Wednesday, September 30, 2009

.... Is it just State-sanctioned prying?

Two female police officers are at the centre of a row this week over the legality of their childcare arrangements. Mums Leanne Shepherd and Lucy Jarrett had a reciprocal arrangement by which they would look after each other's child while the other was working in their posts as detective constables with Thames Valley Police. When pregnant they had agreed to go back to work part time under a jobshare scheme - an arrangement that suited them and their employer.

However, an Ofsted inspector visited DC Shepherd to explain that the plan constituted illegal childminding, as it constituted a "reward" of free childcare for looking after each other's children.

The alleged offence arises from the Childcare act of 2006, apparently and now the mothers are told they have to register as if they were professional child minders. Clearly this is very onerous and makes the whole plan unworkable and both mothers have had to find full time childcare and return to full time work.

The main story in the media focused on the lunacy of this law, the fact that it restricts mums from finding work in flat contrast to statements made by the Government about helping mums back to work, and the jobsworth culture of most Agencies and Government departments.

Although I share these concerns I was even more worried by one aspect of the story. How did anyone know about this arrangement? How did the Ofsted inspectors find out about it and why did they decide to call - when they could have simply written a letter?

The whole episode was deeply unnerving, the thought that a schools inspectorate had the manpower and the will to spy on a private arrangement by two women and then to send an inspector to call sums up how far the surveillance powers granted by this Government are being abused.

It also highlights overmanning on a grand scale. You would have thought the inspectors might have been more efficiently employed, er, inspecting schools.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

No friends at home,
and no allies abroad.

Spurned by Obama and under more friendly fire at home Gordon Brown is sinking to depths of unpopularity unseen for a PM in living memory.

So, the man from Illinous says "no".

What a desperately low state this country is in. Bankrupt and now marooned internationally. Frantic efforts by Foreign Office officials failed to secure even a five minute formal meeting between the Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern ireland with the President of the United States while both men were in the same building, Gordon Brown had to apparently make do with tugging the great mans sleeve whilst waiting in the kitchen. Oh dear.

The world of international politics and diplomacy is a cold, hard place. As the BBC's Nick Robinson says: We simply don't know if it was down to carelessness - as with the cack-handed reception given to Team Brown at the White House; or political calculation - "why invest time in a foreign leader who could be out of office soon?" or simple pragmatism - "we have a lot to do and we're too busy to fix meetings to help anyone else".

Politicians fear unpopularity is infectious like a particularly virulent plague. Gordon Brown is being seen as a loser -yesterdays man- and being seen to identify with him is increasingly toxic, so the international movers and shakers move gently away from him when he enters the room -especially if the cameras are running.

Then the Telegraph had this story - that Gordon Brown was spurned by American Bankers (hardly surprising given that he has heaped blame on them for everything and then tried to cut their pay) who stayed away in droves from his convention. "Although invitations to a number of Wall Street's biggest banks are known to have been sent, only one senior US banker, 52-year Citigroup veteran Bill Rhodes – who stepped down as chairman of Citigroup North America in July but remains on its board – attended yesterday's economic roundtable."

Brown has brought his office to a new low and it is not just at home that much work needs to be done to repair the reputation of our Government. I can't think of a time in the post-war era when we have had a serving prime minister held in such open distain both at home and abroad. There is something deeply embarrassing for us all in seeing the leader of our country humiliated in this way.

Gordon will have to get used to it, though. The Labour Party Conference next week is known to have such a low attendance that party officials have been offering last minute free tickets to anyone from Brighton who wants to come along.

Nobody is interested in what the Prime Minister has to say, not even the press.

The story at Conference will instead have to be all about the leadership, (again) and what the future holds for the Labour Party in opposition.

Favourite Charles Clarke was first out of the stalls last night with another call for Brown to 'do the decent thing' and in the shadows any number of off the record briefings are already underway from the so-called 'friends' of various cabinet members keen to let it be known that if the unthinkable did happen their man (or woman?) may be persuaded to throw their hat in the ring for a leadership contest.

Expect the action to all be in the fringe meetings debating the future of left-wing politics. Just like the Lib dems this week, Labour have discounted losing and are thinking of a future in opposition.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Wherever next
for the
Lib dems?

The Lib Dem conference is always a bit of fun for political watchers, there is the feeling that they are the warm-up act for the Conference season proper.

In past times they have exploited this opportunity to float the kind of really 'reasonable' policy ideas that have most people saying 'what a good idea, why don't any of the other parties do that?' - these are usually policies that sound great coming from a party that will never be in Government but wouldn't stand up to five minutes scrutiny if they were put forward by anyone else.

However this year the gift seems to have completely left them. Their policy announcements so far have been contradictory, deeply divisive and electorally daft.

So far this year the Lib Dems have talked about the need for 'savage' cuts in public services yet while offering tiny cuts in services have two single proposals alone that would cost an extra £25,000,000,000 to implement:- abolishing student fees and raising the income tax threshold to £10,000.

To 'fully fund' these pledges they have proposed a 'super tax' on houses worth over £1m. This astonishing idea comes from the party that has fought four elections on a promise to abolish the 'unfair' council tax and replace it with a local income tax. Even Lib Dems admit this would 'only' raise £1bn.

And even the briefest analysis of the proposal leaves a stack of questions, who would value the property? What would you do about people who happen to have a valuable property but who are income poor (common amongst pensioners, especially in high value property areas like London and the South East), how much would the tax cost to collect?

Recognising the lack of credibility in their positioning Nick Clegg has volunteered that the pledge to abolish student fees may have to go, causing uproar and an intervention from his popular predecessor Charles Kennedy.

So far Nick Clegg has annoyed students, pensioners and public service workers - three of the most important sectors of the community for his party.

So far this Parliament nine Lib Dem parliamentary candidates have switched to the Conservatives. Listening to Clegg on the Today programme this morning I did wonder for a fleeting moment whether he might be about to make it ten.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Lawyer in trouble with the Law

Red faces again in Government circles today as the story of how Baroness Scotland - the highest lawyer in the land - has broken immigration laws she herself voted for by employing an illegal immigrant.

Incredibly the Attorney-General looks to have fallen foul of exactly the kind of 'innocent until proven guilty' laws I was railing on about in my last post.

It is a requirement under section 8 of the Asylum and Immigration Act that employers see proof that migrant workers have rights to work legally in the UK - but not only that, the law says they must copy the documentation and keep a record.

It is not enough for an employer to believe that an employee had the right to work in the UK when they were taken on, to comply with the law you have to be able to prove it. This neatly shifts the burden of proof from the authorities to the employer, unless you can prove you checked you are guilty.

Baroness Scotland assured everyone she had seen proof that the employee, Loluahi Tapui, a resident of Tonga, had the right to be employed here; but has so far ignored a request from the Sunlight Centre for Open Politics to provide the proof the law says she must have kept.

I would imagine that she did see proof but like thousands of very small businesses and individuals was not clear that there was such a strict obligation on her to keep records.

Perhaps she will now appreciate the dangers of passing laws that can make people guilty by default.

She might also like to reflect on the fact that employment law has become an unbelievable minefield for very small businesses - a problem that means many won't take employees on any more.
'Thought Crime' Britain.
1984 is here at last.

The two Manchester schoolboys accused of plotting to blow up their school were acquitted in 45 minutes, but not before spending months behind bars. I once plotted to shoot my school headmaster, should I be charged,too?

My children are always bringing up the story I told them of when, as a thirteen year old, a gang of friends and I plotted in some detail how we could assassinate our school headmaster; we had even worked out exactly how to steal a rifle and ammunition from our Shooting Club. This teen fantasy evolved from an intellectual game to think up 'the perfect crime'. The crimes involved quickly graduated to murder, and the target promptly became the school head. Each of us would cook up a plot that we believed would be unsolvable by police - and the others would then find ways in which the crime would be detected.

This is a common theme amongst schoolboys, the Hitchcock film 'Rope' and the Sandra Bullock film Murder By Numbers are both based on the same idea.

So the fact that two Manchester schoolboys should be charged with conspiracy to murder and conspiracy to cause explosions, and then held on remand for months for cooking up just such a plan is in my view an absolute scandal, and the jury's decision to acquit after just 45 minutes deliberation clearly demonstrates what a farce this trial was.

Under this Government we have become obsessed with 'stopping' crime happening - with scant regard for the dangers this causes to civil liberty. Common sense and the rights of innocent citizens to go about their business are now clearly second place to the 'possibility' that one might be about commit an offence.

We now have house arrest ('control orders') for people who have committed no crime but who are considered to be 'at risk' of doing so. The Government wanted to increase the amount of time citizens can be held without charge from a few days to three months, and succeeded in getting a longer detention without charge regime than Russia or Zimbabwe. We are one of the few democracies in the world where you can be arrested and held because someone thinks you 'might' be considering committing a crime.

This issue permeates so much of our lives. The need to have 11m adults undergo a CRB check has caused a fuss this week, and is another symptom of the potential felon paranoia - everyone is a potential child molester, and apparently, unless you can prove you aren't one you won't be allowed near children.

The same State suspicion applies to your personal financial affairs, since everyone these days is a potential money laundering terrorist you cannot deposit your savings in a bank, instruct a solicitor or even rent an office without providing proof of identity.

And the whole approach of the inland revenue and customs service has shifted so that the onus is on the accused to prove innocence rather than the authorities to prove guilt, again the assumption being that we are all 'at it'.

The Racial and Religious Hatred Act clearly takes this line, too. It's apparently not enough to have more serious penalties for racially motivated crime; we now need a special offence which again jumps to a false conclusion, that people are prone to racial or religious hatred and with a bit of a prod, we will all become violent bigots.

Perhaps if the authorities focused on respecting and trusting it's own free citizens a bit more it might find that the public reciprocate by respecting and trusting those in authority.

I know being the victim of a serious crime is a terrible trauma, and I believe that any Government has a duty to do all it can to prevent crime. One of the best ways of preventing crime is to make sure that those who commit offences are always caught, and punished in such a manner as to deter others and prevent habitial criminals from repeat offending.

The really frightening thing is, whilst the authorities constrain the civil liberties of millions of innocent citizens in the name of 'the war on terror' or the 'fight against crime' those who really do break the law have never had it so good - crime clear up rates, even after considerable massaging, are at an all time low.

And if and when they are actually found guilty the chances of going to prison are lower than ever. Because the prisons are full judges are under huge pressure to rely on community based punishments in an ever wider range of cases. Even then, when and if a criminal is unlucky enough to actually be incarcerated, they will be considered for parole or early release frighteningly soon.

"Tough on Crime, Tough on the causes of crime'? - Surely one of the most cynical and hollow promises ever made by a modern politician.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The ol' Good Cut Bad Cut routine...

Welcome to Brown Land, where a 9.3% cut in public spending is an 'Investment' and a 10% cut is 'slash and burn'.

Gordon Brown has once again made a complete idiot of himself by finally admitting that a Labour Government will make spending cuts if re elected after months of taunting 'It's a choice between Tory cuts vs Labour investment'. At the TUC conference yesterday he mumbled into his microphone that there would be, er, cuts in spending under a future Labour Government.

The Prime Ministers discomfort was ratcheted up a notch this morning by disclosures that while he was busy saying 'Tories will cut by 10% nahh nahh" his own Government have been drawing up detailed plans to cut by .... 9.3%.

Now, apparently it's a choice between Labours 'good' cuts and the Tories 'bad' cuts. The main difference according to Frank Dobson on Newsnight the other evening is that Tories are 'slavering' at the prospect of cutting public spending whereas Labour are dreading it. So that's all right then.

Making public spending cuts is easier to argue about than to do, however. As business owners and many consumers know only too well, signing up for things is easy, getting out of the contract later is much harder. Cutting staff anywhere has huge redundancy and enhanced pension cost implications, big capital projects are agreed years, sometimes decades in advance and swathes of a Governments financial commitments are not in their immediate short term control. When a person or a business has legal finacial obligations that exceed their ability to pay for them they are forced into bankruptcy as the only way out. The Government cannot do this, and instead is forced to borrow more and more money at higher and higher interest rates - money that will have to be serviced via growing interest payments and which will eventually have to be repaid.

Within a year or two interest payments on Britains ballooning national debt will become Governments third largest overhead behind Health and Welfare. It will be more than we spend on education - and roughly equal to the budgets of the Transport, Home Office, Culture & Sport, Foreign Office, Energy & Climate Change, Business and Enterprise, Agriculture and Rural Affairs and International Development Departments added together.

And interest is not a discretionary payment, forcing an even bigger squeeze on those few budgets that can be easily and quickly reduced. And then on top of this you need to find a way of keeping some income spare to try and reduce the debt otherwise the problem just gets worse every year.

For ten years Conservatives have been warning about the hazards of growing public spending. As the economy expanded through the 1990's the Governments income grew even before they increased taxes. Instead of using that growth to reduce borrowing the Government spent it, and worse, they made massive financial commitments far into the future by way of the Private Finance Initiative and by hiring millions of public sector staff directly -all of whom now qualify for enhanced pension entitlements.

Turning the taps on is popular, quick and easy; stemming the flow is a very long and slow slog indeed.

And nobody is going to enjoy doing it.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Shoots of

Why Labour spinners
are so desperate to talk up
the economy.

A major factor prolonging a recession is a lack of confidence. Consumers and businesses who feel that bad times still lie ahead will tend to spend less - creating economic conditions of poor demand in which recovery becomes very difficult. As a result of this leaders, the media and most business institutions have an interest in 'talking the market up' even when often there is no uplift at all.

Norman Lamont famously got into trouble for talking up the economy even as the 1990's recession was just getting going (In October 1991, based on CBI and Institute of Directors business surveys, he said "what we are seeing is the return of that vital ingredient - confidence. The Green shoots of economic spring are appearing once again).

In January this year Labour spin doctors were forced into a massive rescue operation when Baroness Vadera claimed there were 'green shoots' of recovery in the air. The remarks came on a day when UK firms announced large-scale job losses and share prices slumped by almost 5%. The economy then plunged into a record second quarter recession, a steeper faster decline than any recession since the 1930's depression.

Of course for Labour there is another reason to talk up the economy - an impending election. Labour have built their entire election strategy on the basis that if the public can be persuaded that the 'recession has ended' they might just get some credit for it come polling day.

Dr Pedrick Friend has joined in this week through the local newspaper, here he is making utterly ludicrous statements about the economy which, even though the claims are so wrong they insult our intelligence, cannot be allowed to go uncorrected.

He says in his letter : "Economic green shoots are all around, economic confidence is surging as the stock market rockets, house prices recover and the manufacturing sector see more orders."
  • House prices have not recovered - they lost at least 20% last year and are stagnant.
  • Shares have not 'rocketed' either - the stock market has climbed back to where it was in 1997 when Labour came to power
  • Manufacturers are not 'seeing more orders' The CIPS monthly index of manufacturing orders fell in August.

The problem with calling the bottom of a recession is that often the pain is felt by people long after the technical period of economic contraction has finished. Although Vadera was wrong, Lamont wasn't. The 1990 recession ended -as he said- in 1991. But it was 1996 before there was a return of 'the feel-good factor' and consumer confidence came back.

But another issue is going to make this recession much harder to call anyway. 1990 and 1981 were recessions that had a distinct beginning, middle and end. They were 'U' shaped where economic activity fell, stabilised for a bit and then grew again.

But in the 1950's and 1970's we had a series of 'W' shaped recessions, where economic conditions meant that the recovery created another overload, creating another recession. We used to call this 'stop-go' economics and it's main cause was inflation. Every time the economy started to expand prices and then wages shot up, then the pound would fall as its value become less compared to other currencies, then interest rates had to go up and the whole economy ground to a halt again.

Pedrick-Friend refers in his letter to the Governments actions being ' a sensible Keynesian fiscal boost'. In fact their plan involved devaluing the pound, doubling the national debt and then printing £200,000,000,000 to fund a Government spending spree. The inevitable inflation this policy has unleashed will devalue savings and drive interest rates upwards. Higher interest rates will impact on the economy at just the wrong moment, causing pain to millions of home owners, it will also divert billions that could have been spent on public services into paying interest on the trillion pound National Debt we have accumulated.

Maynard Keynes will be turning in his grave.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Have the media written Labour off?

There is a new trend emerging in the media when it comes to discussing politics. More and more of the thousands of articles, news items and features written in newspapers and on telly are increasingly working on the assumption that Labour will be out of office next year.

I first noticed this on Newsnight a few weeks back in an interview when Paxman dismissed a cabinet members plans for next year with a rather extra sneery 'well it won't be you in office by then, will it?'- but it has now become the language of interviewers and commentators across the media.

Of course with time running our before the election and with Labour still polling in the mid 20's it is hardly surprising that people are beginning to take a Cameron victory for granted. But what is interesting to me is that Labour seem to be doing so little to dispel the idea, it is almost as if the media are being given the impression by the Cabinet and senior party officials that Labour know their time is up.

This comes back to leadership. Even in the dying days of his premiership John Major continued to motivate and drive his party, as did Callaghan when defeat looked likely in 1979; whereas it seems that Gordon Brown has neither the energy or the oratory to give his troops the morale boost they need.

Just in the last 24 hours:

Peter McKay of the DAILY MAIL: “Why Gordon Brown could walk before he’s pushed out”

GEORGE PASCOE-WATSON, Political Editor of THE SUN: “Ministers believe Gordon’s doomed”

Andrew Porter, Political Editor of the TELEGRAPH : “Gordon Brown warned he’s ‘meekly’ accepting defeat” :

Jackie Ashley, of the Guardian "A Tory dystopia looms, yet ministers meekly sit and wait"

It is particularly fascinating to watch the leftwing media (including the BBC) seamlessly move from 'will Labour win a fourth term?’ in 2005/6 to ‘can Labour win a Fourth term’ in 2007/8 to ‘what will happen to Labour when it loses?’ in 2009.

Never mind that there is a whole new right of centre agenda going on which is fascinating, genuine news, and could have massive implications for social and economic policy for twenty years or more, the BBC are far more interested in inviting several left-wing commentators into the studio to argue amongst themselves about the future of Labour.

And even as Cameron settles in to No 10 and ushers in an entirely new chapter in British political history I expect the Guardian/BBC will still be agonising over ‘can Labour ever win again?’

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Weasel words on Lockerbie
I am still reeling from the interview with David Milliband on the Today programme this morning.

Not since Michael Howards notorious Newsnight clash with Paxman in 1997 (when he simply would not give a straight answer to the question 'did you threaten to over-rule Derek Lewis ?' even when asked by Paxman thirteen times) have I heard a politician evade, swerve, obfuscate and ignore a perfectly simple question put by an interviewer.

What Evan Davies was asking was simple enough. In papers released yesterday it became clear that foreign office minister Bill Rammell had told the Libyans that Gordon Brown and Milliband 'did not want to see Al Megrahi die in prison' all he was asking was 'is this true?'

Milliband wriggled and wriggled, he darted this way and that but he would not give a straight answer.

I wonder why?

The statement was lifted from minutes of a meeting between Scottish justice ministers and a Libyan delegation on March 12. These recorded how Abdulate Alobidi, the Libyan minister for Europe, had relayed details of a visit to Tripoli the previous month by Bill Rammell, then a Foreign Office minister, to discuss a Prisoner Transfer Agreement (PTA).

“Mr Alobidi confirmed that he had reiterated to Mr Rammell that the death of Mr Megrahi in a Scottish prison would have catastrophic effects for the relationship between Libya and the UK,” it stated. “Mr Alobidi went on to say that Mr Rammell had stated that neither the Prime Minister nor the Foreign Secretary would want Mr Megrahi to pass away in prison but the decision on transfer lies in the hands of the Scottish authorities.”

What is abundantly clear is that the Libyans were applying a great deal of pressure over Megrahi - implying that trouble would follow if he died in prison. Clearly the Government were absolutely convinced that this would be a problem and were desperate to get the ailing man home as quickly as possible.

Aside from the accusations of giving way to threats from Libya, general bungling, double dealing and various 'oil for terrorsts' consipracy accusations there is something else that troubles me even more.

This is a Government that has infringed our civil liberties like no other in peacetime. British citizens are routinely being bugged, monitored, investigated and imprisoned without trial -and occasionally tortured abroad, or shot dead on the tube, and all in the name of a 'war on terror'. Yet the one man we have so far managed to catch and prosecute for actually carrying out an international terrorist murder was released after a derisory ten years in prison.

Labour has a lot of form on this. Early release of prisoners has been a constant activity since 1997. No other Government in British history has released as many criminals before their sentence has been completed. No other Goverment has been responsible for unleashing unrepentant violent offenders onto our streets to offend again. No other Government has such a shameful record of releasing murderers and rapists out of custody early who have gone on and murdered and raped again.

This is New Labour. "Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime" - but soft as butter on the criminals and terrorists who are responsible.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Back to work today (for some).

September 1 marks the end of the Summer Holiday period and a return to work for millions of people who have either been on summer leave, or working in half empty offices and factories as their colleagues take time off.

However this autumn there will be a lot fewer returning to work than last year (and last year was the worst for a decade) and many people will be working in offices half empty as a matter of course from now on as the recession creates more and more empty desks and vacant workspaces.

The Government admits unemployment is rising, but is still in denial about the scale of the problem.

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) is keen on broadening who is included in UK unemployment figures. They argue there are large numbers of people who should be counted because they say they would like to work but are considered ‘economically inactive’. If they were included in the count the figure for UK unemployment would rise to more than 4.5m. Even official figures agree that already nearly two million children now live in workless households, shattering Gordon Brown's pledge to halve child poverty by 2010.

The Government claimant count, which measures people who are actively claiming Jobseekers Allowance (JSA), as opposed to the unemployment count that includes people who are unemployed but not signing on, is the published measure of unemployment.

The two different ways unemployment is calculated in the UK relates to the different people included in the counts. Key to this is the group considered ‘economically inactive’ and so not included in the 'official' figure of 2.43m.

In the three months to June, unemployment rose by 220,000, but in July the number of people signing up for unemployment benefits and contributing numbers to the claimant count rose by just less than 25,000.

On this basis there are more than 2.1m “hidden jobless” who when surveyed say they want to work but are not claiming JSA. On top of this there are around a million people currently working part time because they can not find full time work.

Of course every obstacle imaginable is put in the way of people trying to claim jobseekers allowance to keep the numbers down, and in many cases other benefits become available that pay more and encourage people to 'sign off' the register. These include various training programmes, and sickness and disability benefits.

There is a lot more prosperity about than the 1930's and general living standards are far higher on average, so I doubt if we will see soup kitchens, but in my view this recession will create unemployment unprecedented in scale - perhaps as many as 7m Britons capable and willing to work will be without a job at the peak.

And unlike the unemployment of the 1980's which affected the country unevenly (some areas where coal and steel had been the backbone of the economy were blighted where other parts of the UK were relatively unscathed) this unemployment will affect the whole country.

One part of the solution to this is to create a lot more flexibility in the labour market, particularily for very small businesses. Currently the most daunting leap any business makes is when it goes from one employee to two. The hurdles a small business needs to leap in order to employ their first person is mindlblowing, ranging from the need to set up an expensive and hard to operate PAYE system through providing pensions and then navigating what is now a minefield of unfair employment legislation.

Hardly suprising therefore that a record number of one man businesses are staying one man, but if every sole trader employed one young person as a trainee our youth unemployment crisis would end overnight.