle laws through a process of debate in which propositions are put forward and examined. All sorts of good ideas turn to dust when their practical implications are exposed or the theory underlying them is seen to contain a previously undetected flaw.

And you know what? It takes guts and skill to stand up and argue a point. You have to be able to respond substantively (if you can) to all sorts of assaults on the proposition you are putting forward. It is not an exercise for the faint hearted or for those lacking mental and linguistic dexterity. The reason we use that system is that no better way has yet been devised. An essential aspect of it is that someone has to lose. It can be disappointing to lose a debate, it can even be embarrassing if your argument is shown to be wholly without merit, but that soon passes, you have to be able to cope with it or you shouldn't be playing the game in the first place.

Poor Gordon's attempt to by-pass debate by announcing his ill-thought out plan and demanding that the House vote on it a week later is troubling in several respects. First, the issue is not for government but for Parliament so it was not for him to seek to preempt the process. Secondly, the sensible way to deal with it was to make his idea known and allow it to be considered along with all others rather than to force it through. Thirdly, trying to use this issue for party political advantage through YouTube was absurdly clumsy. When full details of MPs' expenses claims are published in the summer his party will be hammered left right and centre, trying to appear virtuous on the subject now could only make the fall even steeper. Fourthly, and most importantly, arguing his case on YouTube is a cowardly way to avoid challenge.

It is quite obvious what he was seeking to achieve, he wished to show himself as a decisive and incisive leader on an issue that has caused public uproar. If you are going to follow that path you have to do so bravely and with a well formulated solution to an urgent problem. Yet even then, sneaking your idea through the back door rather than having the courage to state it to the House of Commons and have it debated means that you prevent the very acclaim you seek.

On a wider point, it is also troubling to find two important announcements being made by senior ministers through YouTube in one week. Mr Darling spoke about the economy and now poor Gordon has spoken about MPs' expenses. No doubt some bright spark in the government spin machine thought it would be a good idea to connect with the little people directly through a popular medium and without the restrictions applicable to party political broadcasts on television and radio. If so they must disabuse themselves of the idea forthwith. No doubt it is very convenient to have a free platform to say what they want without questioning or contradiction, it certainly works to the advantage of the leaders of North Korea. But at a time when politicians are held in probably as low public esteem as ever in modern history the very last thing they should be doing is avoiding open debate.

Saturday, 25 April 2009

A lesson for the government

An interesting proposal has been made by the Conservative Party to release primary schools from central and local governmental control. It is one of those truly inspired policies that comes along from time to time. What makes it so interesting is its acknowledges that teachers, headteachers and school governors might actually know better than politicians what is best for the pupils they have to educate. I have never understood where politicians get the magical powers that make them all-knowing and all-wise, this policy seems to accept that there are no such magical powers.

The proposal links two themes dear to my heart. One is that services paid for out of taxes do not have to be provided from the centre. The second is that government ministers cannot possibly know how best to deliver any service at ground level.

I am perpetually intrigued by the very concept of central government directing the provision of anything to the public across the whole country. Take food as a most obvious example. We all need to shop for food every week or so. Making food available at affordable prices is an essential service, arguably no service is more essential. Yet we don't hear many calling for the production and supply of food to be nationalised and run by the government. The point can be taken further. Is there anyone who would argue that the government, through a National Food Service, could provide the range and quality of food provided by the existing supermarket chains? It's completely untenable, utterly laughable. Of course the cost of setting up a scheme would be prohibitive but it is not that that makes it untenable, it is the idea that centralised direction of a monopoly provider could even begin to approach the efficiency and flexibility of Tesco, Sainsburys, Morrisons, Waitrose, Lidl and the rest. So why should it be that the provision of good quality education requires direct management from Whitehall?

I read various figures for the average annual cost of school education ranging from £6,000 per pupil to about £9,000. The actual figure really doesn't matter very much, what does matter is delivering an appropriate education for every child. This requires schools to be able to cater to a wide range of abilities and to be flexible enough to vary their approach year-by-year as the new intake varies in ability. Only those at the metaphorical coalface can do this. They can be, and are, told by government that a certain level of test must be passed by a certain percentage of pupils at a certain age but that doesn't make it happen. Nor does it make it possible where the pupils of the relevant age group do not have the ability to pass the prescribed test in sufficient numbers.

To my mind the biggest problem with government-directed education is that doing the best for the pupils comes second to doing the best for the government's chances of reelection. Every year we hear ludicrous claims being made about increased performance when what is measured is the ability of schools to squeeze pupils through arbitrary tests. The government boasts "look how well we are doing" when they are doing nothing other than forcing schools to follow a particular path that will result in statistics the government hopes to use for its political advantage. Indeed, I find the very concept of government claiming it has achieved anything in education to be deeply offensive. Teachers and parents combine to elicit the best from children, government ministers add nothing of value. Getting government out of schools will be a good start, it will allow teachers to educate in a manner appropriate to their little charges rather than in a manner appropriate to the opinion polls.

That is not to say that there is no legitimate role for government in school education. In fact it has two extremely important roles. The first is to fund schools from taxation. There is no other way of paying for universal school education than through taxes. The second is to supervise standards. This second point is where, in my opinion, they have got it completely wrong. Let me explain why.

I'll go back to food to explain the point, because I am a fat boy and I like food. The supermarket chains I mentioned above, and all other sellers of food, could try to foist unfit meat and fish on their customers. They would probably get away with it most times because any illness suffered is as likely to be attributed to the cook as to the ingredients. They cannot and do not do so because the law requires certain standards to be met. Those standards are imposed by government through laws passed in Parliament. They are basic quality standards that set the culture for the industry. Supermarkets know that any breach of the quality standards could damage their business through adverse publicity far more than any fine imposed by a court could ever do. But without a legal standard setting the benchmark for adverse publicity it is impossible to know whether they would keep the quality of their products as high as it is. And the same principle extends across the whole range of what they sell, the law requires a minimum standard to be met and that pervades the very culture of retail food sales.

Schools don't sell products in the way supermarkets do, they provide a service, but that is a distinction without a difference. The provision of services is subject to legal quality controls just like the sale of goods. Failure to maintain a satisfactory standard of service leaves you open to legal action by your customers and to damaging adverse publicity. I have never heard of any such claim being made against an independent school. Perhaps such claims could have been made but instead the parents chose to take their child out of the school and send him or her elsewhere rather than wasting time reopening old wounds through the courts. The role of government is to keep the law under review and to propose changes to Parliament if a deficiency is found. In that way, and that way only, does government have a legitimate supervisory role over the quality of education provided in schools. With parents as direct customers and schools competing to attract their money normal commercial pressures will operate to keep standards as high as can be afforded, just as happens in the private education sector.

Not only does government have no magical powers to deliver good quality education but education itself is not a magical business, it is just another service. It is an important one but so is selling food. What we know for certain is that central direction and interference have not resulted in universally high standards in state schools. The system has had long enough to prove itself and it has been found wanting. The Conservative's idea is a radical change from the status quo. The government says it would be expensive to implement, I doubt that very much because it will (or should) involve the removal of vast amounts of bureaucracy through which current meddling is effected every year. The unions are against it lock stock and barrel. No higher praise can ever be bestowed on a new policy.

Perhaps the most important aspect of this proposal is that it marks a shift of primary responsibility for education from government to parents, thereby putting it firmly where it should be. Education will then be funded from the centre but run by the schools themselves. There lies the heart of the matter ... state-funded. State-funded does not need to mean state-run. We know that from the simple fact that some children are funded by the state to attend independent schools. We know it also from state funding of medical procedures at private hospitals when NHS hospitals cannot provide surgery without undue delay. We know it again from state funding of legal advice and representation. The quality of the service is determined by the people providing the service not by the source of funding. And the quality of the service they provide is driven by the need to keep the quality high or lose business to a competitor. It is always possible that a particular school will fail miserably to provide a satisfactory standard of education for its pupils ... or is it? Does that happen in the private sector? I don't know the answer to that question but I do know what will happen in that situation, the school will have to change its ways pretty sharpish or it will have no pupils.

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

No stimulation please, we're broke

Cast your mind back a few weeks. Gordon Brown was touring the world (at our expense) in advance of the G20 meeting in London, trying to drum-up support for his plan to "stimulate" economic activity by even more government spending than had already been announced. He had a partial ally in President Obama who believed in the same barmy idea and is now facing difficulties getting his proposal through a Congress dominated by his own party. No one else seemed terribly interested. The French and Germans said they had already spent enough and weren't prepared to throw more in any more until they saw how their first efforts had fared. Still poor Gordon toured on plugging the same message, hectoring anyone who was forced to listen that massive further "stimulation" was needed. Then he got to Chile, whose diminutive but feisty President echoed the sentiments of the Czech leaders that spending money you don't have causes problems for the future and that providing a cushion against the effects of recession could only sensibly be done if you had saved during the good times.

When the G20 summit ended there wasn't a single new penny of international money to throw into the furnace of recession, each country decided it would do what was best for its own economy. Those who could afford to do so would spend more as and where they thought it might help and those who could not afford to do so would ride out the storm as best they could. The single brilliant scheme by which Gordon was to save the world was lying in tatters around his ankles, other world leaders saying, in effect, that he could throw good money after bad if he wanted to but he shouldn't expect them to commit economic suicide with him.

While he was on the road his Chancellor, Mr Darling, grew a spine almost as sturdy as his eyebrows and made clear there simply wasn't any more money. Since then he has been printing a some more but not with a view to using it for a so-called "stimulus", it is being created to inflate-away a bit of debt and provide cash he needs for current spending plans.

Mr Darling will make his fifth Budget speech later today. There used to be one a year in the Spring, now we have a second in the Autumn but last year was exceptional and there was an extra one squeezed in between the two scheduled events to try to sort out the mess caused by eliminating the lowest tax band and thus doubling income tax rates for the lowest paid. So after less than two years in office he will have delivered an average of one Budget every eighteen weeks.

It used to be rather good fun looking forward to the Budget. Strict secrecy would surround the Chancellor's plans to prevent people seeking to gain an advantage by arranging their affairs in a way that would be most beneficial to them and most detrimental to the Treasury's coffers. The weekend before the Budget would see the newspapers and television news programmes featuring pictures of the Chancellor relaxing in his constituency before his annual big day. For some reason they always wore very bad trousers. Not now. The trousers are still bad but secrecy has gone. Now it is all leaked in advance to get a view of how proposals will go down with the media and to allow last minute tweaking to counter any criticisms made. No longer is the primary focus of the government on making the right decisions for the country, today it is on making the right decisions for their position in the opinion polls.

There is often one measure hidden in advance, something the government thinks will be a guaranteed vote winner. In the Spring 2007 Budget it was poor Gordon's cretinous decision to abolish the 10% starting tax rate with effect from 2008. We know what a brilliant move that was from the need to cobble together a set of remedial measures in an emergency Budget when the full damage it would do the most vulnerable was exposed. Mr Darling might have a surprise for us, but the majority of his major measures are already in the public domain. Indeed, they feature on the lead article on the BBC web site.

It is noteworthy that poor Gordon's brilliant plan for a further "stimulus" is not included. I wonder why it is no longer needed when just a month ago he told us it was the necessary central plank of anti-recessionary policy worldwide. The answer, of course, is that everyone else was right and Gordon was wrong as usual. If you seek to boost an economy by increased government spending you cannot do so with borrowed money otherwise you are applying a brake to future economic growth in return for the hope that current spending will cause economic growth in the short-term. For reasons I have given before I don't believe government spending can make anything other than a minor difference to the rate of recession and to seek to do that by incurring debt that must be repaid later is dangerous, not least because repayment might have to start before there is any actual growth.

I believe that what we are seeing in this country is the little people doing what must be done to extract fictitious wealth from the economy and thereby place it on a firmer footing. New debt is being avoided where possible and existing debt is being repaid where possible. Those who were living beyond their means are adjusting their spending. This was always going to happen because Mr and Mrs Ordinary are far more worried about their own financial position than about the government talking in numbers too large to be understood. The result, unfortunately, is that many have lost their jobs and many more will follow suit; this is simply unavoidable because jobs that depended on people spending beyond their means will be exposed. And as people cut back on "normal" spending in order to repay debt yet further jobs will go. Once the credit bubble has deflated and the millions of Mr and Mrs Ordinarys establish the new level of "normal" spending many jobs will return.

It takes time for people to repay debt but they will do it whether the government likes it or not. Mr Darling seems to realise this, hence both his rejection of poor Gordon's plan while the latter was glad-handing globally and his continued refusal to incorporate it into his Budget plans. Stimulation is off the agenda, and about time too.

Monday, 20 April 2009

Are the Conservatives moving in the right direction?

With the Budget speech now only a couple of days away I sit here on Sunday night full of roast pork and delighted that, at long last, there appears to be a difference of substance developing between the economic policies of our main parties. In particular, the Conservative front bench is now making increasingly loud noises about the need to make severe cuts in government expenditure. They are not yet, however, saying the one thing I long to hear.

The Chancellor and his Shadow have been setting out their stalls in advance of Wednesday's Budget, there is quite a nice summary in a piece on the BBC website (here). After a gap of a few weeks following the refusal of the G20 leaders to endorse Gordon Brown's ludicrous call for yet more non-existent money to be used to "stimulate" economic activity, it appears that the spendthrift government is reverting to type. We will see on Wednesday how Mr Darling chooses to package it. What is already clear, however, is that he will continue to borrow and spend in the belief that government can make the world of business take risks it does not want to take. His shadow, George Osborne, is emphasising the need to reduce government borrowing to prevent it being a albatross around the country's neck for generations to come.

Both my regular readers will know that I am no fan of debt. Debt is self-induced inflation causing things you buy to be more expensive than their sticker price because you have to add the interest payable on that price to get the true amount payable. That is as true for a government as it is for an individual. We appear to be facing the prospect of the government borrowing in the region of £150billion over the coming year; it could be a little less or an awful lot more but it cannot be a lot less. They will not able to rummage down the back of chair and find £150billion to pay it off any time soon, after all it is about a quarter of the total amount they spend each year, so it represents a long-term burden unless something radical is done to address the problem.

What should never be forgotten about government expenditure is that it happens because the government of the day considers it necessary. It should also not be forgotten that governments seek reelection periodically and will, for understandable political reasons, not be prepared to cut areas of expenditure that will lose votes in key constituencies even if they believe the expenditure is not merited in itself. There is nothing corrupt in this, it is part of the price of democracy. Yet, like all political pressures, the existence and nature of the pressure change over time. In the 1960s and early 1970s it was inconceivable that a party arguing for the dismantling of massive nationalised industries could be voted into office, eventually the economic absurdity of those industries was so well-proven that the argument became a vote winner rather than a suicide note.

An interesting benefit of the current slump is that there is increasing interest in examining exactly what government spends money on. No one can be surprised at Mr and Mrs Ordinary asking how this that and the other can be justified now, despite expressing no such concerns when there appeared to be money to burn.

George Osborne is identifying a number of areas of government expenditure which can be eliminated without losing votes, such as the identity card scheme and certain of the more pointless quangoes. These represent a tentative first step in the right direction and there must be a significant chance that they are genuine vote winners. More importantly, they establish a precedent for reducing what government does rather than just looking for ways to allow it to do the same things but a little cheaper. Efficiency savings are sought by every government, including the present one, but they are just tinkering at the edges they do not address any point of principle. Mr Osborne seems to be addressing the point of principle, namely that very range and scope of the State operation needs to be challenged because it is unaffordable.

What he has not yet done is explain this principle in terms. To a degree I can understand his reticence because it involves opening up a debate the British people have shown no stomach for over more than a decade. He is dipping his toe in the water, seeing what reaction his current proposals receive and, of course, seeing what effect there is on the opinion polls. How far he and David Cameron want to go in slimming down the role of the State remains to be seen, they have not set out a clear position yet. Others in their party, such as John Redwood, have set out a clear position on this for many years. As those who follow Mr Redwood's blog will know, he is no fan of big government. In fact he is adamantly opposed to big government and high taxes because he believes they hurt the poorest in the country most through increasing employment costs and, therefore, reducing employment opportunities and by requiring such enormous tax revenues that the many at the bottom of the pile have to be hit hard for the government to have any chance of raising what it claims to need. I have written before about how those at the bottom can only be helped if those in more comfortable positions help them (in particular here and here). What is, I would suggest, obvious is that those at the bottom are not helped by big expensive government.

Current economic conditions provide the best opportunity in my lifetime to undertake a wholesale reform of the size and scope of government. A series of very obvious questions arise: (i) if big government is so successful in controlling the economy how was it not able to avoid the present slump, (ii) if big government is so good at running medical services why do we have greater infection rates in State hospitals than in private ones, (iii) if big government is so good at running schools why do so many children leave school at 16 barely able to read and write and why are universities having to introduce remedial classes for state school freshers but not those coming from the independent schools, (iv) if big government leads to safe societies why are we spied-on by the largest concentration of CCTV cameras of any country in the world, (v) if big government is the answer to relative poverty why has it not decreased as government has increased in size? The list can go on and on.

For more than a decade we have had a steady increase in the power and expense of government. Mr Osborne is starting to address the expense side of things. His job will be made easier if even modest changes to the power of the State are also proposed because the more power the State has the more it costs to wield that power. I believe the mood in the country is now receptive to the idea that the State is too big and too powerful. My hope is that Mr Cameron, Mr Osborne and their colleagues have the courage to tap into that mood.

Thursday, 16 April 2009

No electric cars for "ordinary motorists"

Electric cars have hit the news today with the announcement by the eponymous Geoff Hoon of a plan to offer subsidies towards the purchase of electric cars as and when they are more generally available than at present, currently estimated to be in about two years' time. As usual the BBC report tries to put this in what it considers the best possible light for the government, describing it as "Motorists will be offered subsidies of up to £5,000". If one digs a little deeper, it seems all is not quite as the BBC portrays.

The Department for Transport website carries the details (here). It becomes clear from the government's own account that there are no firm proposals to give anything to motorists. The main article says it is "an initiative to help put electric cars into the reach of ordinary motorists by providing help worth £2,000-£5,000 towards buying the first electric and plug in hybrid cars when they hit the showrooms". I wonder what "help worth £2,000-£5,000" means, it doesn't sound much like money to me. Not that it really matters what it means because we find important clarification in the "notes for editors" section at the bottom of the page: "Consumers will be able to receive help from the government worth in the region of £2,000-£5,000 to allow for the maximum choice of which car they buy. We are beginning discussions with the automotive industry and financiers to determine how best to deliver this help." No longer are we in the realm of subsidies being given to "ordinary motorists" for them to use as they will, we are firmly in the territory of giving cash subsidies to the motor manufacturers. And we mustn't ignore than the headline figure of £5,000 is now "in the region of £2,000-£5,000". It is the reference to "ordinary motorists" that troubles me most because I can see that only extraordinary motorists are likely to benefit from any such scheme.

I rather like the idea of electric cars. It would be wonderful if we could reduce our dependence on oil so that we are no longer at the mercy of the OPEC cartel and reliable electric cars would help achieve that. An additional benefit is that the need for a reliable supply of electricity would be even more important than it is today, thereby rendering even more absurd the current lunatic plans for windmills and waves to be substantial sources of electricity generation. To that end I can understand tax breaks for research and development, but it all gets rather tricky once you start fiddling with prices of manufactured products.

There is no reason to think that, left to their own devices, the manufacturers would bring out a product until they are satisfied that it is reasonably saleable. What we usually see with novel products is that they are very expensive when first launched because the manufacturers need to try to recoup some of the R&D costs and they know some people will pay a lot either out of interest in the concept or out of snobbery. It soon becomes clear whether the product is capable of being a long-term profit maker and if it is, the unit price falls as some R&D costs are recouped and the remainder are spread over substantial anticipated future purchases. With electrical products we sometimes find that novel ideas don't take off, hence there are attics around the country containing dusty laserdisc players, betamax recorders and novelty peppermills. The position is rather different with electric cars because, for different reasons that appeal to different people, it is necessary to wean ourselves off oil and the only alternative with any reasonable prospect of being workable in the short term appears to be electricity. So the manufacturers can be fairly sure that a reliable electric family car with a reasonable range is likely to be a long-term success.

If, as the government suggests, such cars should be available as early as 2011 (I'll believe it when I see it) it is hard to see that the manufacturers could sensibly price them in line with petrol and diesel cars because they would then forgo the additional price that could be commanded through sheer novelty value. If we assume (and I pluck these figures out the the thinnest of airs) that a petrol driven car will cost £14,000 and the closest equivalent electric model could sell for £20,000, they would be mad to price it at anything lower than £20,000. As the novelty value wanes and production increases we might find it can sell for £17,000 and make the same profit as the £14,000 petrol vehicle, it might even be that further technological developments would allow it to undercut the petrol powered car. The market will determine price as it does for petrol and diesel cars and as it has for other new products such as flat-screen televisions and those frightfully complicated mobile phones that can make you a cup of tea while you talk.

Where does subsidy come in? Perhaps the manufacturers could be given £3,500 per car to start with so that they sell at £16,500 instead of £20,000. This might accelerate demand and lead to additional early sales but it would also mean that those prepared to pay £20,000 get a bargain. Those who were not prepared to pay £20,000 but were prepared to pay £16,500 enter the market earlier than they otherwise would. What is the value of those accelerated transactions? Is it sufficient to justify the taxpayer chipping-in £3,500 per vehicle? I don't know, but it is worth considering what the earlier purchase of goods really means. Say you would buy at £16,500 two years later when the price naturally fell to that level and now you can buy immediately because of the subsidy. You are not receiving £3,500, you are spending £16,500. The seller is receiving £20,000 now rather than £16,500 in two years' time, so he is getting the same lump sum from the same customer that he would otherwise have to wait to receive and he is being paid £3,500 for the privilege. Those who would pay for novelty value - which with high priced items like cars means people of quite substantial means - receive a bonus, manufacturers and/or retailers receive a bonus by making sales early and being paid for doing so, and the ordinary motorist gets only the fun of having a new car two years early. Then he has to get his next new car two years earlier than would otherwise happen and over time his benefit is negligible. And we mustn't leave out of account the possibility that the manufacturers/sellers will price the product at £23,500 so that it can be sold at £20,000 thereby ensuring they get both the full potential of novelty value and the taxpayer subsidy. They will do their sums and decide whether they are better off cashing-in on novelty value or on accelerated future sales.

However the scheme is arranged it will most assuredly not result in "ordinary motorists" receiving a benefit anywhere near close to the cost they pay wearing their other hat of "ordinary taxpayers". Oh, I must add something else. Those with chauffeurs, nice ministerial vehicles and grace-and-favour homes provided free of charge probably don't know this, but most "ordinary motorists" can't afford to buy new cars.

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Starvation, the new answer to global warming

The genocide charity movement seems to be gathering momentum. They don't actually plan genocide as such, no Saddamesque gassing or Stalinesque starvation is mentioned in their plans, but as sure as nuts is nuts the result of their proposals will be massive loss of life among those least able to ride out difficult times. I speak, in particular, about the Optimum Population Trust. which has just proudly announced the support of Sir David Attenborough, the well-known creator and presenter of staggeringly expensive (and sometimes rather good) television programmes about gorillas, fish, insects and fluffy bunnies. Sir David is in no danger of starvation himself so he has a free hand to support any bunch of fanatical fruitcakes he wishes without their dangerous practices ever affecting the availability of lentil and garlic bake at his table.

The OPT argue that human population is already at or near or beyond the numbers that can be sustained by the planet (it could be any of the three depending on which of their publications you read). In consequence, they argue that population must be limited so that there is less of a strain on Mother Nature. We can get a feel for their position by looking at some of the papers they have published, they are flagged on the right-side of their homepage, the most interesting of which (to me) is headed "UK overpopulated by 70 percent". Their starting point is their own definition of sustainability. It is based unequivocally and unashamedly on plans to eliminate industrial activity that produces carbon dioxide. They have fallen for the anthropogenic global warming claptrap hook line and, quite probably, sinker. If I didn't know they were serious I would think their writings a parody of everything that is laughable about troglodyte raffia munchers. One analysis they use which really makes me giggle is something they call the "ecological footprint" (see their full paper here), this looks at the raw resources of countries and continents (predominently farming capacity and expressly excluding fossil fuels) and calculates how many people can be supported by those resources.

Please put down all drinks before reading the next bit.

I mean it, you don't want to have to contribute to global warming by buying a new keyboard. OK? Ready? Here goes.

According to their "ecological footprint" analysis the population of Africa is sustainable but the populations of the USA and the UK are not.

There now, aren't you glad you put that cup of tea down?

These people are eco-extremists of the most absurd type, but they are not without wry humour. In the next section of the report the author says "At the sustainability limit, the relationship between population and the biocapacity is a hyperbola", which he then illustrates with a few graphs. How droll it is that their hyperbole creates a hyperbola.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, we can see what actually happens. To my unjargonised mind we can measure the sustainability of a population by asking whether they eat or starve, live to adulthood or perish in infancy, keep warm in winter or risk freezing to death, have clean water and good sanitation or cholera, in short by asking whether they have a long or a short average lifespan. The current population of the USA and the UK are entirely sustainable because we have advanced economies which, despite current difficulties, allow us to have warm homes, food, clean water and good sanitation. We have average lifespans unimaginable even fifty years ago. Much of Africa, on the other hand, suffers through political corruption and economic ineptitude resulting in its current population containing a great many who will die in infancy and few who will last as long as the average pie-munching fat Englishman.

Except to those with bizarre notions of what "sustain" means, the sustainability of a population is not about how much the land can produce because that is just part of the equation, and because it assumes agricultural techniques will not develop in the future as they have in the past. Sustainability is about a whole package of things of which one of the most important is the availability of a reliable supply of electricity. If you look at sustainability by examining the earth first and calculating how much you think it can produce and then dividing that by the number of people to see whether each gets enough tofu and nut roast you are looking at entirely the wrong thing. I think I can illustrate this very simply with the humble tomato. If the UK produced tomatoes only in open fields and without any pesticides or herbicides to reduce damage to crops we might well (with enough fields) be able to produce as many as we do today in greenhouses. But we could not do so at an affordable price (although they would probably be rather tastier). As it is, our farmers build greenhouses covering several acres, use composts specially prepared to maximise cropping, add fertilisers made in factories, use electricity to heat the greenhouses to optimum temperatures and to operate optimal lighting and watering systems and, the bit I really like, they pump in carbon dioxide to boost growth. The result is high yield crops of cheap fruits, the size of the crop is far greater than could be grown on the same acreage without the use of technology.

Africa's current population is not sustainable. We know that because their mortality rates are high, they are not sustained ergo the size of population is not sustainable in current conditions. The answer is not to change the population but to change the conditions. In places it is happening and has been happening gradually over the last thirty or so years, but there is a long way to go. As their mortality rates drop so will their birth rate provided cultural and economic conditions make it favourable to have fewer children.

It is important, in my view, to recognise that birth rates in the developed world have fallen steadily as a result of two things. First, technological advances in food production, sanitation and healthcare that have extended lifespans (thereby limiting the number of children people must have to replace themselves) and, secondly, placing the cost of feeding and caring for children on their parents rather than the state. There are groups for whom the second condition does not apply and they still breed in comparatively large numbers. If you want to reduce the UK population, as the OPT does, the most obvious step to take is to place everyone under the same economic constraints that cause most to think carefully about how many children they will have.

And if you want to reduce the population in Africa ... oh, hold on, they don't want to do that because they think Africa's population is sustainable. Let me tell them a little something. It might be sustainable according to their ludicrous definition of sustainability, but not according to real life; more pertinently, not according to real death. What will sustain the population of Africa is efficient farming, clean water, good sanitation and a ready supply of electricity. Naive notions that they can sustain themselves by farming every acre of potentially useable land are simply absurd, it could never happen; to argue that they must be forced to do so without recourse to machinery powered by fossil fuels is not just absurd, it is cruel.

Any organisation promoting upside-down nonsense should be careful to ensure it is consistent in order to avoid becoming infested by supporters of numerous different streams of idiocy rather than just the one they set out to promote. The OPT seems to encourage as many different categories of fundamentalist nutters as possible. For example, it published a paper (see summary here) calling for governmental action to encourage low birth rates, the author of which acknowledged expressly that there is only a "slim chance" of this being achieved without coercion. At the same time on the OPT homepage there is a prominent box boasting "The Optimum Population Trust is absolutely opposed to any form of coercion in family planning." So they publish a paper saying coercion should be avoided and the author comments that there is only a slim chance of it being avoided - the need for coercion being (yes, you've guessed it) that more humans means a greater risk to the environment through climate change. So, they solicit donations from eugenicists who see a chance of eliminating unworthy populations and from those opposed to birth control and from the global warming fanatics. Nice for income, impossible for principle.

Is the OPT just another in the long list of organisations promoting the great global warming computer game circus? Is it just the latest one to put a different slant on the computer game in order to raise money for the benefit of those prepared to write something they want to read? Maybe. Or maybe they really believe we should live only on what we can grow ourselves and the global warming nonsense is a convenient bandwagon to further their ridiculous desire. The one thing of which we can be certain is that those promoting this twaddle won't die as a result of it. As always, that privilege will be reserved for the weakest; it will be reserved for what they like to think of as the surplus population.

Monday, 13 April 2009

Electronic Ciggy - the first kerfuffle

I think I met the world's most ignorant person this evening. After taking a relaxing curry in a local restaurant I engaged the services of my e-cigarette to provide vital additional nourishment and after a few minutes muttering started from a nearby corner. It was the small loud Irish woman who had subjected her husband to a one-way torrent of speech from the moment they sat down more than an hour earlier. "He shouldn't smoke that in here", "it's illegal", "the owners could be in real trouble" mutter mutter mutter. The volume increasing to ensure my ear was caught.

Now, I know what you're thinking: "we do hope you had the sense not to try to debate with her, Mr Bigot". Oh dear. Yes, I know you should never argue with an idiot because they just drag you down to their level and beat you with experience. But (he bleats weakly in his own defence) everything she said gave the impression she thought I was actually smoking. You know, actually smoking a real ciggy not using an electronic one. Being a man of a kindly disposition it seemed only fair to soothe her bubbling blood pressure by explaining I was using an entirely lawful device. The troubled waters would be calmed, "oh goodness me, what a silly woman I am" she would say, we would have a laugh and peace would once again reign in the world of chicken tikka, tarka daal and lamb jalfrezi.

Well, of course you were proved right and I was proved wrong. She knew it was an electronic cigarette and then the defence of her position was made clear at ear-splitting volume and with even more deafening stupidity. I knew what was coming as soon as she started her oration with "I work in a pub". Her moral and intellectual superiority was established with her first line of attack. "Those things come with instructions telling you they are illegal for use in pubs and restaurants", well, no actually, as I told her. The leaflet I received told me how to put it together and how to charge the battery but nothing about the lawfulness or otherwise of its use. Clearly I had exposed myself as a blatant liar to this extraordinary person: "they all come with instructions saying it's illegal and you know it!".

What an interesting point she made. One that illustrates the true depths of idiocy in which some people live. I wasn't going to ask the obvious question, namely whether she had read all the instruction leaflets issued by all the manufacturers of these products, I wasn't even going to ask her whether she had read one because the overwhelming probability is that she hadn't read any of them. But that didn't stop her asserting as a fact something of which she knew absolutely nothing. Nor did it cross her pea brain for a moment that there was anything objectionable about calling a complete stranger a liar in a public place. Oh well, it's her life, she can live it like a slug if she wants to. It was just icing on her home baked cake of stupidity that she felt it appropriate to add that I was aware of the contents of all leaflets issued by e-cigarette manufacturers and that I would therefore also know the thing she claimed to know but of which she was wholly ignorant.

Then I thought I'd have a bit of fun and point out that the law prohibits smoking and requires something to be ignited, my e-cigarette does not produce smoke and does not involve ignition. She had to think a moment to answer this one and then her authority had to be asserted again. She took a deep breath: "Look, I work in a pub". My heart sank, how could my understanding of the law possibly be right compared to that of a loud-mouthed, peroxided barmaid of a certain age? While her answer was being delivered I wished her a merry wallow in her cretinous pit and went back to my table. Shortly afterwards she and her long-suffering husband left.

The manager of the restaurant came up to me and asked me to explain what an electronic cigarette is, he had never seen one before. So I took it apart, showed him the bits and explained how it worked (not in scientific detail, just my understanding of the process). He told me that his understanding of the law was that something had to be burned for the law to be broken and I was happy to confirm that it matched my understanding. I said I would try to remember to provide him with a copy of the relevant parts of the Health Act 2006 to put his mind at complete ease.

It's all in section 1 subsection 2 of that Act, which reads as follows: "(a) "smoking" refers to smoking tobacco or anything which contains tobacco, or smoking any other substance, and (b) smoking includes being in possession of lit tobacco or of anything lit which contains tobacco, or being in possession of any other lit substance in a form in which it could be smoked."

This is rather a good piece of drafting. It doesn't seek to change the ordinary meaning of the term "smoking" because that would just produce loopholes. For example, if it tried to define smoking as the inhalation of tobacco smoke it would be open to a Clintonesque defence by those (such as most cigar and pipe smokers) who seek to avoid inhalation. Instead it keeps the ordinary meaning and adds to it. The addition is in paragraph (b) which catches those who might try the cute defence that they had ignited a ciggy but had not taken it to their lips. Paragraph (b) has a further purpose, it stresses the need for a product to be "lit", meaning burning or smouldering, in order to come within the ban.

I don't approve of the smoking ban, but I do approve of good technical draftsmanship. It is a difficult skill and was executed well in this Act. The prohibition is against smoking as we all understand the term (with the extension I have mentioned). It does not include devices enabling the taking of nicotine by means other than combustion.

Section 1 is sitting in the tray of my printer, ready to be delivered to the restaurant tomorrow. I wonder whether the manager will be brave enough to show it to the fount of all stupidity on her next visit.

A sign of the times

The British domestic political story I commented on on Saturday gives rise to an interesting question, that question is contained in the title to this little piece.

The superannuated thug Damian McBride is not a Member of Parliament. He was not elected to anything, he had no ministerial duties and no government department to manage. No chain of responsibility made him answerable to the public for what he did nor was he required to answer to MPs in the House of Commons. Yet his downfall has been reported in a manner not seen when cabinet ministers have been forced out of office through incompetence or corruption. Such ministers have been replaced by promoting an equally incompetent government party lackey from the lower ranks of the ministerial pyramid and there has been no mention of their departure striking at the heart of the government machine. The Sunday newspapers were clear and consistent in their description of Mr McBride's as a seriously big fish. Jane Merrick of The Independent described him as "a proper scalp, one of the most prized in Westminster". The Sunday Times talked of him as "one of the prime minister's most senior lieutenants". In The Observer he was described as being part of "Brown's inner circle" and in the Mail on Sunday as an occupant of "Mr Brown's No 10 War Room".

It's a rather strange state of affairs that an unelected, unaccountable toady can be considered by the main commentariat as more significant to government than a cabinet minister. I suppose there might be an element of journalistic narcissism involved in that his job was to manipulate the information leaked to the press and the select band of recipients are bound to consider that a particularly important job. But there seems to be far more to it than that. Controlling the news and steering the message received by those who report the news are now major parts of the government machine, particularly in relation to the Prime Minister himself. I find this very disturbing.

One would have to be absurdly naive not to recognise that incumbent politicians want to stay in office and will always seek to put the best possible gloss on what they do. To that end they will need assistance and that assistance will cost money. The job of such assistants is, however, a party political job it is not a government job. They are employed to further the interests of the government as against the opposition parties. And by far their most important function will be to limit the damage done by the incumbent governing politicians' own mistakes. To have a unit in the Prime Minister's office, paid for by taxpayers, whose purpose is to further the interests of the governing party is a gross abuse of power; it exemplifies government for the government not government for the people.

And, of course, there is no easy way to stop it. If, as seems likely, the Conservatives defeat Labour at the next general election is there any realistic prospect of them not putting in place a similar unit filled with their own bullying, mendacious sycophants? The only way to prevent it is to enforce the supposed rule against civil servants engaging in party political activities. Ah, there's a big of a snag with that. Who can enforce it and how? It cannot be left to the Minister for the Civil Service because that is the Prime Minister. It could be done by the grand fromage of the civil service if only he were given the power, but that could draw him too closely into party politics because his decisions would be questions and his own impartiality brought into question by those on the wrong end of his verdicts. It could be done by a Parliamentary Select Committee, but they have a numerical balance in favour of the incumbent party.

I know not what the right solution is but one must be found because the more tightly the power over the dissemination of information is concentrated in 10 Downing Street the more isolated the Prime Minister (of whichever party) will be from both substantive criticism and the need to justify his policy positions. The more narrowly power is concentrated, the fewer the people who take decisions and the less scrutiny those decisions receive. Only one thing can result, bad government of ever-increasing badness as the Prime Minister withdraws further and further into his bunker to limit examination of, and debate about, his decisions and their effect.

Saturday, 11 April 2009

McBride, McBrown, McUnfitforoffice

It doesn't seem so long ago that governments sought to persuade the electorate that they should be returned to office because they were more competent in present circumstances than the opposition parties. Anyone reading this from outside the UK will probably not know why I raise this topic, so let me give a little background.

Upper echelons of the UK government employ (at taxpayers' expense) a number of people whose role is to promote the government as a political entity rather than to promote its policies. Nominally they are not employed to do this because it would be a misuse of public funds, but it has been the reality since Tony Blair came into office in 1997 and is even more prevalent today. They are employed as civil servants but given a wholly party political role and no one seems to have the power to challenge it. Recently news was broken that one of these supposed public servants was planning a party-political campaign involving no policy debate at all. His plan was to launch smear attacks against opposition politicians suggesting, regardless of the truth and regardless of having supporting evidence, that they have misbehaved in the past and/or that relatives of theirs have flaws. His plan was disseminated to a select few by email and certain of those emails, or certain details from them, came to the attention of a blogger known as Guido Fawkes who timed his blowing of the whistle to perfection. Today the man who planned the exercise was forced out of his job. His name is Damian McBride, he was, and no doubt will remain, Gordon Brown's closest advisor.

To some, dirty tricks might seem a new phenomenon to UK national politics but the seeds were sown in the 1990s when the press happily latched on to stories of government ministers unable to keep their lusts within the marital bedroom. Previously no opposition party would seek party political advantage of such matters because they knew they had members (no pun intended, although it is a good one) who were just as guilty. But the tide was against the incumbent government, they had been in power for a long time and were showing signs of staleness. The Labour Party had few substantive policies on anything, most of it was just waffle, but they wanted power so they made the most of the moral turpitude of a few Conservative ministers. They found there were votes in it so they dressed it up further, the message was "you can't trust them, they are seedy philanderers". It was a pretty pointless exercise. No doubt it won a few votes but it could never win enough to make a difference, it was a tactic guaranteed to backfire in the long run.

Not long after they were elected in 1997 stories emerged of senior figures in the Labour government being as free and easy with their intimate juices as Conservative ministers had been. At that time it didn't matter, the tide had turned and they had been elected, the British people would give them a chance to prove themselves. Even the most vociferous critic of Conservative ministerial pork-swordsmanship, the ludicrous John Prescott, was eventually exposed for an affair with his diary secretary while his fearsome wife was busy enjoying the largesse of a minister's expense account to keep her bouffant suitably puffed. He called the previous government unfit to rule because they couldn't keep their trousers on, yet steadfastly refused to resign when found to be guilty of exactly the same thing. One might think the current government would shy away from personal attacks in light of their hypocrisy on the issue, but that would be to ignore the pitiful mental state of Gordon Brown, the man who thinks he saved the world.

Poor Gordon has shown no sign at all in his political career of being able to acknowledge that someone else might have a point. He seems to work in the very starkest black and white terms. He is also a lifelong adherent to the view that only the Labour Party should be in government. No matter what it takes, opposition parties should, in his feeble mind, be destroyed. It is, of course, the mindset of a dictator not of a democratic politician, yet it runs through his very marrow.

A smear campaign designed to denigrate opposition is very much poor Gordon's cup of tea. Nothing could please him more because he really believes that anyone who disagrees with him is unworthy. If you have any doubt about this, all you have to do is see how he answers questions. There are far too few opportunities to ask the Prime Minister questions and no opportunities to require him to answer them substantively. There is a half-hour session in the House of Commons every Wednesday, when I say every Wednesday I mean every Wednesday the House is sitting (which is disgracefully few). During that time the Leader of the Opposition, the leader of a minor party and a few backbench MPs ask questions, but they are never answered unless they ask the Prime Minister to heap praise upon himself. He is often asked perfectly sensible and calm questions by those who have doubts about his chosen path of action on one subject or another. His reaction every time is to attack. There is no debate, no explanation and no response of a type appropriate from a democratic politician.

Against that background we find that his closest advisor, a man he took with him as the lynchpin of his backroom staff when he usurped the office of Prime Minister, decided to launch a campaign of personal (not policy) attacks on political opponents of Gordon's clique. I ask myself what poor Gordon's reaction was when he heard that such attacks were planned. I ask myself whether he said "No, stop, that is not the way we do business" or "what a great idea, these evil deniers of my brilliance must be perverts and defectives, they must be exposed". Is there a middle ground? Frankly, I can't see that there is. This manoeuvre follows exactly the way our so-called Prime Minister thinks and acts.

He will try to distance himself from it, of course, because the press is on the story. We might never know whether poor Gordon had advance knowledge of the plan, but it can be said with absolute certainty that he approves of it. It fits his thinking exactly. No matter that members of his party are guilty of exactly the things opposition politicians would be accused of doing, to someone like Gordon there is a difference. His side of the political fence is right, so personal failings are neither here nor there. The opposite side of the political fence is wrong, so personal failings must be exposed because they prove the errors and flawed judgment of his opponents.

It's pathetically shallow. It's Gordon to a tee.

Friday, 10 April 2009

Trust local judgment

One of the most useful pieces of advice I was given at the start of my career was never to assume I knew more than my opponent. It was not an easy piece of advice for an arrogant young Turk to take. I always prepared thoroughly (at least for the first few years) and believed I went to court armed with an excellent knowledge of the evidence and as good a knowledge of the law as was required. How, I asked myself, could I not know more than my opponent because he couldn't possibly be as thorough or as clever as me. Of course it didn't take long for me to realise the value of the advice. That value lay in recognising that "knowledge" is not all about reading bits of paper and absorbing information, it is also concerned with understanding the possible ramifications of what you have learned and the various ways it could all be interpreted.

From time to time barristers take over cases previously in the hands of another member of the Bar, perhaps he is double-booked or the client didn't like him or whatever, cases sometimes have to be passed to others; it is known as "returning" - the original barrister must return the papers and someone else picks up the "return". I don't think I received a single return in which I agreed with every aspect of the advice given by my predecessor or every aspect of the way he had prepared documents for court. That didn't mean I was right and he was wrong or vice versa, it merely meant that he was doing the case his way and I did it my way. Not everyone gives the same advice because not everyone interprets the law in the same way; not everyone drafts documents the same way because not everyone agrees on the most effective way to present the case to the client's best interest. There is nothing special to the law in this, ask a dozen gardeners when, into what type of soil and how deep they plant seed potatoes and you can expect at least ten different answers. It's not a matter of one being right and the others being idiots, they all form different views based on their own experience and their own judgment.

Of course there were times when I would pick up a return and find a fatal flaw in the case or a killer point not yet taken. It didn't happen often, only twice that I can recall, but it is bound to happen sometimes. For all I know people taking returns from me found the same even more often. Usually the reason I would want to alter something about how the case was presented was because my particular experience (or lack thereof) persuaded me that a change of tack would be in the client's interest. Not uncommonly I would make a change after learning the identity of the judge who was to hear the case. There were some judges before whom a particular approach was a suicide note, so that had to be abandoned and something else found otherwise disaster would be likely to strike. Local knowledge was important.

You see, wisdom and judgment are not absolute qualities. The most reliable judgment generally comes from a combination of technical knowledge, experience and strong powers of analysis, but nobody knows everything, nobody has perfect judgment and nobody is on top form all the time. Nonetheless, if you want the highest chance of a job being done well you entrust decisions to people with these three qualities. And where there is a local element to the issue you would be well advised to look for local knowledge too.

A couple of weeks ago I burbled on about the inability of central government to provide services efficiently because of excess bureaucracy and political interference. It seems to me that a vital aspect of providing services, whether in the private or the public sector, is effective local management. Only local management by properly experienced people can combine the qualities needed for good decision-making and an efficient use of resources at the point of use. That does not mean that the same decisions will be made in the same circumstances everywhere in the country. Indeed, it must not mean that. Uniformity of decision-making means that decisions are not being made, it means boxes are being ticked for administrative convenience.

A particular problem caused by services being provided by government, rather than just funded by government, is the pressure for uniformity. Heart-rending stories appear from time to time about someone with a particular serious medical condition who cannot get the treatment he needs in his area or cannot get it as quickly as it could be provided if he lived elsewhere. Calls go up for new central guidelines to guarantee uniformity of treatment for all sufferers of that ailment. Ministers condemn inequality, promise a review then issue ever more detailed guidance. In a few months' time another example arises, then another a little while after that. The problem, I believe, arises because of too much central guidance not too little.

Good local management makes exceptions where it can for individual exceptional cases. This happens in individual branches of nationwide supermarkets, car hire companies, carpet shops and the rest. It happens because in the real world, where the delivery of good service is crucial to survival in a competitive marketplace, sensible local management is seen to be an asset not a cost. Not every hardluck story has a happy ending in the private sector, but the system allows greater flexibility than where day-to-day decisions are dictated from the centre rather than being entrusted to the front line. Too often the explanation for expensive treatment being denied in one area when it is available in another is that targets could not be met if money were diverted from, say, ingrown toenails to face cancer. Rather than make an exception and risk penalties for failing to meet targets, local managers pass the buck upwards.

Swathes of guidelines from the centre carry two risks. First, they rely on the judgment of too few people. An inner circle of advisors, some medical (whether or not hand-picked to be poodles for the government) and some political, give their views and a minister decides. The combined power of judgment is a tiny fraction of that available at local level, yet what they say holds sway over the whole country. This risks stifling the very skills that good local managers should be employed to utilise. Secondly, the edicts they issue can have no effect on the ground unless they are too specific to be generally useful. Waffle has no effect so they descend into micro-management without having detailed knowledge of local conditions. The reason micro-management from the centre cannot work is that it approaches problems from entirely the wrong perspective. All the best central guidelines in any field set out prohibitions not prescriptions, they define what should not be done rather than trying to second-guess every possible scenario and defining what should be done. Take professional conduct rules as an example, they are all about types of conduct which are not acceptable, provided they are complied with professional people are trusted to use their own judgment.

Whether it be in the NHS, state schools, refuse collection or any other service provided by central or local government, no one has a monopoly of the best way of doing things. Ministers in central government are, I would suggest, worst placed of anyone in the chain to say what must happen on the front line. Failure to realise that variations in practice are a strength not a weakness and that variations in practice lead to improvements through experimentation, leads to stagnation at ground level for fear of stepping out of line with the one true path. A strong government understands how little it knows and trusts people to do a better job than the minister ever could, a weak government seeks to establish strength by pretending to know things it doesn't.

Thursday, 9 April 2009

The rule of law is stronger than my bigotry

Last week a scruffy middle aged man had a heart attack. Not me, on this occasion, my next one won't be long coming but it hasn't happened yet. His name was Ian Tomlinson and his myocardial infarction was fatal. He was in the vicinity of a demonstration in the City of London and keeled over shortly after being in somewhat closer proximity to a policeman's baton than he might have liked. It is reported that the officer who pushed or knocked him to the ground has been suspended pending enquiries.

My guess, from the little I have seen about the incident, is that Mr Tomlinson was asked or told to move on and failed to do so. Assuming that request was lawful (which it probably was) the police would have been entitled to use reasonable force to have their lawful order complied with. If the force used against Mr Tomlinson was reasonable in all the circumstances the officer did not commit any offence even if Mr Tomlinson's heart attack was caused directly by the force used against him.

In the event that the force used against him was not lawful (because there was no prior request or order to move or because it was excessive force) the officer involved would be guilty of assault. He could even be guilty of manslaughter if the assault caused the fatal heart attack.

There are many ifs and buts in the whole thing. It is impossible to know the true position as an observer from the sidelines. Some will claim the police were in the wrong because that suits their political purposes, either because they support the demented crusty hippies or because they see it as evidence that we have become a police state. Others will claim the police were in the right because it matches their preconceptions. But no one knows because not all the relevant facts are in the public domain.

I am as guilty as anyone of seeking to judge cases like this and I do it from my point of view, with all the bias, preconceptions, stereotypical analysis and bigotry that involves. Some have commented that I don't seem very bigoted despite my chosen non de plume, well, on a topic like this my bigotry runs deep. I see Mr Tomlinson dawdling in front of a police line and assume he had been asked or told to move away at least once. My assumption is based on knowledge that they are required to make such a request of give such an order before they use any force at all. That doesn't mean it happened, but it explains my assumption. I see Mr Tomlinson's reaction when he is on the ground. His face snarled not, I think, by fear or pain but by shallow macho aggression. His hands reach out as his neck juts forward, just as you see in pubs on a Saturday night when the man with tattoos wants to pick a fight to impress his mini-skirted belle: "Are you looking at my bird? 'Ere, I'm talking to you, are you looking at my bird?" It's the same reaction you see on the football field when the modern style of overpaid professional cheat commits a foul and tries to defraud the referee with dishonest protestations of innocence.

If (and it's a big if) my estimation of Mr Tomlinson is correct - and don't give me any of that sanctimonious "don't speak ill of the dead" nonsense, I'm just calling it as I see it wearing my bigot hat - none of it excuses criminal conduct by the police. The rule of law, more than anything else, is what distinguished a civilised nation from a barbarian nation. It also distinguishes a flawed and damaged civilised nation from a police state. There can be no excuses and no whitewash if a police officer caused Mr Tomlinson's death by acting outside the law. If he acted within the law, he is as blameless as any of us would be using lawful force. If he acted outside the law, the penalty must be the same as it would be for you and me.

Had Mr Tomlinson not died a few minutes after the incident there would be no debate and no wild accusations. The footage of him being pushed/beaten to the ground would be a minor part of a review of events on the latest day the crusties thought they could overthrow capitalism. But he did die. It was as great a tragedy for his family as any death is for any family. They are entitled to know what happened and to see that justice is done according to the imperfect laws we have.

My mind goes back many years to my early days in the law. I was the most junior member of the team representing a defendant at the Old Bailey. My client was an occasional opportunist burglar of the grossest incompetence. To him an open window was an invitation for felonious entry and the grabbing of whatever saleable items he could carry. One night he passed a block of disheveled flats and couldn't resist the temptation of an open window. The flat in question was occupied by an old man who lived in awful conditions. Cockroaches and mice were rife. His wardrobe consisted of two pairs of trousers, a few nylon shirts and underwear of dubious age and cleanliness. He lived on bread and tins of soup. The hapless burglar had alighted upon one of the few properties in London containing absolutely nothing of value. Unfortunately he also alighted upon a frail old man who, despite his lonely existence and squalid living conditions, was entitled to live without disturbance and found the disturbance such an ordeal that he keeled over and died. A fatal heart attack. A pointless petty burglary resulted in a conviction for manslaughter and, if my memory is correct, nine years in prison.

A police officer who oversteps the mark and becomes a criminal rather than an upholder and enforcer of the law is no different from my pathetic client of long ago. Actually, there is a difference. These days there is little chance that nine years in prison will be the result. Maybe a sentence of five to seven of which only half will have to be served. But that is by-the-by, what matters is that the rule of law is upheld whatever one thinks of someone who behaved like Mr Tomlinson.

Bob-be-Quick's fundamental breach

I wrote last December about a police officer called Bob Quick. On that occasion he panicked and blurted out the truth, namely that he is biased against the Conservative Party. He remained in his job because hapless Jacqui, the so-called Home Secretary, is even more unfit for office than he is. Or so we thought.

Yesterday, Wednesday, a coordinated raid took part in the north of England and a number of suspected terrorists or terrorist supporters were arrested. It has now emerged that the raids were brought forward because Mr Quick disclosed a briefing paper about the suspects to the press. He did it in a particularly stupid and incompetent way, by holding the paper in his hand while stepping out of a car in Downing Street thereby allowing it to be photographed by the press. There is a fine example of one such press photograph in the BBC's report of the matter.

What wonderful irony. Last year he came up with a lunatic conspiracy theory that the Conservative Party was acting corruptly in association with some newspapers to obstruct a police investigation. Now he has obstructed a police investigation through his stupidity.

When I was in practice at the Bar I often had to read confidential papers on trains or in restaurants or hotel dining rooms. There was rarely anything in them of interest to anyone other than the parties to the case I was involved in, but the information contained in the documents belonged to those people and their interests had to be treated with respect. It was not a difficult exercise. If anyone was sitting next to me or opposite me on the train the papers would be held so that they could not read them. In a restaurant or hotel the arrival of the waiter would result in the file being closed for the duration and reopened only when any possible prying eyes had departed. It was done automatically because it was such an obvious and important part of my job. I could put it pompously and call it a matter of duty, technically that would be correct, but I prefer to look on it as a matter of not disclosing private information to people with no right to know about it.

To step out in front of press photographers displaying sensitive information about an anti-terrorism operation really is crassly incompetent. Had you or I been emailed such information by mistake and then disclosed it to the press we could rightly expect the law to come down on us pretty hard. Had a General or Admiral during wartime disclosed tactical secrets in this way we wouldn't expect him to retain his position for very long. So, can we expect Bob Quick to fall on his sword or be reassigned to count traffic bollards in Cornwall? Oh no. That is not how it works when you are one of the current government's favourites. And what a favourite he is. Hapless Jacqui referred to him by his first name when addressing the press, as I noted in December. No word of censure or criticism has come from the government this time round. Even the sweetly-pensioned has-been known as "Red" Ken Livingstone has spoken out in support of this clumsy dolt. Having lost his poodle Sir Ian Blair as Commissioner, Mr Livingstone couldn't bear the thought of another tame lackey departing the senior ranks of the constabulary.

Mr Livingstone is quoted as describing what Mr Quick did as "holding a piece of paper the wrong way", as though he had used the butter knife for the fish course during a Royal banquet. This was not a matter of paper etiquette, the man disclosed highly secret details of an ongoing delicate investigation. It was a fundamental breach of duty.

Let's go back to the General and Admiral I mentioned earlier. I can be pretty sure they wouldn't wait to be asked before tendering their resignations. They would do so as a matter of duty because they would put their duty above their personal interest. Then let's ask what would happen if a probationary Constable had been sent with this document to Downing Street because Mr Quick had left it in his office. How long would he remain on the public payroll if he stepped out of the cab brandishing it in exactly the way Mr Quick did? One only has to ask the question for the answer to be obvious. The moment his error was exposed he would be made an example of and sent packing without so much as a "thank you and good luck". Mr Quick and hapless Jacqui would be at the forefront of those decrying the irresponsibility of the probationer and warning of the need for eternal vigilance in the war on terror. And they would be right.

If, as I am happy to assume, Mr Quick is a highly experienced and highly skilled anti-terrorist police officer his departure from office would probably be a loss to public service, at least in the short term, although there are perfectly well established ways in which he could be consulted for a fee were his expertise needed.

I am troubled that this is yet another illustration of someone who holds high office in this country putting themselves above their duty. Their duty must always come first. Their personal pride, their ambition and their pension must always give precedence to their duty. Many think they are indispensable but history shows that not to be the case. American Presidents are limited to a maximum of ten years in office no matter how successful they have been (or think they have been). The world continues turning when they leave office even if they have more to give. Whether you are a police officer or a President there is always someone capable of taking over, indeed someone has to take over some day. Breach of a fundamental duty should always accelerate that day.

Well, well, it seems the power of my little blog is greater than I thought. Mr Quick has now resigned. Well done Bob, you got there at last.