Thursday, 30 July 2009

The most pointless task in history

No, I don't mean creating a few thousand non-jobs with a billion pounds of money we don't have or seeking to defend the indefensible about the adequacy of equipment provided to UK troops in Afghanistan. We are back to my gammy leg.

By Monday the hippo-strength antibiotics prescribed by my GP were not even making a dent in the spread of infection and my right lower-leg was looking like a prosthesis discarded from use in The Elephant Man for being too gruesome to be true. The GP referred me immediately to a local hospital to which I was admitted without delay, put on intraveinous superjuice and told I could be incarcerated for up to ten days.

The hospital is arranged in numerous wards of varying sizes, all of them split into lettered sections known as bays each containing six beds. My first port of call had me in Bed 1, a quiet fellow with gastric troubles in Bed 2, argumentative drunks in Beds 3, 4 and 5 who had been together for many days and enjoyed little more than shouting their ignorant opinions on a wide range of topics, and a quiet old fellow in Bed 6 who appeared to want nothing more than to die after having spent two nights with Messrs 3, 4 and 5. Two things were clear from the beginning. There were no circumstances in which I was going to get involved in the "debates" and sleep would be impossible.

It was while on this ward I had my only encounter with the Consultant in charge of gammy legs. At least I presume that's who she was, she introduced neither herself nor her colleague by either name or rank but drew the curtain round my bed and started looking and prodding in a manner I would expect of a consultant and she certainly had the saggy, unmaintained features of someone who has spent many years working in the NHS. After looking at my leg and expressing agreement with earlier diagnoses she noted I had a history of liver problems and took it upon herself to try stabbing her bony fingers in the general direction of that troubled organ. My jacket was drawn shut apace, the sheet removed from my covered limb and I pointed, saying firmly "I think you'll find I'm here because of my leg - this is the one, here". She looked as though I'd just slapped her with a wet trout which, had it happened, would have been highly appropriate considering her facial features and general demeanour. She went off in a huff, never to be seen again and to remain anonymous for evermore.

By this time it was about 11pm and my mind turned to ways of amusing myself during the sleepless hours to come without engaging in conversation with the drunks. Hope lay in the fact that it was E Bay. Just before midnight bids appeared to have closed and the quiet chap in Bed 2 and I were moved elsewhere, far away. Only two others occupied the new Bay on our arrival, a hunched religious fundamentalist and a man practicing for the World Coughing Championships. The latter proved a captive audience for the former who, fortunately, spoke at mild volume. Sleep was difficult, as it had been for the last few days, but it was reassuring that pain rather than vocalised idiocy was the cause. No improvement was noticeable until Tuesday afternoon just after receipt of my second set of injections for the day. The redness started to recede ever so slightly and the swelling followed suit. At the same time two beds became available in a much nicer ward. Only I was invited to view these sumptuous properties and so the perfect setting was found for the remainder of my sentence.

No doubt time on a ward with other people will always be slightly troublesome, particularly for someone who thrives on solitude, but this was probably as good as it gets. Bed 1 featured an East European junkie of impeccable manners, Bed 2 a cockney junkie with the same excellent trait, in Bed 3 was an elderly gentleman of subcontinental origin who enjoyed a good moan and lengthy loud phone conversations with family and friends but showed himself to be of warm and generous spirit if those conversations were any evidence, I had Bed 4 - opposite Bed 3 and enjoying a splendid view from the window, Bed 5 contained a young oriental fellow who spoke no English and the occupant of Bed 6 was always hidden under his bedclothes and too ill to do anything except fart.

8am Wednesday saw the eighth set of injections being administered followed shortly afterwards by a visit from a new doctor, a fine looking young lady without a single truttaceous quality. She too strayed onto the subject of the FatBigot liver and was asked "what's that got to do with my leg?" The wry smile showed her bosses' ruse had failed. Shortly after the ninth set of injections following lunch on Wednesday a short nap was required, during which I ran a high temperature and sweated like a pig. On waking, all fever had passed although the pain in my leg was intense for about an hour. It was clear the nastly little bugs had put up their final desperate fight for dominance, only to be defeated by a combination of the 21 large pills and 18 massive injections of antibiotics administered over the previous 124 hours. They were beaten by modern medicine, not a single crystal or drop of homeopathic waters proved necessary, and a day later injections themselves were no longer necessary. I was granted parole on condition I continue to take seven pills a day for the next ten days to make sure all trace of the little buggers has been eliminated.

But anyway, what's all this got to do with "the most pointless task in history"? On each of the three wards graced by my flabby presence others were subjected to visits from relatives and some, even, by people they liked. It's such a very cringeworthy thing to witness. Let me give just three examples.

The quiet fellow with gastric difficulties, who I would estimate to be about thirty-five years old, was visited by his mother. When he did not telephone her as expected on Sunday she went round to his flat and on getting no reply called the police who broke the door down. He was already in hospital and now faced the cost of replacing his front door as well as the potential loss of all his personal property because it was not left fully secure. Her visit comprised an hour-long tirade against her stupidity during which it transpired that a neighbour knocked on what was left of the door while the police were inside and informed them that the occupant had left in an ambulance a couple of hours earlier and that his girlfriend was out of town on business. The words "unthinking stupid old woman" featured in the address to the jury.

Then there was the challenger for the title of World Coughing Champion. His wife nestled down in the way only a certain type of middle-aged lady can nestle. Those old enough to remember Les Dawson and Roy Barrowclough as Cissy and Ada will know exactly what I mean. She wasn't going to risk any of her words missing their target, so she said nothing as she bustled onto the ward in her raincoat and bonnet, snuggled her ample backside on and over the edges of the reasonably generous chair and fixed her husband with a glare he obviously knew well. And then she started. Many years of experience had taught him not to interrupt and a good hour-and-a-half monologue followed, ranging from the state of the cat's bowels and the price of the weekly shop to the most important topic of all - her husband's inadequacies. If ever someone was turned from having a nasty cough to wishing for a terminal condition, it was him.

The third example was the kindly subcontinental gentleman. He has one child, a son aged around forty, who brought his rather frail mother along. She was clearly very distressed to see her husband of long-standing in a state of both immobility and pain and he knew he had to try to cheer her up. It seemed to work, but by the end of the exercise the poor man was exhausted.

And so I ask - what is the point of hospital visits?

My own experience is limited to my only previous sentence to a term of hospitalisation, when I had a heart attack a few years ago. I had visits from relatives and friends and found it all utterly tiresome. The only news I ever had to impart was that a heart attack hurts like billy-o but the pain ceased after I was drugged up to the gills and I would go home when the doctors decided it was appropriate. Apart from that it was pointless smalltalk. My final visitors on that occasion were a neighbour who is a dear friend and her niece whom I have known for many years. You simply couldn't meet nicer people but I had nothing to say to them. It was an hour of sheer torture when all I wanted was to be left alone.

This time round I contacted all those likely to threaten to visit and made clear that I did not want visitors, thank you very much. I had books to read and people to observe, I wasn't going to have that spoiled by spending time saying "it hurts less than yesterday and expect it to hurt less again tomorrow". This spell inside has proved to me beyond any doubt that visiting people in hospital is the most pointless task in history

Sunday, 26 July 2009

A cup of tea with Mr Darling

Nothing incenses an old Trotskyite like profit. It has been observed that banks are charging higher margins than they did before the financial crisis hit. All the usual special interest groups are rallying round to condemn this wicked greed, shouting from the rooftops that Bank of England base rate is only 0.5%. Today the hapless Chancellor of the Exchequer, the inaptly named Mr Darling, joined in the shouting and said he was going to drag the High Street banks' big cheeses in for a chat. He didn't say he was planning to force them to reduce their margins but that threat was lurking in the background. This impending meeting was first disclosed to the government's official leakee-in-chief and reported by him last Thursday. According to Thursday's leak it is not just the banks that received injections of money from public funds who will attend but also the four largest lenders who had the sense not to tie themselves intimately into the State machine.

It is entirely understandable that both businesses and individuals would like a return to the days of cheap credit but there is no escaping the fact that credit was too cheap and backed by too little security, resulting in significant losses when the borrowers could not repay. You can't have it both ways. Either you lend to decent or good risks and cover your arse with security (in which case the risk of an overall loss from this business is kept low) or you lend willy-nilly and take only partial security (in which case you can hardly be surprised when it all goes pear-shaped). And, of course, the people who are hit hardest are those who over-stretched themselves, the little people for whom Mr Darling has so much compassion that he wants more of them to enter the lion's den.

Having spend a good three or four years moulding a massive pear the banks have woken up to the error of their ways. They don't really have any choice. Not only do existing losses have to be covered but they know that in a deep recession more losses will be incurred as businesses close and individuals lose their jobs. None of this is any excuse for usury but we are not talking usury we are merely talking rates that are a higher than in the mad days.

In his interview with Labour's favourite BBC Poodle, Andrew Marr, this morning Mr Darling said he wants banks to rebuild their balance sheets and that he wants them to lend more. In all of this there is a curious twist. As everyone knows only RBS and Lloyds took the Chancellor's twenty pieces of silver, Barclays, Santander, Nationwide and HSBC kept well away from him. The terms on which RBS and Lloyds were rescued seem to include requirements about lending policies (according to the Pre-Budget Report and today's interview). No doubt these are vague to the point of being useless, nonetheless the Chancellor can say that they made promises about lending and hint that they have broken their word. The other lenders are operating in the real world in which all the usual forces - supply, demand, costs, human error and all the rest - combine to determine the amount they can borrow, the amount they can lend, the margin they apply and the security they require. Absent a cartel operating there is no reason why HSBC or Santander could not undercut the "nationalised" banks and steal a lot of business yet it hasn't happened. Why not?

I am not privy to the workings of the big banks' boffins but the most obvious answer is that they know they have to charge substantially more than they did a year or two ago because they cannot raise cheap wholesale money and they need to cover existing loss-making loans and those anticipated to creep out from under a stone in the next year or so. They do not have a magic money tree of the kind so beloved of socialist politicians, they have a real business to run and just as the prudent individual tries to put a little aside for a rainy day so do well run banks.

One thing said by Mr Darling really made me chuckle. He said "... because of the fact that we've got into this recession, we ... need them to lend money ... that's why we recapitalised them ... and that's why they've got to live up to the promises they made". If we look back to the time of the recapitalisation, we find that he announced the recapitalisation scheme on the 18th of November. There is reference in paragraph three of his statement to the House of Commons to the government imposing terms as to "lending policy and wider public policy issues". Perhaps these wider public policy issues included something about the recession, I know not. Even if they did, just six days later he told us how damaging the recession would be in his Pre-Budget Report, he predicted a contraction in GDP of between 0.75% and 1.25% in 2009. Presumably any obligation to help fight recession is limited to a recession of that magnitude rather than the 3.2% we seem to have experienced so far.

I would love to know why he can't be brave for once and tell people the truth rather than just peddle soundbites to make him look busy. Why can't he say "the days of cheap credit are over, the days of 100% mortgages are over; it's a different game now and you just have to adjust your lifestyles accordingly"? Could it be because he thinks there are more votes in leading the charge to blame the banks? How very cynical I have become, it must be the horse-suppositories.

Friday, 24 July 2009

Oink, oink, atchooooo

Oh dear.

Feverish, shaky, sniffly, sneezy, headachy, chesty, sweaty. And not a Snow White in sight.

Still, it's cheaper than visiting Dignitas.

Woke up this morning with a bright scarlet right shin, very sore. Phoned the quack, described all my symptoms, she said "it's not piggy flu you fat fool, come in and let me see your leg". Now I have to take seven horse-suppository sized antibiotic pills every day for the next ten days. Not piggy flu, just an infection caused by an insect bite, probably a mosquito. How very disappointing. I've never been able to be trendy.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

The only way to social mobility

I don't understand class. Well, in a way I suppose I do, but only in a way. I am from a working class background in that my father earned his living through manual work, but after spending my working life in the law I count as middle class. It was once the case that barristers were upper-middle class according to some classometer or another, but as far as I can tell that is not so these days. Yet I am not and never could be a toff.

Undoubtedly I now speak differently from how I did as a teenager, I smoothed some edges because people expect their brief to speak "proper". Early in my career I was appearing on behalf of a youngster who was following the family path by stealing things. He was only about 16 or 17 and already had an impressive string of convictions. The family was out in force to give their support at a preliminary hearing. He was refused bail and after the short hearing it was my duty to explain the state of play to his parents, cousins and grandmother (known, inevitably, as his "nan"). When pausing for breath at one point, Nan took the opportunity to turn to her daughter and say "aw, dunee speak noice". Your criminal classes expect their brief to speak noice.

There, you see, an example of class in action. To me, the criminal class consists of those who make their living from criminal activities, those who supplement their income from criminal activity and those who hit people. A great many of them exist. They know they have chosen to act as they do, they know they might get caught and they know they cannot defend themselves in court as well as a trained lawyer can - even a lawyer of pretty modest ability. So they are always grateful for any help they are given and go out of their way to thank you at every step in the court process. They will happily go to a specialist criminal solicitor with a cockney accent, but their barrister must speak like a gent. That's just part of the natural way of things for them. But woe betide you if you speak down to them. They might be the criminal class but they know their instructions pay your bills so they expect respect and politeness at all times.

I speak of the "criminal class" as shorthand for people who choose to behave in certain ways, ways that happen to be against our current laws. Whether they count as a class for the purposes of politicians and the great concept of "social mobility" is beyond my knowledge, I would guess they don't but I don't know.

When I read anything about social mobility there is one central theme running through the piece. It is not about getting invited to a Duke's cocktail party or playing polo in the grounds of Windsor Castle, it is about education. In particular, it is about families with no history of working in fields that require high educational qualifications and the difficulties faced by their children in gaining access to those jobs. Since I started writing this piece I have completed my daily blog reading and have found that both Mr Raedwald and Mr Tyler have addressed this very point, but I'm going to plough on anyway.

Spending a working lifetime in the law you get to meet a very wide range of people. At one end of my historic spectrum of clients were uneducated thugs, at the other were senior executives of multinational corporations. Many of the former were more pleasant to deal with and more sensible than many of the latter. And among my legal friends and acquaintances are numerous QCs, a fair number of judges and a smattering of members of the House of Lords. That is just a consequence of the world in which I worked, it says nothing about me other than that I worked with a lot of people of greater ability and/or drive than me. At no time did I find the social background of anyone to be relevant to any issue I had to address.

Perhaps the time when it could have come into play was when assessing applicants for pupillage - the apprenticeship barristers have to undertake. All applicants submit a detailed synopsis of their education, their hobbies and any non-academic achievements they have to their name. Inevitably they include the name and location of their secondary school and university. In the three different sets of chambers from which I practised I am not aware of a single example of anyone being refused an interview or a pupillage because of where they went to school or university, still less because of what their parents did for a living. In real life, outside the dreamy world of politicians with an agenda, the quality of the applicant is what matters. We did not want to waste a scarce pupillage on a turkey any more than an employer wants to take on someone who will be a burden to his business.

As it happens we took plenty of people from nicely expensive schools, but only because they appeared to have the necessary wherewithal. On occasions we were wrong and they were in fact turkeys. Equally, we took on plenty from St Bog-Standard's Comprehensive school in the town of Notta Niceplace, only to find some of them were turkeys too. What mattered was not where they came from but who they were at they time they presented themselves to us. Good people from poor backgrounds were still good people and an asset. Poor people from a wealthy background were still poor people and a burden. Education at Eton and Cambridge simply don't help if you are competing against someone better than you, no matter where they went to school and university.

The key to the type of social mobility I am addressing is education. Pure and simple. It is about having a mind that has been developed throughout the school and university years. It cannot be engineered, it cannot be spun, it can happen in one way only - by providing a strong academic education for those children of strong academic ability. The fee-paying schools will always provide this and for that reason they will turn out plenty of would-be doctors, accountants and lawyers. There is no point pretending that children educated in the State sector can gain access to these jobs unless they are provided with the same opportunities for academic development as those against whom they will later challenge for the limited number of available places.

A range of factors combine to make it difficult for many children educated in State schools to gain access to the professions despite them having the natural abilities required. Four factors seem particularly important to me.

First, academic education is valued insufficiently as a good in itself. Because not everyone can do it, so it is seen by some as being undesirable.

Secondly, targets and league tables dictated by politicians make it more important for a school to squeeze as many as possible into a C grade for fear of the consequences if insufficient numbers of pupils meet the target. Resources that might be better targeted at stretching some from a B to an A or a C to a B are instead focussed on the natural Ds and Es to move them up a grade despite it being of no real utility to those children themselves.

Thirdly, far too few children are advised to aim for these jobs. I don't know this as a fact, my view is based wholly on things I have been told by people who did make it and related their experiences of "career advice" at their State school. The finest example of this was described to me many years ago by a dear friend with whom I worked for several years, it involves unashamed name-dropping on my part, but I'll risk my reader's opprobrium. The lady barrister in question told me that when she was at school she was advised to aim for a career as a secretary and to learn short-hand and typing to increase her chances. Her name is Patricia Scotland, she is now the Attorney-General.

Fourthly, and perhaps most absurdly, those who are not burdened by the first three factors or who have had the strength to overcome them must then face university. Some grants are available but not many. It is an inevitable consequence of the ludicrous policy of cramming as many people into university as possible that it is not feasible for the taxpayer to cover the cost of course fees and maintenance for all those whose families cannot afford it themselves. One hears tales of students graduating with £30,000 or more of debts. It is necessarily the case that some very able young people will not be prepared to take on such a liability and will forgo a university education despite being eminently suited to it. It is also necessarily the case that some who do attend university will be deterred from taking professional qualifications because the additional cost/debt is a step too far. And, quite obviously, those who are deterred by cost will mostly come from families of modest means.

Social mobility is nothing to do with "class" as such. It is everything to do with providing academic education for children of an academic bent. No one seems to complain when special sports or theatre schools combine general education with specialist development of the particular talents for which the pupils have been selected. When the England football team is ailing or there is only one British male in the top fifty in the world at tennis, cries go up for special provision to be made to identify the most talented youngsters and nurture them. Everyone involved knows that not all those who show talent at age twelve or fourteen or whatever is the cut-off point will turn into professional players, everyone also knows that some who are pretty average at that age will develop their talents later. Yet the principle is sound - identify those who appear to have a special talent, develop it as well as you can and provide the finance needed to allow it to develop. The same applies to academic ability.

Unless that is done, social mobility will remain nothing but a dream for far too many people who started just as I did and just as my accountant did, and just as my GP did and just as the Attorney-General did.

Monday, 20 July 2009

38 Pall Mall please

Non-smokers might not know that different cigarettes have different flavours. My particular favourites are a medium tar product of the Camel stable. Camel cigarettes are commonly available in three strengths, differentiated by the colour of the packet; yellow if you like them quite strong, blue if you like the medium strength and white-ish if you prefer something mild. I'm a Camel Blues man. They used to be called Camel Lights until some bright spark thought it was misleading to refer to any version of ciggies as "light". The thinking, if you can call it that, was that all cigarettes are potentially harmful and "light" could give the impression that they are not potentially harmful. It's complete hogwash, of course, "lights" - whether Camel, Benson & Hedges, Marlboro or any others - contain less tar and deliver less nicotine than the standard version. Whether that reduces their potential harmfulness is beyond my knowledge, but it does mean they are lighter in tar and nicotine than other available products. No smoker has ever been shown to have been misled by the term "light" but little facts like that never get in the way of official bigotry.

These days Camel are too expensive for me at £5.99 per packet of twenty. One of the great joys of visiting the USA, which I do every couple of years or so, is to be able to buy Camel Lights again. Another is that they cost half what they cost here. A third delight is that Camel sell a slightly shorter and considerably fatter version known as Wides, thereby allowing me to adopt my best Louisianna accent and proclaim "I's gotten me some Waaaaaaaaaaaaades".

The one thing you should never do in America is ask for twenty of your favourite brand. The shop assistant will react in one of two ways. Either they will stare at you in a state of complete bewilderment or they will plonk twenty packets on the counter. They don't order in twenties or tens but in packs. Over here, as you might know, the standard argot is to order either ten or a multiple of twenty. Ironically, on the very rare occasions I have bought ten they have been turned to ash and a cough far faster than it takes to reduce half a packet of twenty to the same state. So my practice is to buy one or more packets of twenty and to do so by asking for twenty, forty or sixty. Even in these days of dumming-down, the most arithmetically challenged shop assistant is able to work out how many packets need to be taken from the shelf.

Being a man with a dickey ticker my consumption of ciggies is now less than it used to be. I try to keep to just twenty a day and I buy every two or three days. A couple of years ago I switched from Camel Lights/Blues to a cheaper brand. The exact price of Camels at the time is lost in the mists of history but an indication of the disparity is that Camel now cost £5.99 for twenty whereas my new brand, Pall Mall, cost £4.25. Other cheaper brands were sampled, but only Pall Mall passed my taste test.

The week before last I received something of a shock to my already delicate system. I asked for forty Pall Mall, paid £8.50 and returned to FatBigot Towers to enjoy a nicotine fix. On opening the first packet something was seriously amiss. Cigarettes have always been packed tightly in their little box, like Russian virgins in a shipping crate en route to a new life as "waitresses". But these were not packet tightly, there was a gap, a highly noticeable gap. The packet contained not twenty but nineteen little tubes of addiction. My first thought was that something must have gone wrong at the factory and that I was in possession of a collector's piece, like a stamp with the Queen's head facing the wrong way. But no, careful examination of the packet showed the number nineteen stamped on the side and examination of the unopened packet disclosed a tiny yellow corner on the outer cellophane wrapper on which the same number appeared.

The following day I returned to the shop and pointed out this sad fact to the owner. At first he didn't believe me but a careful look at the stocks still on his shelf corroborated me. He couldn't believe his eyes and assured me that there was nothing to alert him to this radical change at the cash-and-carry. Since then I have bought Pall Mall at other shops and pointed out that they only contain nineteen cigarettes. At only one store was the person serving aware of this fact and she said it was brought to her attention by another customer a few days earlier. The latest batch of Pall Mall have the price printed on the cellophane covering, it is now £4.22. A reduction of three pence in price in return for a five percent reduction in volume. I'm not complaining really, they are still markedly cheaper than any other brand, but it is a bit cheeky.

Yesterday I needed to re-stock and asked for "thirty-eight Pall Mall please". The look on the face of the assistant made me feel as though I was in America again.

Friday, 17 July 2009

When is a budget not a budget?

On Thursday I bemoaned the government's idea of putting Windy Miller in charge of electricity generation, today I want to discuss another aspect of their exciting "low carbon" plan. The Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change announced that every government department now has a "carbon budget" as well as one dealing with pounds and pence. He said it was part of the scheme of "legally binding carbon budgets" announced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer earlier this year. The use of the term "budget" is a complete nonsense. What he means is that every government department will be set targets. That is not a budget any more than setting a target for the number of exam passes to be attained by schools is an "examination budget" or the number of arrests made by the police is an "arrest budget". But that is only the start of the absurdity.

Let's just stop for a moment and try to absorb the concept of government departments having "legally binding" targets of any kind. What are the consequences of the target not being met? It's easy to see what "legally binding" means in the real world, it means that the law requires you to do or refrain from doing something and will impose a penalty if you breach that requirement. We have things called courts which enforce legally binding obligations and administer penalties to those who fail in their legal duties. How can that apply to the failure of a government department to meet a target for reducing the production of carbon dioxide resulting from, say, the manufacture of giant windmills? What penalty can be imposed, and who will impose it? Will the department's funding be reduced next year if it fails to meet this year's target? Of course not. Will a fine be imposed or the minister and senior civil servants face prosecution and imprisonment? Of course not. These are just targets.

At the moment they seem to be only internal targets for government departments themselves. As such they are nothing but a massively expensive exercise in navel gazing. Some of it is already in place. NHS trusts and local councils have departments dedicated to reducing their employers' "carbon footprint". Lightbulbs that produce the amount of light everyone is accustomed to are replaced by fat curly lightbulbs that don't. The officially mandated guilt associated with the use of electricity and gas is assuaged by spending taxpayers' money on planting trees in Africa. Trees that would have been planted anyway at a fraction of the cost because they provide a crop. Instead we pay not just for the crop but also for the kick-backs to local "worthies". Lowly council employees are told they cannot have a parking space at work because driving is naughty, while the big wigs retain their chauffeurs. Advisors and consultants are made available to local businesses to tell them how they can reduce their emissions. Reams of paper are shuffled back and forth, miles are clocked-up and expenses incurred in order to meet current targets. None of it will make the slightest bit of difference to anything. Absolutely no difference at all.

Real businesses, businesses that make things and generate the wealth that is taxed to pay for the paper-pushers, don't employ "carbon footprint advisors" unless they think there is something in it for them. They know that there is only one measure that matters, pounds and pence. Employing symbolic greenies can be profitable if your business depends on custom from naive, tree-hugging tofu-knitters. But if you are making nuts, bolts and washers your customers are concerned with only price and quality. If you can make the same things at the same or a lower price by adopting a process that emits less carbon dioxide you might choose to follow that path. I defy you, however, to find a government-employed greenie advisor who has the expertise required to find a way for manufacturing businesses to do so. After all, what can these people know about the technical aspects of manufacturing industry? If they knew that stuff they wouldn't be employed as greenie advisors, they would have real jobs in their field of expertise.

None of this will stop some of them coming up with grandiose plans. And none of it will stop most of their "work" being fiddling at the edges to find utterly minuscule savings in carbon dioxide emissions at a cost far out of proportion to any benefit even the most ardent greenie could identify.

It's bad enough that money will be wasted on the fiddling at the edges, far more worrying is the thought of grandiose plans. Grandiose plans make good politics. For as long as it is thought there are votes in greenieness, governments will divert money from sensible stuff because nothing is a better use of our money than buying our votes.

Lying behind all this wibble is the ludicrous concept of measuring in "carbons dioxides". It is a meaningless measure because it cannot be compared to anything else and it has no utility as a measure in itself. The mile is a useful measure because it allows us to judge how long it will take to travel from A to B and, during our journey, it tells what proportion of the trip has expired. The pound is a useful measure because it allows us to judge whether a particular item of paid work is worth doing and whether it is worth buying a particular thing. Measuring carbon dioxide emissions is pointless because there is nothing to compare it to and of itself it means nothing to say "my new car emits 50 grammes of carbon dioxide per kilometre whereas my old one emitted 150". So what? What difference does that make to anything? No one can identify the difference it will make because it is so small as to be irrelevant to anything.

In fact it can be compared to itself. We can assess, but not measure, how much carbon dioxide we produce this year compared to last year. In doing so we will find that anything we do as individuals is very small because most emissions are unavoidable by individual activity - they come from industry (yes, that industry, the one that lights and heats our homes and provides us with employment). But even that comparison is pointless because the whole man-made global warming circus revolves around worldwide emissions of carbon dioxide, not just the 1.6% or so from this country.

So, what does a departmental "carbon budget" actually amount to? If anyone thinks it will result in substantial reductions in UK carbon dioxide emissions, I fear they are deluded. The likelihood is that there will be a little trimming at the edges and it will cost a huge amount of money.

Just like the windmills. A futile and unaffordable farce.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Whistling in the wind

It is hard to know where to start when discussing the government's new "low-carbon" energy plan, it is so full of internal contradictions and downright nonsense. But I have to pick somewhere so I'll start with the presumption that the world is warming. This ties in nicely with the announcement made last week that some international talking-shop or another is determined to keep global warming to a maximum of 2 degrees Celsius above the level of some time around 1750. There's a bit of slack built in already, the earth has political permission to get warmer provided it doesn't get too warm. So from that starting point my initial observation is that a bit of warming should reduce energy consumption because there will be less of a need to heat our homes and workplaces during the chilly months. There, we have reduced our "carbon footprint" already and it hasn't cost a bean.

Where do we go from there? I know, let's see how they plan to generate electricity without producing carbon dioxide. The headline measure is windmills. I am not sure whether these are the same windmills to which they committed £100billion just a few months ago but I presume they are. The intention is to build about 7,000 new windmills by 2020. I've got news for them. It's 2009 already so they only have ten years and five months, 125 months. So that's 56 windmills per month or the best part of two a day every day for more than ten years. Are we really expected to believe that this will happen? Given enough people, materials and money any number of anything can be built pretty quickly, but even so this task strikes me as impracticable.

And what if it does happen? That's where the real fun and games arise. Windmills can only produce electricity when the wind is blowing. When it is not blowing they often have to be kept turning to prevent the blades buckling in the sun (because the size of the things means the three blades will catch unequal amounts of energy from the sun and will buckle unless they are rotated to keep exposure roughly equal). So they will need to take electricity from the grid when they need to be rotated and there is insufficient wind to perform the task.

When the wind is turning the blades electricity will be generated but at present there is no efficient way of storing that juice, it can be fed into the grid and a coal/gas/nuclear plant can be turned down or it can be drained away to earth if there is no call for it. Yet the wind can stop just as quickly as it starts, so there must always be conventional back-up generators to fill the void. Some of these can be turned on and off reasonably quickly but they use a lot more fuel that way compared to running pretty much constantly. Any saving of fossil fuel use through having windy electricity being fed into the grid is ameliorated by the additional fuel consumption and wear-and-tear of the conventional plants. And there is always a bottom line. The bottom line is that we must maintain sufficient conventional generating capacity to provide all our needs because it can never be known how much will come from the windmills.

Coal-fired generators are included in the plan. The government has kindly agreed to allow these provided they are fitted with mechanisms to capture a lot of the carbon dioxide they produce before it floats into the air. What a splendid idea. Or it would be if such mechanisms existed. Some are being trialled at the moment but they are a long way from being usable on a large scale. And all of them require power which means more fuel must be used to generate the same amount of electricity.

So, the plan is to construct an unattainable number of windmills at an unaffordable cost in order to provide an unreliable supply, whilst maintaining conventional generating capacity but not using it efficiently and making it less fuel-efficient when it is used.

Only central planning can come up with such a scheme.

Technological advances might well find ways of storing spare electricity, I would certainly expect that to happen because history shows engineers to be able to find solutions to such problems. Yet no one can say when a solution will be found and there is certainly no guarantee that it will be before 2020. As and when it does happen, windmills might have a serious part to play but even then they can only generate so much power, we are a very long way from windmills being able to make more than a marginal contribution to our electricity needs.

So why is this ridiculous plan being put forward? Ostensibly it is because of fears of catastrophic global warming. Did you spot the adjective I slipped in there? Catastrophic. A bit of warming or a bit of cooling is neither here nor there, even the doomiest of doom-mongers don't argue that small changes will be harmful to anyone other than those who like the cold. You might think that before embarking on a hugely expensive and inefficient exercise the government would take a look at whether the evidence of risk justifies the expense. Those who believe in the catastrophic man-made global warming scenario argue that current evidence of no measured increase in actual average temperatures over the last decade does not undermine their hypothesis. Those who don't believe in it cite the last decade as strong evidence that the hypothesis is incorrect. For the purposes of what I have to say today it really doesn't matter which, if either, of those sides is correct. The simple fact is that the government did not re-assess the evidence before launching the new plan. To say the least, their approach is slipshod.

A further aspect of the plan is worth mentioning. It seems that they want to compel people to utilise energy-saving measures in their homes and work places. We already see this in the current Building Regulations that require a newly-built property to meet strict energy efficiency targets before the work will be certified and the property becomes marketable. Usually these targets can only be met by the installation of cavity-wall insulation or the use of insulating boarding on internal walls, in either case combined with double-glazed windows. It seems likely that they will extend the Building Regulations to ensure that double-glazing and wall insulation have to be added even where work of a non-structural nature is undertaken.

There is a precedent for this in the regulations about noise insulation between flats. Originally noise insulating flooring (which is nothing more than inch-thick chipboard with a layer of hard rubber) had to be fitted only when a new block of flats was being built. Then they extended it to conversions of single dwellings into one or more flats, and now the installation of nothing more than a new bathroom is viewed by some Councils' Building Control departments as triggering the need to replace all flooring so as to provide effective sound insulation between one flat and the flat below. I expect the same creeping process to apply to double glazing and the insulation of walls.

The reason I mention this is that the cost of the work is almost always far in excess of the saving in heating bills. Decent quality double-glazing of a modest home can easily cost between four and five thousand pounds whilst saving only a few pounds a year in heating costs. Wall insulation might only set you back a thousand or two (including the cost of redecoration) while also saving very little. Say these measures save £150 a year, itself somewhat unlikely for a modest property even with electricity and gas costing what they do today, it would take almost thirty years to recoup insulating costs of £4,000. Maybe the windows and wall insulation will last that long or maybe they won't, no one can tell. What we can tell is that people will be forced to fork-out a lot of money on a pure gamble whether they will ever get a benefit from it.

At every stage of this plan one thing is clear. The costs are enormous whilst the benefits are purely speculative. Actually, one other thing is clear. Even if catastrophe will strike through substantial further emissions of carbon dioxide, those emissions will happen anyway. Nibbling-away at the 2% or so of global emissions originating from the UK is utterly futile while China and India today, and Brasil, Mexico, South Africa and others tomorrow, use coal to provide them with energy to give them a small leg-up in their attempt to match the standard of living we currently enjoy.

The whole thing is a futile and unaffordable farce.

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Old-age care

I am in a state of shock. The government has got something right. They have initiated a debate about how care for the elderly should be funded. At the moment those with assets have to pay for residential or nursing care and must sell their home (or one of their homes if they were once Members of Parliament) if it is the only way to raise the cash.

The present system lays bare a fundamental issue. Who is responsible for my well-being, me or the State? If, as I believe, it is me then I should pay for any care I need in my dotage just as I pay for my miserable existence today. If that means there is less in my estate when I fall off the twig, so be it. My estate comprises my assets and it is hard to see why others without such assets (or, indeed, those with greater assets) should pay for my needs when I can pay for them myself.

But then those with no realisable assets get care for nothing, so why should I not receive the same value of care as them out of taxation and only pay for any additional services I might desire?

The simple fact is that there is an equally strong case for (i) those with assets paying for their care and (ii) everyone receiving a minimum standard regardless of assets. Neither position can be said to be plainly right and neither is plainly wrong. Where difficulty arises is in frustrated intentions. Mr & Mrs Ordinary who scrimped together the deposit for a small house and worked hard to pay-off the mortgage did not do so just for the fun of it. They did so to provide themselves with secure housing throughout their lives and so that they could pass something on to their children. It is politically unpalatable that the asset they have taken thirty or more years to acquire should be paid over to the State in return for nothing more than the same old-age care received without additional cost by those who liquidated their wages into the latrine at the Dog & Duck every Saturday night.

As with so many problems that arise in relation to health care, the solution comes sixty years too late and at far greater cost than it should. The NHS was intended by its architect, William Beveridge, to be based on insurance with premiums reviewed annually to ensure sufficient was being put into the pot to provide not just for current expenditure but also to build a reserve. An insurance company that raises only enough in premiums to pay administrative costs and likely one-year expenditure would soon go to the wall because the very nature of the business is that the risks being insured are variable. In the real world governments who inherit a pot of cash raid it if they can to pay for their pet projects with a view to winning future votes. No substantial reserve pot was ever created, instead the NHS, including old-age care, was treated as a call on current tax receipts year-by-year.

And so we are where we are. The new government initiative finally grasps the nettle by realising there are three ways in which old-age care can be provided by the NHS. Each presupposes a basic level of care available to all without charge, the debate is about how a level of care above the basic level should be funded. One option is to simply leave it to individuals to pay as and when they wish for some optional extras. The second is to apply a levy of around £20,000 at retirement age on all those who can afford to pay it (no doubt operating by way of a lump-sum confiscation from private pension plans). The third is to establish an insurance system into which people can pay over time to receive care later. The first two concentrate on those who are at or near retirement age, the third makes most sense if applied throughout a working life.

Criticism from the Opposition that the government should not be launching a discussion document but putting forward a firm proposal is unpersuasive. The three options all have their merits and need to be reflected upon and thought through. It is churlish to criticise a government that has too often launched hasty and ill-considered initiatives when for once it has done the sensible thing and shown willingness to engage in debate on a difficult and important topic.

I find this issue fascinating because it links into themes I have waffled about over the months. One of my themes is that too many people live beyond their means and by doing so store-up problems for the future. We are witnessing an intense example of that at present as many of those who borrowed against fictitious equity in their homes to enjoy temporary frivolities are now paying a very dear price. We see it in a different way in the enormous levels of government debt which, in some quarters, is causing long-needed focus on what government can really afford to do. And we see it too in the inadequacy of funding for pensions in both the private and public sectors. In all these areas current spending by both individuals and government has had priority over saving to pay for future costs. Isolating old-age care as an issue should help to illustrate that it is a normal incident of life and is so expensive that it needs to be saved for, just like a decent pension.

Perhaps someone has prepared figures about what proportion of our incomes we should all save throughout our working lives to cover future contingencies like pensions and old-age care, I know not. At a rough guess I would say ten percent for a pension and maybe two or three percent for care. In a way it doesn't matter whether that saving takes place individually, through an employer-run scheme, through an insurance company or through taxation. What does matter is that a pot of money is built up and kept safe specifically for these areas of future expenditure. In practice that rules out taxation because no government can be trusted to leave the pot unraided. It might also rule out insurance companies because their huge assets always make an avaricious Chancellor of the Exchequer salivate like a vicar in the choirboys' changing room.

The difficulty is in ensuring that voluntary top-ups remain just that. It would be easy for a future government to say that the NHS will fund care only for those who have not made their own provision, particularly if insurance becomes the norm. That cannot happen for many years and should not be the focus of attention today. What should be the focus of attention is the necessary shift in attitudes away from "the State will provide" to "the State will provide a basic safety net, anything else is down to me".

Saturday, 11 July 2009

Health and education, think fruit and veg

All enterprises operate according to the pressures they face. If you have a market stall selling fruit and veg you have to buy produce and sell it for a profit or you pack up and find something else to do. The pressures on such a business are almost all about profit. What are the overheads? How much does stock cost? How must wastage is involved? At what price can the stock be sold? Wastage involves a number of factors some of which are imposed by law. If you sell produce of unsatisfactory quality your customer can claim redress and your reputation might suffer. If you sell produce that is unfit for human consumption you might face prosecution. The law imposes a quality threshold and it dictates the minimum you should pay any staff you employ, but apart from that everything is about making a margin between buying price and selling price. The position is essentially the same for every business in the private sector. There are certain legal constraints on what you can do but apart from that you either create a sufficient profit to make it worthwhile or you close.

Privately-funded education thrived for generations without government targets and league tables. Not all schools in the private sector survived. Those who couldn't make the grade had to close and others arose in their place where there was perceived to be unfulfilled demand that could be met at an affordable price. So also with privately-funded hospitals. If they were not delivering a service people were prepared to pay for they would go to the wall.

One freedom the private sector has is to reject potential customers who cannot afford the fees or who would cause trouble. That does not apply in the public sector for so long as there is a legal right to medical treatment and a legal obligation on parents to send their children to school. But leaving these special factors to one side there is a particular pressure on state schools and medical services that the private sector does not have, and that is political interference.

If the government is running schools and hospitals it knows that problems can cost votes, so it feels the need to be seen to be acting to anticipate difficulties that might arise and correct those that have arisen. This is why we have countless initiatives being forced on teachers and medical staff, often before the previous initiative in the same area has taken full effect. The emphasis is on what's good for the politicians rather than on delivering the best possible service at ground level. And with every change comes a stream of paper going through numerous layers of bureaucracy, it flows down from the top and then another stream of paper heads in the opposite direction in order to report back on how the initiative has operated.

Contrast this to the position in the private sector in which the overriding need is to keep administrative costs to a minimum so that the best possible service can be provided for the lowest possible price. Of course they have quality controls but these are the responsibility of the hospital general manager and the head teacher who knows that failure means the possible loss of his job and collapse of the whole business.

A further contrast is that there is no pressure for uniformity in the private sector. To my mind this is one of the most costly, damaging and misguided aspects of state provision. There is no more a single correct way to provide medical care or to teach than there is a single correct way to bowl a cricket ball or butter a slice of bread. Seeking uniformity of practice stifles the sort of initiative that leads to improved practices. Seeking uniformity of outcome is simply absurd. There is no logical basis for saying that, for example, lung cancer recovery rates should be roughly the same all over the country or that resources in every hospital should be allocated so as to ensure that no patient has to wait longer than an arbitrary target time before being seen by a consultant. The former ignores inevitable regional differences in lifestyle and the latter is both administratively expensive and hugely wasteful as other work is put on ice in order to meet the target.

What is often overlooked when state provision of services is discussed is that the political pressure to fiddle with everything is both inevitable and entirely reasonable. No government can afford to sit back and say "we are not seeking to improve things" without risking its political future. Part of the reason for this is an apparently widespread belief that the government can effect improvements. I have grave doubts about this but then it really depends on how you define improvement. Can they change things to create an impression that an identified problem has been alleviated in the short-term? Yes, of course they can. But at what cost to other aspects of the service? Take a few million out of the budget to pay for a new gimmick and you might buy a good headline but that money has to be taken from another part of the system; there is no way of knowing whether the perceived solution to one problem is a price worth paying unless you can measure and compare the detriment suffered elsewhere.

I do not see how political interference can be avoided for so long as the government has direct responsibility for running things. This applies not just to schools and hospitals but to every other service it provides, but it is seen most keenly in the electoral battleground of the three Rs - reading writing and rheumatism. Remove direct political control and you remove the massively expensive need (for, in reality, it is a need) to fiddle with the system and monitor every aspect of it from on high.

Are health and education too important to be left to local decision-making by individual schools and hospitals? It is often asserted that they are, but I cannot see them as more important than providing food. Yet no one seems to be suggesting that Tesco should be nationalised because making sure we have affordable food is too important to be left to the private sector. And who would trust the government to run supermarkets? Stand for election on a platform of establishing the National Grocery Service and see where it gets you. Education and medical services are no more natural monopolies than are the sale of food and drink. Of course it is unrealistic to seek to run so many competing hospitals that there is not enough custom to allow any of them to receive the income it needs, but the same can be said of theatres, professional football clubs, hairdressers, solicitors, accountants, plumbers, architects and every other service business.

The best services are those providing good quality for an affordable price. Quality is maintained in the private sector by the need to be good in order to attract custom. The customer is a far better judge of quality than a government minister or any number of civil servants. Of course there are lapses in the private sector and failure to maintain proper quality can cause great harm before the customer base learns about it and votes with its wallet, yet state control does not prevent mistakes being made. Indeed we hear a lot about "superbug" infections and expensive lawsuits over negligent medical practice in the state-run system but few if any such stories about privately-funded medicine.

Bureaucracy is kept to a minimum in the private sector by the need to control costs in order to be affordable. Quality does not require bureaucracy but political control does, political control requires vast bureaucracy. And that costs a lot of money. To my mind, it is wasted money because there is no need for the state to run these services. That money could be used better in other ways and the services themselves will be subjected to far more telling and relevant quality controls if they are localised. Parents know if their children's state school is providing a poor service but can do nothing about it at present. Patients and their families know when a state hospital is not clean or is not providing a reasonable level of care but can do nothing about it at present. The inability of the customers to affect the service they pay for with their taxes tells us all we really need to know about the central failure of state services. When have you ever heard of a BUPA hospital not being clean or not keeping dependent patients clean and properly fed? When have you ever heard of a fee-charging school having no one the parents can turn to when their child reports on the inadequacy of Mr Quelch's pedagogic abilities? Maybe you have heard of such things, I know I haven't, yet they are the daily fare of reports about state services.

The whole thing is upside-down at present. Demand for private healthcare and private education has never been higher. How can that be if state control is a workable and effective system? Morale in both the HNS and state education is said to be at a low ebb. How can that be if state control is a workable and effective system? Politicians must be removed from day-to-day involvement in both fields except in two respects. For most people both education and healthcare are only affordable if paid for out of taxation; just as replacing their car if it is stolen is only affordable if paid for out of insurance premiums. Government must still fund the services but it must do so by passing the money directly to the most local possible level and trusting those who run schools and hospitals to use their allotted funds to best advantage. The other part government has to play is, in truth, a responsibility for Parliament rather than government. It is to set the legal framework within which services must be provided. Just as it sets the legal framework for a fruit and veg stallholder. Except in these two respects, politicians should leave things alone because they do far more harm than good.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

This, That and The Other: a recipe for cutting state spending

We are seeing some very interesting suggestions about how government spending can be reduced but far too many of them fail to address what I consider to be the central point. The position appears to be that three main factors must be catered for. First there are substantial additional costs to the Exchequer caused by increased benefit payments to those who lose their jobs. Secondly, the money the government has borrowed, is borrowing now and intends to borrow over the next few years must be repaid with interest. And, thirdly, tax revenues are being squeezed by reduced payments in income and corporation taxes as well as Stamp Duty. The other day we read that Treasury officials are preparing briefing papers in which reductions of up to 20% in government spending will be examined. The current government is slowly abandoning its absurd suggestion that spending can be maintained or even expanded beyond current, unaffordable, levels and the opposition are trying to find ways of cutting up to 10% from departmental budgets other than health, education and (I know not why) overseas aid.

This week appears to be Quango week, with both main parties suggesting how they will reduce the cost of committees that undertake tasks delegated by government. So far the approach adopted appears to have been to find cheaper ways of doing what Quangoes do now. There is the same chance of this delivering serious savings as I have of becoming the next Chief Rabbi, and I'd fail the medical. In the next few weeks and months we can expect the debate to move on to other administrative issues with all eyes being focussed on finding better ways to procure paperclips and increasing staff contributions to the tea, coffee and biscuit fund from 25p a day to 27p.

There is no escaping the fact that, if a job is to be done, it must be paid for. Anyone brave enough to take on the public sector unions might try to reduce costs by imposing the sort of wages freezes / wage cuts that many in the private sector must endure if their job is to have any long-term prospect of survival. Such measures could undoubtedly save a nice chunk of cash but it will be a drop in the bucket of overall expenditure. The size of the problem needs something far more radical. The real question is not how government can undertake its present tasks more cheaply, it is whether the country can afford to have the government undertaking all its present tasks. I think there is an easy way to answer this question, which is to see what the current government considered affordable in previous years.

At every budget since Gordon Brown departed from the previous government's spending targets, he announced that things were going jolly well and the country could now afford to spend money on things it could not afford before. Previously it could not afford an extra £X million for This, £Y million for That and £Z million for The Other. Because, and only because, the Treasury was receiving more cash could these sums be spent. Prior to receipt of the additional tax revenues This, That and The Other were not essential they were optional extras. For so long as the money was there (or, to be more exact, appeared to be there) This, That and The Other were affordable luxuries, now that the money isn't there they are non-affordable luxuries. All we have to do is go back through past budgets to see the items Gordon Brown himself identified as being newly affordable. Had they been essential all along they would have been paid for all along and other matters would not have been funded, as it is they were known not to be essential. They remain non-essential today.

It is not enough to look at budgets alone because they don't define exhaustively what government does, they concentrate on how much will be allocated to each area. It is also necessary to ask whether tasks undertaken by government now (a great many of which were not undertaken ten, twenty or fifty years ago) need to be undertaken at all. My hobby horse in this regard is the army of people employed to tell us what not to eat, drink and smoke but there are many more. Why are taxpayers subsidising the cost of staging ballets, playing music to paying audiences and making motion pictures? Why are they paying artists to ply their trade? Why does the government contribute to charities? Why does the government pay for expensive television advertisements for its policies? Why is the government involved in domestic marketing of milk, meat and potatoes? Why is the government spending our money subsidising trade associations rather than leaving it to those who seek to make a profit from trading in a particular product to pay for their own "professional" body? The list can go on and on.

Would ballet disappear from the UK in the absence of taxpayer subsidy? You can bet your pointe shoes it wouldn't. It would go out and find additional sponsors like any other branch of entertainment. Maybe fewer ballets would be staged, maybe more, no one knows, but the number staged would be the number that can be afforded without Mr & Mrs Ordinary who struggle to fund their weekly evening in the pub having to pay for them.

These are all activities which cost not just the money they hand out to third parties but also the on-going expense of the bureaucratic infrastructure necessary to decide who should be the lucky recipients. Inevitably there are also costs involved in following-up to see how the money has been spent. One consequence of deciding that all of these areas of expenditure, and many more, are unaffordable luxuries is that the Quangoes involved will go; but if we just look at the Quango without also addressing the involvement of government in the field at all we can never achieve more than a gentle trim of costs at the edges.

Some Quangoes are capable of being beneficial, such as those that advise on how to address special problems like the current spread of swine flu and those that advise on prospective changes in the civil or criminal law. In relation to these there is one very obvious way to reduce the cost; albeit one that is mere trimming. I have never understood why their members are paid out of taxes to attend meetings. Membership of an ostensibly authoritative national advisory body is a feather in the cap of every person invited to form the panel. They can (and often do) use their membership to further their own careers and/or to secure private-sector consultancy positions. I doubt that many, if any, of them would decline membership if fees for attending were discontinued, not least because the world of academe is highly competitive and Professor Previously-Snubbed would readily step in to fill the breach when Professor Superannuated throws a hissy fit. Cover their out of pocket expenses (receipts required for every penny please), bung them an OBE after five years' service, a CBE for a decade, a chance to kneel at Buckingham Palace in return for chairing the thing for two or more years and Robert is your parent's sibling. It would also reintroduce the concept of public service to membership of these bodies. If no one is prepared to serve without being paid a fee the response should be to ask why, not to offer money. The answer will, I suspect, be that membership carries no prestige because the committee is pointless; all the proof you need that it should simply be scrapped.

On the more general point, reducing the scope of governmental activity will require politicians to give-up powers they currently have. This will require a public mood for getting government out of various aspects of our lives. With any luck the combination of the increasingly unacceptable surveillance state, excessive pointless nannying and the need to cut costs severely will provide that atmosphere. Oh well, you can't stop a fat boy dreaming.

Friday, 3 July 2009

Licensed to fill in forms

The recent announcement that teachers are to be required to be officially licensed seems to me to be yet another initiative which creates more problems than it could ever solve. On this week's Question Time simple Harriet Harman asserted that doctors and lawyers have had a system of continuing professional development (CPD) for years and that the purpose of this initiative is to ensure the standard of teachers is universally high.

I can't talk of doctors, but I certainly can say something about lawyers. It is important to start from the correct position. All lawyers are either self-employed free-lancers or they are employed by a firm or company. If free-lancers are no good they will get little if any work. If employed lawyers are no good they will be sacked. In both fields there will be exceptions - some incompetent free-lancers will get referrals from chums and some hopeless employed lawyers will remain in post; but as a general rule lawyers are like anyone else, if you're no good you need to find another job or a lower level of the same job.

In the real world there are relatively few qualified lawyers who cannot find some position to which they are suited. Plenty of administrative jobs within solicitors' firms, business and the Court Service require a little legal knowledge and are filled very well by those who could never make a go of practice as a solicitor or barrister. And those in practice find their own level over time. Some deal perfectly competently with small cases but struggle with the juicy stuff so they stick to what they can do, do it decently and earn a living. Those who take a position requiring particular skills cannot expect to last long if they lack those skills. After all, that is what happens in business all the time. Someone appears to be competent, is given a job, turns out not to be up to it and is either offered something more suitable or off-loaded before they have been employed long enough to qualify for statutory redundancy pay.

Whether they are comfortable in their current position or struggling, all but the dangerously negligent do their best to keep up to date with recent developments in the law and the procedural rules of the courts. In fact I can take that further, you simply cannot give competent advice without researching the law to see if anything relevant to the case you are working on has changed since you last dealt with that field of law. Practitioners do not keep up to date for fear of professional disciplinary proceedings, they do so because they want to provide a proper service.

Continuing professional education has almost nothing to do with competence in your everyday work. At the time I retired I had to undertake twelve hours of CPD each year in order to get my practicing certificate for the following year. Numerous companies provide lectures, seminars, courses and DVDs through which it is possible to clock-up the necessary hours. It is a requirement to gather the prescribed number of "points" in fields connected to your main areas of work but there is no requirement to do so at any particular time provided you do it by the 31st of December. It was my practice to use the period between Christmas and New Year to watch some DVDs of lectures in areas I found interesting. I won't deny that I learned something from each presentation but I will deny that it made any difference to how I did my work because I had to do individual research for each case even if the subject had been covered by one of the DVDs. A judge asking "has there been any new law on this recently Mr Bigot?" would not be satisfied with the answer "oh yes, My Lord, and I have a very interesting DVD here in which someone talks about it".

I doubt that the introduction of CPD for lawyers has had any significant benefit at all. The extremely good are still extremely good, the good are still good, the competent are still competent and the duffers are still duffers. Frankly, if you don't check for developments in the law each time you give advice you are too dangerous to be let out in public and you are unlikely to be any less dangerous because you attended a half-day seminar six months earlier. It's all a box-ticking exercise, there is no substance to it. Whether you are able to make a living depends on whether you have clients or an employer willing to pay you, not on being able to satisfy a pen-pusher that you have garnered enough "points" to be allowed through for another year.

I fail to see how five-yearly licences for teachers will make much difference to anything. They could provide a way for schools to sack the incompetent, but in such a highly-unionised and state-funded field many a headteacher and board of governors would not want the hassle. If they cannot or do not sack the incompetent now why should it be any different later? The same test will apply and the same obstructions will be in place. Indeed, it could make it even worse because the grant of a licence will, I suspect, make someone unsackable for five years in the absence of gross misconduct. I have no reason to believe it will be anything other than another box-ticking exercise with a vast army of assessors and inspectors being employed to pore over the forms. And what will the system provide for those rare cases when the headteacher says "sorry, Mr Quelch is past it, I don't recommend renewal of his licence"? Being a government scheme I can imagine a body being created to hear appeals which will be a rich fighting ground for the unions.

It shows every sign of being a bureaucrat's delight.

And when will teachers be required to undertake any CPD courses that might be included in this scheme? Let me guess. At the moment children get a day-off from time to time for teachers' "study days", something unheard of just twenty years ago. They won't be giving those up, their unions won't let them. Maybe they will undertake their CPD hours during their ten or more weeks of annual leave. I'm sorry, I have just read that sentence, how foolish of me to write something so fanciful.

Thursday, 2 July 2009

Certainly not

I recently left a comment over at nice Mr Watts' place. It received a favourable response, so I thought I would expand it a little and reproduce it here. The relevant background is that a number of commenters had explained that they had been subjected to abuse when leaving comments on another blog (which shall remain nameless but which does not welcome comments from me). That blog takes an extreme view on the catastrophic man-made global warming issue. Its editorial policy appears to be that the IPCC's computer games are beyond any criticism whatsoever and anyone who dares to challenge any part of them is too stupid to understand the issues and/or actuated by malice or greed.

This is a peculiar trait of extreme dedication to the catastrophic global warming hypothesis; as far as I know it is not displayed in relation to any other scientific hypothesis. To what do I refer? Certainty, that’s what.

Some practitioners of an infant science might say “this is our hypothesis, now we’re going to study what actually happens and make any necessary adjustments”. But not, it seems, those wedded to this particular idea. They like to say “the science is settled” but it seems to me that they really mean “our minds are closed”. On hearing that some measures suggest global average cooling within the last decade rather than global average warming, they reply in two ways and adopt both replies, mindless to the conflict between the two.

On the one hand they assert that measured cooling is not cooling at all. This is just legerdemain, by selecting particular starting and finishing points they create trend lines on graphs to argue that lower readings from thermometers actually display continuing upward movements in average temperatures. Yet you only need to adopt different start and end points to show something different. On the other hand they say “this is what should be expected because warming causes cooling”. No. Warming means temperatures going up, cooling means temperatures going down. You cannot create ice by applying heat to a pan of water, nor can you bring tepid water to the boil by adding ice. These two positions are wholly contradictory.

There is a credible explanation available to them but it involves a concession of uncertainty, so they will not propose it. They could say “temporary blips are only to be expected because we are dealing with a vastly complex interaction of factors and we do not fully understand them all”. That would stand alongside their hypothesis and would not cause the batting of a single eyelid. But it would require them to accept that they do not know everything and, therefore, that their hypothesis has not yet been proved. Such a position appears to be unacceptable to them because they have pinned their colours unequivocally to the “the science is settled” mast.

Acceptance of uncertainty lies behind all honest debate, whether scientific or otherwise, until such time, if ever, that all the evidence points in one direction and nothing that is observed in real life is inconsistent with the position being advanced. Unjustified certainty requires dissenting voices to be dismissed rather than challenged on the merits of the points they put forward. Debate and challenge are the tools of those with open minds. Scoffing, sneering dismissal is the tool of those unprepared to accept that their belief in a hypothesis might not be well-founded. It is also the tool of those who know their hypothesis can be subjected to legitimate challenge but are not prepared to risk the personal loss (whether financial, reputational or both) that would result from such a challenge being successful.

What makes their certainty all the more absurd is that they are forever tinkering with both their hypothesis and their computer models, something that would be wholly unnecessary if they really had all the answers already.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Hung, drawn and quartered

The last week has been very interesting. Being a currently retired person with far too much time on his hands I have been wandering about looking at things. In particular I have been looking at premises occupied by businesses that have appeared to be struggling over the last year or more. I expected to find that some of them have closed in the last week, indeed I expected to find that more closed in the last week than in any other week over the last six months. It's all a matter of a nice little legal quirk.

A lot of business premises are rented rather than owned by the businesses operating from them. Business rents are usually calculated as an annual amount but are not payable in one lump sum, they might be payable weekly, monthly, quarterly or half-yearly. Quarterly rents are probably the most common and the convention is that they are payable on the old Quarter Days - March the 25th, June the 24th, September the 29th and Christmas Day. It's easy to remember the Quarter Days because March has 5 letters, June has 4 and September has 9, therefore it's the 25th, 24th and 29th and everyone can remember Christmas Day (this was the most useful thing I ever learned from my old land law professor). Usually the tenant will be entitled to surrender the lease provided he gives a certain period of notice and the date on which surrender is effective is a Quarter Day. It is sensible for the end of a lease to coincide with the end of a rental period.

This means that June the 24th is a very significant date for ailing businesses. By Easter they will have a pretty good idea whether the current year is likely to allow them to sink or swim. Their banks will know this too. Close on the 24th of June and you have another six months of the year to try something else. Stay open and you are liable for another three months' rent as well as the extra staffing costs associated with summer holidays. Of course some businesses can expect to be at their busiest in the summer and for them a surrender at the end of September or December is more practical, but it presumes their bank will let them trade that long.

My perambulations established what I expected. At least eleven shops and three restaurants within twenty minutes' walking distance of FatBigot Towers drew down their shutters for good. Others are struggling on but with no visible signs of sufficient custom to make it worthwhile. I expect to see more of the same in three months.