Apparently we need the EU - without any democratic mandate from the British people - to give us four weeks paid holidays, flexible working hours, cut price calls to mobiles, parental leave, protection for part-time workers and a response to the economic downturn. Strangely, I thought that was what Parliament was for.
The other two great achievements of the EU - a single market and tackling climate change internationally - might well be legitimate. But do they need a federal constitution, European President and monetary union? Or just a co-operative and trading organisation?
Once ratified, a referendum on Lisbon would be ridiculous. Cameron should instead offer the British electorate a referendum that finally settles the European issue. It’s all about sovereignty - based on what direction the European Union should go. The British people should be offered three alternatives:
Britain should continue its membership of the European Union as a co-operative and trading organisation without losing any further British sovereignty to the EU.
Britain should continue its membership of the European Union accepting deeper integration towards a European federal state and the consequent further loss of British sovereignty to the EU.
The Tory leader will use his powers of patronage to break Labour's grip on public life writes Ben Brogan in today’s papers, whilst David Blackburn echoes his call - “The irony is that Cameron wants to decentralise and promote accountability and transparency, but to realise that ambition he will have to resort to the ‘old corruption’.” In other words, using prime ministerial patronage to stuff the lords with right-thinking placemen, cash for peerages, cronyism, cash for lord’s amendments and the extension of everything perceived to be privileged, corrupt and venal that has destroyed all trust in our political system.
But it doesn’t have to be like that. Cameron should use the opportunity to do exactly what he promises – to decentralise decision-making down to the people, promote accountability and transparency in parliament and most of all, put personal responsibility at the heart of government.
By all means reward excellence in public service with a life peerage, but make it no more than a title. A knighthood, if you like, with the right to attend the lords once a year in all their ermine finery to hear the queens speech at the opening of a parliamentary session. A thank you from a grateful nation for sustained and valuable service to its people. No more and no less.
Each party should then be allowed a small team of around 30 ‘working peers’ whose purpose is to present and debate - both for and against according to party affiliation - all new legislation that has been passed by MP’s in the commons. Their audience? 500 British citizens, one from each constituency in the country, chosen at random from the electoral register on a rolling basis, obliged by their rights of citizenship to attend for two weeks to vote in the house of lords. Thousands each year do exactly this in jury duty at local courts throughout the UK. And because they are chosen at random, these citizen jurists will fully reflect the makeup of British society – by gender, ethnicity, religion, values and age.
The practicalities? All transport costs and hotel bills (for those travelling more than 50 miles from Westminster and unable to commute) will need to be paid on production of receipts. The Lords already has a terrace cafe capable of catering for far more than 500 people. Working 10am to 4pm from Monday to Friday provides a great deal more time than needed to scrutinise – line by line – any legislation from the commons. So we can also include all legislation from the European Union. Questions from jurists can be entered through a keypad at each seat to be answered by working peers during the course of each debate. Obviously no legislation can be either initiated or wording changed. Divisions should take place throughout the day as clauses are completed and to allow concentration and bodily functions to be maintained.
And to those who assume ordinary people like me should not be trusted to decide whether or not laws should be passed, think carefully. We already vote on policy issues at local, national and European levels. We already deliberate and decide on the liberty of people who transgress our laws. And we are the people who have to live our daily lives affected by your laws.
"The last thing Sun readers want is to see their newspaper turned into a Tory fanzine. They want a newspaper, not a propaganda sheet" says Peter Mandelson. After 13 years of support for New Labour and its political policies - without any hint of so much as a thank you for years of loyal service - it’s change to endorsing Conservative policies now make it a ‘propaganda sheet’. Priceless.
What would save more than a thousand lives a year, billions of pounds in government spending, cut CO2 emissions, whilst making society generally a more calm and rational place – and cost the government absolutely nothing? Introduce a law requiring all new cars to be fitted with working GPS-based speed-limiters.
Government figures show that more than a thousand people are killed each year as a result of speeding drivers. Each death affects dozens of families – mothers, fathers, aunts and cousins – as well as friends and colleagues. Speed-limiters prevent cars exceeding the speed limit on all roads. They produce less aggressive and calmer drivers, able to take more rational decisions as unrealistic expectations over timing are lowered, whilst eliminating road-rage and lowering both energy usage and CO2 emissions.
Although this would cost the government nothing to introduce, it would mean adding around £500 to the price of a typical new car. But the benefits to government expenditure would be immense. Over the last few years the government – mostly through local authorities who wield major road budgets – has poured money into various traffic calming measures: road humps, pedestrian crossings, traffic lights, chicanes and warning signs. All of these would no longer be necessary as drivers were unable to speed, whether in 20mph residential zones, 30mph urban environments or 70mph motorways. Billions of pounds would be saved.
And why stop there? Let’s take the opportunity to do away with all speed limit signage since they cannot be exceeded, all traffic cameras which would now be obsolete, and any other wavy-line clutter that currently ruins our environment. And whilst we’re thinking about it, how about doing away with all speedometers? They just became redundant. Instead, we can now look forward to drivers concentrating on the more important aspects of their task: other road users, pedestrians, cyclists and the road environment itself. Driving might even become more pleasurable, since drivers would now be forced to empathise with their fellow travellers.
Interesting post on Greg Mankiw's blog showing the outcome of Obama's fiscal stimulus showing what was projected for the rate of unemployment back in January with and without the stimulus package. The graph comes from the presidents own economic team in a report from January 2009. The reality - shown by two red triangles for March & April 09 - should make Brown & Mandelson think very carefully before pronouncing that their stimulus package in the UK had 'saved' more than half a million jobs.
So it seems that Michael Jackson's private physician would prescribe anything he wanted, so long as he paid the exorbitant fees - reported to be $100,000 per month. Can't really see that happening on the NHS. Probably something to do with medical ethics:
"I will apply, for the benefit of the sick, all measures [that] are required, avoiding those twin traps of overtreatment and therapeutic nihilism." (from The Hippocratic Oath)
If Michael Jackson had believed in an ethically-based healthcare system uninfluenced by money at the point of delivery, he would still be alive today.
We really need to move the argument on government expenditure forward. Take education - specifically secondary education.
Using Dept for Children Schools and Families own statistics, £21,441m was spent on secondary education in 2007/8. This represents total expenditure of around £5360 per pupil. What we need to be asking is how much per pupil is actually spent in schools - at the sharp end of the business – on the resources that really matt
er: teacher salaries, books, stationary, computers, projectors, smartboards etc. This is the expenditure that really delivers education to the pupil. This is the important stuff. The expenditure we need to be protecting and ring-fencing, with an ambition to increase in real terms such expenditure over time.
I don’t know what exactly this figure comes to. If anyone knows where this kind of information can be seen, I would love to know. But I have a big hunch that the figure will come out at around £3500 per pupil – more than a third lower than the educational spending that is raised through taxation and allocated to secondary education. And it is the difference between these figures representing organisational running costs, publicity, centrally controlled initiatives and top down bureaucracy - whatever you want to call it - that needs to be examined in the cost cutting agenda.
If you want the electorate’s support, by all means guarantee this lower figure being spent on actually educating their children in schools. Pay such money in three tranches – at the beginning of each term – directly to the school. Make head teachers responsible for spending this money in running their schools efficiently and effectively. Judge them on outcomes and results. Not targets and processes.
Wonderful piece in this week’s Spectator from Matthew Parris talking about the death of his father.
When my own father died a few months ago, I asked my daughter to read this letter at his funeral. It was written by the Christian martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer to his family, before his execution by the Nazi’s in April 1945.
Nothing can fill the gap when we are separated from those we love and it would be wrong to try to find anything. That may sound very hard at first but at the same time a great consolation, since leaving the gap unfilled preserves the bond between us. It is nonsense to say that time, friends or indeed God Himself fills the gap. He does not fill it but keeps it empty so that our communion, each with the other, may be kept alive.
My family has enthusiastically supported and used the NHS all our lives. We do not share Daniel Hannan’s views of the service, nor his advocacy for individual health accounts. Clinical need - not wealth - should be the determinant of healthcare. But however well intentioned, the NHS also has a darker side.
My grandmother - once a nurse in a TB hospital in Portsmouth during the 1930’s – died after a long and full life. Apart from the usual aches and pains of growing old, she had rarely been ill before suffering a stroke at the age of 97. I still remember that terrible moment when I first saw her as the GP - attempting to gauge some form of cognitive ability - asked her how many fingers he was showing, as if she were a three year old child. But mostly I remember the look on her face. A face that I had grown up with and loved, a face that had shared so many precious moments, now staring at me without recognition - vacant and distorted - as if someone had drained all emotion and warmth from her cheeks.
Rushed to Hospital, I was amazed at the quality of the care she received. St Peter’s, Chertsey, is a bright new hospital designed intelligently into a series of 10 – 12 bed wards off comfortably sofa’d corridors which soothed both patients and visitors. The ward bristled with specialist stroke equipment around each bed and bustled with serious, green-scrubbed clinical staff. This was modern medicine at its most impressive; spotless, high-tech and concentrated.
The stroke turned out to be minor and within two days she was able to get out of bed. That evening I had my last lucid conversation with her as she sat on a chair beside her bed talking comfortably about returning home.
Two days later, we heard she had been transferred to a general ward at Ashford Hospital - within the same NHS trust – and visited with relaxed expectations. I have never seen such a transformation. Listlessly fidgeting in and out of consciousness, she had been dressed in a tight-fitting, all-in romper suit because she was continually pushing back her bedclothes. High-sides had been attached to the bed in an effort to stop her desperately trying to get out. This was a seriously ill woman. When I visited the next day, she had been moved to a side room on her own. The ward sister explained that all visitors would have to wear gowns, gloves and masks. She had MRSA.
She lasted two more days. I knew she would. She died at a quarter past midnight on the morning of my birthday. I had spent two hours that evening sitting beside her, masked and gloved, unable to even kiss her. And just for the record, MRSA was not listed on her death certificate.
The speedometer cable on my bike broke two days ago. Unable to know my speed, traffic cameras became unquantifiable and terrifying dangers. Red lights – where bikes routinely speed away before dozy car drivers have even cranked into first gear – became a pointless exercise in bravado. The world of driving to the speed limit completely disappeared. No longer could I know if I was even within the law. How strangely dependent we are in the comfort of rules.
And yet, what a feeling of liberation. Without the aspiration of speed and quite unable to compete, I became totally dependent upon my fellow travellers. The only gauge available was a measure of trust. Trust that they would act within the law. Every journey felt like a lumbering caravan travelling through the desert as we wound our way along lane, high street and dual carriageway – with cars continually peeling off to their destination, whilst others joining in an ever meandering ebb and flow of ordered chaos. No longer was pole position wanted. We had become a community. An inter-dependent whole, held together purely by human trust.
Even so, as each speed camera approached, my doubts emerged. I searched the faces of my fellow travellers looking for honesty and goodness. It’s a strange feeling. There are no moral chins, honest eyebrows or truthful noses – just the subtly-glimpsed mannerisms that might betray a lurking gambler’s streak or the just slightly too casual cornering of a Chardonnay mum.
I have to tell you now that my fellow travellers all passed the test. Sure, outsiders weaved their separate ways around and between us. But we continued, everyone an upright and decent member of our community. Each in their own cocooned little world, yet all travelling as one.
I tried rather unconvincingly to explain this to a mechanic called Miro at a local garage. He smiled awkwardly. “No worries – you’ll be straight back on pole today”.
With the luxury of hindsight it’s easy to see the first signs of what should have been done to tackle the present financial crisis. Savers - the innocent party in all this mess - should have been protected. And the core issue - toxic debt - squarely addressed. Until that is solved, credit markets will remain blocked, lending to consumers and businesses will remain inadequate and the real economy slide towards depression. Almost everything the government has done so far has treated the symptoms of this problem. Not the root cause. In a well argued piece in today’s Times Anatole Kaletsky urges exactly this point, but falls short of the right solution.
When gridlock in the wholesale credit markets first emerged back in summer 2007 - more than 18 months ago - re-capitalising the banks should have been the governments only priority. This is a debt crisis. No amount of liquidity will alter untradeable and seemingly unquantifiable toxic debt on their balance sheets. By abolishing taxes on savings, a natural cascade of private money would have allowed balance sheets to be at least partially re-built and savers rewarded for their prudence and self-sacrifice.
A lot of comment has also centred on ‘protecting’ taxpayers from banking excesses by re-introducing Glass-Steagall type legislation separating ‘safe’ retail banking functions from inherently risky investment banking activities at the heart of our present problems. The return of Captain Mainwaring is widely called-for. But as anyone can see, smart and effective regulation will keep stuffy and arrogant amateurs like Captain Mainwaring safely on our TV screens, not in our banks.
In truth the vast majority of investment banking functions – fund management activities, equity, bond & foreign exchange trading and traditional corporate finance functions like mergers & acquisitions – are perfectly legitimate banking activities that any properly integrated financial institution should be able to offer corporate clients. They may be inherently more risky than asset-backed lending, but even with existing regulation, could never produce the toxic mess which has blocked credit lines and now holds the entire economy to ransom.
This is the result of a small band of largely unregulated financial wizz-kids more interested in securing short-term multi-million pound arrangement fees (which provided their bonuses) by layering ‘clever’ and now largely unquantifiable financial instruments – preferably with three letter acronyms that only they could ‘understand’ - on top of securitised debt. These should be regulated out of existence.
But we are where we are. And with the benefit of hindsight, protecting taxpayers from the stupidity of bankers is exactly what we need. Just not through ineffective 1930’s style legislation.
Our starting point is debt. And no amount of additional debt, whether through wildly expansionist monetary policy – which initiated and continues to underpin our current problems – or through a massive fiscal stimulus, will in any way address the core issue. This government has yet to recognise the real problem and until it does, it is incapable of providing a solution. The government is – and always has been - part of the problem. Running around like headless chickens announcing daily policy initiatives which saddle the country with even more debt may make Gordon Brown feel happy, but it does not address the real problem. Until that happens we continue on the road to a deep and lasting depression. What is needed here is leadership and vision. As Jeremy Clarkson pointed out last week, Gordon Brown is incapable of either.
If large toxic debt is the problem, what then is the solution? Firstly, look at the size of those toxic debts. Several trillion dollars which would overwhelm the financial capabilities of taxpayers for several generations. Buying up toxic debt is not an option we should be considering. It simply rewards banks for failure and socialises debt to the taxpayer. Too much moral hazard there.
In an excellent explanation by Willem Buiter - further expanded on 8th February - a practical and equitable solution to the banking crisis is offered in the form of a split between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ banks. It is supported, with small variations, by George Soros and Joseph Stiglitz among others and has already been successfully used by the IMF in the Uruguayan banking crisis of 2002. As Monica B. de Bolle, a commentator on this article wrote:
“I thought you might be interested to know that something akin to your model was applied in Uruguay to resolve the banking crisis of 2002. As a result of both contagion from Argentina and some degree of mismanagement at the affected institutions, the Uruguayan banking system came under severe stress in late 2001/2002, leading to the failure of the country’s four largest banks. To resolve the crisis, the authorities embarked on a massive bank restructuring operation (with support from the IMF, where I was working at the time on the Uruguayan team), which involved creating a new (temporarily state-owned) bank out of the "good" assets and liabilities (deposits) of the failed institutions. The old "bad banks" kept the non-performing assets and were effectively transformed into asset management companies, responsible only for managing the assets and attempting to recover whatever was deemed "recoverable". The operation was hugely successful in restoring stability to the Uruguayan financial system.”
I will leave the above links to explain the full intricacies of such a scheme. No doubt further details would need to be sorted out to scale-up and apply this model to western banking systems, but by using taxpayer’s money to support new lending – not throwing it down the drain on unquantifiable toxic debt – we address the real issues. We stabilise the banking system. We achieve our “…medium and long-term banking sector incentive-enhancing, moral-hazard-minimising objective” as Buiter puts it, and finally we achieve an equitable solution that is fair to the taxpayer: “the polluter pays or, you break it, you own it.” Furthermore, it commits the taxpayer to a fraction of the costs being currently demanded by those profligate bankers and their political masters currently in government. Additionally, it allows the prospect of a future return on taxpayer’s money, whilst putting its supporters on the right side of the argument - supporting new lending and borrowing, not the interests of the bankers.
The two failed banks – RBS and Lloyds – now substantially owned by the taxpayer - should immediately be fully nationalised. Each should be split into ‘good’ banks (NatWest and Lloyds?) whilst the toxic mess at their heart is ring-fenced into ‘bad’ banks (RBS and HBOS?) which the current crop of directors can manage as best they can. No doubt they’ll find some way of paying themselves bonuses.
The taxpayer-owned and capitalised ‘good’ banks by contrast, with clear unblemished balance sheets, can begin to lend confidently to a credit-starved economy. They already have an extensive geographical branch network. They are already involved in the full range of banking functions. And with carefully designed regulation, they can begin to provide the banking services whose absence in the last eighteen months has turned Gordon’s recession into Brown’s depression. Tackling that will have to wait for another article…
Two issues arising from the Treasury Select Committee’s performance today:
Notice how at every answer given, the UK regulatory authorities – the FSA – were intimately involved in, and agreed to every decision taking those businesses forward. Whether decisions over debt, the management of risk, the takeover of ABN-Amro or the over-reliance on wholesale funding. The FSA were there. They discussed and agreed banking activities at every stage of the business, from proposal through to implementation. The question we need answering is whether the very backing of the government’s highest regulatory authority at every stage of this disaster might have actually emboldened those banking executives to continue digging the hole in which we now find ourselves.
Secondly, each banker consistently maintained that the credit crunch – the drying up of wholesale credit markets between banks – was solely responsible for the economic disaster we now find ourselves in. Not their company’s performance or business model - far less their own competence in valuing debt.
The credit crunch of course, is seen as an ‘external’ problem. Something they could never have foreseen or in any way have prevented. So that’s ok then. They’re off the hook. It was beyond their control. That’s a pretty qualified apology by any standard.
At root, the credit crunch is a failure of confidence. An inability by banks to trust the financial integrity of other banks with whom they need to trade credit in order for the banking system to operate effectively. And why such mistrust? Because the banks themselves took on and traded the now-toxic debts that lie at the heart of this problem. And what was responsible for taking on those debts? The wizard financial acumen of those very contrite bankers.
Why such ridiculous criticism of banking bonuses? Of course we want bankers to be incentivised. We want them to focus diligently on not just repaying taxpayer’s money – which bailed them out - but profitable returns thereafter. What we don’t want is short-term cash bonuses based purely on a percentage of their department’s P & L account for the last 12 months. Lets leave that in the age of irresponsibility.
The government must insist that all bonuses are paid in share options, struck at today’s market prices and exercisable in two years time. That way, bankers have an incentive to build the business and grow taxpayer’s (and shareholder’s) money over the longer term. And if that individual should leave the business beforehand, they forfeit all such options.
Polly Toynbee, talking on the Guardian’s ‘Politics Weekly’ podcast this week about the future prospects for Labour party support if the Conservatives won the next election:
“I think it would build pretty quickly though, because I think what you would find is, the Conservative party coming in - in say 2010 - will be in such deep trouble, it would have to make huge cuts in services, and won’t be able to make huge tax cuts. People will really feel the pinch, whoever is in power. But Labour suddenly has a real cause at that point. This is back to the 1980’s - Mrs Thatcher’s notorious budget of 1981. It’s going to feel like that again and I have a feeling that will have a rallying effect on a lot of the people who’ve left Labour, coming back again.”
So there you have it. A newly elected government “…in such deep trouble” after thirteen years of Labour rule, having to make “…huge cuts in services”. Just as Labour has already committed itself to do after the next election. Indeed this weeks Institute for Fiscal Studies report suggests there will need to be an additional £20 billion in cuts (or tax rises) over and above the government’s PBR totals. But unlike Labour’s promised cuts in public services and already announced tax rises, a Tory one will take us “…back to the 1980’s”.
In all the talk of financial meltdown & the need for ‘big-hitters’ on the front bench announced with such fanfare this week, the Conservatives seem to have lost sight of one of the most important analyses of Cameron’s leadership: our broken society. As George Bridges commented in Prepare for a Conservative revolution in Monday’s Telegraph:
“Before the economic crisis struck, the Tories had forensically analysed what Cameron called ‘broken Britain’, shining a light into the Dickensian corners of communities blighted by family breakdown, unemployment, crime, (and) drugs. Radical policies were spelt out to break the dependency culture, allow the private sector to provide public services, and mobilise charities to tackle deep-rooted social problems. ...now the Conservatives need to join up the dots of their policies and spell out clearly what their chant of ‘change, hope and optimism’ means.”
It is a policy area the Conservatives ignore at their peril, permeating so many of the social and economic problems that need to be addressed in order to be able to say ‘yes we can’. It also fundamentally differentiates, and in so doing, clearly responds to Gordon Brown’s accusations of a ‘do-nothing’ opposition, when the ‘done-nothing’ government has - for eleven long years - consistently failed to address the problem.
The real ‘big-hitter’ Mr Cameron should have announced on Monday was Iain Duncan Smith, former party leader and currently performing an extraordinary job as Chairman of the Centre for Social Justice. But I am not talking here of just one man, able as he may be. What is needed is a new joined-up department responsible for social affairs right across government. A department committed to mending our broken society.
At its heart of course is employment. Fundamental not only to earning a living, but essential to people’s sense of worth, structure and purpose. Work enables us to integrate usefully into society, acquire skills and knowledge from society, and do so in a way that fulfils the basic human needs of belonging, companionship and wellbeing.
The Conservatives are already clear that the blight of welfare dependency must be consigned to history. But to do so will involve not only the support of those to be helped, but the construct of a comprehensive and solid network of support and direction covering all facets of family life. Enable families to cope with and over-come dysfunctionality and the delivery of hope - and jobs - will follow.
Network, because an over centralised top-down command structure may be great at delivering just that – structures and processes. We need to mend people. Real people. With all the insecurities and fragile baggage that comes with them. Unless you’re lucky enough to fit the template which remote – and no doubt well meaning - civil servants had in mind when the scheme was devised, the clunking fist of central bureaucracy usually frustrates. Inefficient and uncaring, it delivers too little at too great a cost. Those of us who work in the third sector have long argued for government as an enabler of social policy. Government must provide the essential role in direction, co-ordination and funding. Delivery however, has a human quality. It is usually better provided by those who personally commit their lives - and livelihoods - to the satisfaction of successful outcomes. We can argue about lateral issues – geographical coverage - and the vertical depth of voluntary and private sector provision in these areas. But that’s just a game of numbers. A credible mix of public and private provision will need to be found.
If employment & welfare policies provide the direction of this new department, then housing, social services, community health provision, employment-directed training and social integration provide the building blocks. Without addressing the causes as well as the outcomes of family breakdown – unemployment, criminality, drugs, alcohol abuse - we cannot expect people to respond and commit themselves to a civilised and progressive society. All of these areas should, to some degree, be integrated within a social affairs department if we are to realistically address our broken society.
Social problems are always messy and chaotic. They require multiple layers of supporting institutions. Not least because the causes are so diverse. The debate we need is whether the probation service should be included within this department to better shape the re-integration of those missing males back into family life? Why isn’t CAFCAS - once staffed by fully independent guardians - now providing proper protection for children against increasingly defensive social workers? Where are the local apprenticeships turning NEET’S into tomorrow’s independent tradesmen? How can we expand and widen Sure Start centres into family service hubs? And how can we make social housing provision more flexible, with support for aspiration and financial independence?
If Mr Cameron is serious about change, hope and optimism, the message needs to be heard. The commitment made. We understand the need for experienced, avuncular ‘big hitters’ on the front bench. But mending our broken society is not just about supporting marriage through the tax system or re-iterating the mantra ‘family-centred policies at the heart of government’. It’s about appointing the biggest beast in the field – Iain Duncan Smith – with a real commitment to hard work in tough areas. But without which, a further generation will be lost to the poverty and indignity of our broken society.