Thursday, 8 May 2014


Following the fuss about Pizza Express, it occurs to me that the fairest thing might be to label all meat with its method of slaughter. So anything killed halal would be labelled "throat cut".

But we should also label all meat killed by western industrial methods in the same way. Thus:

- poultry and pigs on whom gas is used should be labelled "gassed"
- poultry and sheep on whom electricity is used should be labelled "electrocuted"
- cows on whom stun guns are used should be labelled "bolt through the brain"
- and of course any fish you buy will be labelled "prolonged asphyxiation".

I wonder how many people's shopping habits might change.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014


Today is the twenty fifth anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster when 96 football fans died in circumstances which were preventable.

(from the Guardian:

(From This Is Anfield:

It is also the twenty fifth year of one of the longest running scandals in the history of British policing, media and politics. The vindictive response of the authorities is symbolised by the readiness of the police forces of the day and since to break their oath to tell the truth and instead to lie and cover up persistently for decade after decade. It is symbolised in the nastiest campaign ever run by the Sun newspaper to blacken the names of the victims and their friends. It is symbolised in the malignant response of the political authorities of the time.

(Published by Scott Twigg This letter was sent to Scott's step father by Margaret Thatcher's press secretary, Sir Bernard Ingham.)

Twenty five years later we still seek the truth. The need, two and a half decades later, still to seek justice for the 96 reveals much that is wrong about Britain today - so many police officers have forgotten that their job is to protect the public, not to hound them, so many journalists have forgotten that their job is to tell the truth, not to lie, so many politicians have forgotten that their job is to serve the public, not their own selfish interests.

There are honourable police officers, there are honourable journalists, there are honourable politicians. But every name below is a stain on the reputation of all those professions. And it is not enough, in the face of such widespread and persistent corruption, to be honourable oneself. The honourable must not only do their own job, but it is their responsibility to root out the corrupt who still walk with them today, and seek to make amends for the evil and neglect that they have tolerated for too long.

But the honour of the professions is meaningless beside the tragedy that befell these people, their families and their friends on 15th April 1989. The youngest was 10, the oldest 67.

John Alfred Anderson
Colin Mark Ashcroft
James Gary Aspinall
Kester Roger Marcus Ball
Gerard Bernard Patrick Baron
Simon Bell
Barry Sidney Bennett
David John Benson
David William Birtle
Tony Bland
Paul David Brady
Andrew Mark Brookes
Carl Brown
David Steven Brown
Henry Thomas Burke
Peter Andrew Burkett
Paul William Carlile
Raymond Thomas Chapman
Gary Christopher Church
Joseph Clark
Paul Clark
Gary Collins
Stephen Paul Copoc
Tracey Elizabeth Cox
James Philip Delaney
Christopher Barry Devonside
Chris Edwards
Vincent Michael Fitzsimmons
Thomas Steven Fox
Jon-Paul Gilhooley
Barry Glover
Ian Thomas Glover
Derrick George Godwin
Roy Harry Hamilton
Philip Hammond
Eric Hankin
Gary Harrison
Stephen Francis Harrison
Peter Andrew Harrison
David Hawley
James Robert Hennessy
Paul Anthony Hewitson
Carl Darren Hewitt
Nicholas Michael Hewitt
Sarah Louise Hicks
Victoria Jane Hicks
Gordon Rodney Horn
Arthur Horrocks
Thomas Howard
Thomas Anthony Howard
Eric George Hughes
Alan Johnston
Christine Anne Jones
Gary Philip Jones
Richard Jones
Nicholas Peter Joynes
Anthony Peter Kelly
Michael David Kelly
Carl David Lewis
David William Mather
Brian Christopher Matthews
Francis Joseph McAllister
John McBrien
Marian Hazel McCabe
Joseph Daniel McCarthy
Peter McDonnell
Alan McGlone
Keith McGrath
Paul Brian Murray
Lee Nicol
Stephen Francis O'Neill
Jonathon Owens
William Roy Pemberton
Carl William Rimmer
Dave George Rimmer
Graham John Roberts
Steven Joseph Robinson
Henry Charles Rogers
Colin Andrew Hugh William Sefton
Inger Shah
Paula Ann Smith
Adam Edward Spearritt
Philip John Steele
David Leonard Thomas
Patrick John Thompson
Peter Reuben Thompson
Stuart Paul William Thompson
Peter Francis Tootle
Christopher James Traynor
Martin Kevin Traynor
Kevin Tyrrell
Colin Wafer
Ian David Whelan
Martin Kenneth Wild
Kevin Daniel Williams
Graham John Wright

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

The correct procedures are killing people

From the BBC this morning:

"The way a woman was assessed for benefits led to her suicide less than a month later, according to a mental health watchdog.

"The woman had a history of depression and was on significant medication, but scored zero points in a Work Capability Assessment (WCA), carried out by Atos.

"A Mental Welfare Commission report said it could see no other factor "in her decision to end her life".

"The Department for Work and Pensions said correct procedures were followed."

That 's the point, isn't it. The correct procedures are killing people. I wonder how this squares up with David Cameron's "moral mission".

Thursday, 27 February 2014

Royal Bank of Scotland: still rewarding incompetence

2008 RBS implodes. RBS gets rescued with my money and that of every other taxpayer payer in the counntry. RBS promises to change its ways and embarks on a recovery programme. 2014 RBS posts its biggest loss ever. 2014 RBS continues to pay its senior bosses huge bonuses. (Slightly less than last year - big deal.) Big senior boss says, "People - including the executives of the bank - didn't realise how big a change process we had to go through to get this bank back into shape."

Anybody who "did not realise how big a change process" was needed after that catastrophe does not deserve a bonus, they deserve to be sacked, and to get a job that their skills fit them for - road sweeping maybe. When is the government going to do something about the absolute waste of my money and the sheer arrogance of the incompetents still at the helm of RBS?

Baroness Wheatcroft, ex editor in chief of the Wall Street Journal, no less, says RBS would be a better bank without its bonus culture. George Osborne, please, please, please, please, please, for once listen to people who know what they're talking about.

(And if Scotland becomes independent, can they please keep RBS?)

Monday, 24 February 2014

Ringmer debates: what are benefits for?

There were three parts to this discussion. The first was the original question “What are benefits for?” in general terms, the second was about public perception and the third about current practice.

Nowadays benefits are usually linked to work, so the purpose is seen to be to tide people over while they are unable to work, but also to prepare them for work and enable them to take work when it is available. So, at one level, the benefit system simply fulfils a duty of care - to keep people going while they are unable to fend for themselves. They also do have a specific link to work - to allow people a decent minimum income so that they can afford to look for work and so that they remain mentally and physically fit to take on work when it becomes available. Finally, I suggest that there is also a link to the next generation; some people on benefits have children and again a decent minimum ensures that children are properly brought up and grow to be fit workers. Lastly, there are some people whose benefit is not linked to work, people whose physical or mental condition is such that work is not a realistic option for them. Again, we owe a duty of care to ensure that they have a decent minimum to get by on. Without going into the details here, I take it as read that we can afford this. Despite the bankers' mistakes and the austerity that has forced on us, we still live in one of the world's largest economies. A decent minimum of welfare provision is affordable.

Public opinion tends to be largely anti welfare nowadays. One of the reasons for this is misconception about the level of benefits and about the choices that are available to people. Rhetoric suggests that the benefit system is responsible for people being out of work - making work pay is the mantra. This rhetoric, which is convenient for right wing opinion, ignores two facts. The first is the number of jobs available. We have currently 2.3 million unemployed people, and a further 1.5 million underemployed. We have half a million vacancies. The logic of “making work pay” rhetoric is that if you removed all benefits tomorrow, those 4 million people would suddenly find work. They will not; they will be destitute.

People point to the half million vacancies - why don't those get filled? The answer is they do. Again there is a misunderstanding, an idea that the 2.3 million unemployed are the same people this month and next, using all their wit and ingenuity to avoid actually having to go to a job interview. They are not. Instead a lot of people are moving in and out of work. Employment is much less certain than it used to be. A very large proportion of our working population now faces the prospect of moving in and out of jobs during their whole working life. This month's half million vacancies will have been filled by next month. But next month there will be another half million vacancies elsewhere, and a different half million jobs lost, putting a different half million people into the unemployed statistics. That constant churn is now a fact of economic life.

Claims have been made about families where three generations have never worked, this being one of the reasons why the benefit system needs to change. Despite the claims, nobody has ever been able to find such a family.

The rhetoric about benefits also ignores the fact the a large proportion of those on benefits are in work, but being paid at such a low level that tax credits and housing benefit are necessary for them to be able to survive. (One way to reduce housing benefit is to build more houses - which will be part of the topic of our next debate on 14th March about the value of land.)

There is a mass of information about how the British public overestimates the level of benefits, and the number of people on them. This is astarting point.

Finally we look at government practice. We hear a lot of rhetoric about getting people back to work - which is difficult when there are no jobs for them to do. We have heard from David Cameron this week about it being a moral mission, to combat the criticism he has been getting from church leaders. Looking at what the DWP is actually doing paints a different picture to what Iain Duncan Smith and David Cameron are saying.

The bedroom tax: the idea is to make people move to smaller homes where appropriate. The policy overlooks the problem that the smaller homes for people to move to do not exist. Many many people are stuck in the houses they live in and now living on less than they had before. Either the DWP did not realise there were no alternatives or they did. If they did not realise, they are monumentally stupid. If they did know, then the policy is just vindictive. There are also many many cases of disabled people who need the extra room for large scale equipment, or for overnight carers to sleep in - or indeed the spouse to sleep in. Despite David Cameron's statements, many of these people are not shielded from the bedroom tax.

Sanctions. When people fail to look for work they can be deprived of benefits. In principle this is right and proper. But the sanction regime is being used on a very wide scale and quite arbitrarily. Evidence shows that targets are set for the number of sanctions given despite denials from the DWP. A man who had a heart attack during his Work Capability Assessment was sanctioned for not completing the assessment. A collection of other equally arbitrary removals of benefit is listed here. These are not just the odd unfortunate case: this is routine behaviour by Job Centre staff. And the numbers have increased significantly: more than 100,000 people a month have four weeks or more of benefit removed, often for arbitrary and petty reasons. It is difficult to discern a moral mission in this treatment.

There is a link between sanctions, and also delays in determining benefit, and the increase we have seen in the use of food banks. In the survey that we did in a few roads in Ringmer prior to this debate, many residents were shocked to learn that there are a number of food banks now operating in Sussex, including Brighton, Crowborough, Newhaven, Hailsham and other places. There are two that we know of in Lewes. Many of the people referred to food banks are in fact in work, but unable to to afford their bills. Others are referred because of benefit sanctions and other reasons.

Getting people back to work is a laudable aim. It involves creating jobs for them to go to rather than tweaks to the benefit system.

Thursday, 23 January 2014

Ringmer debates: does politics have to be a grubby business?

The January Ringmer debate was about politics - does it have to be a grubby business?

We didn't get to an answer to the question, though we did have a trawl through some of the things that happen in politics and the reasons why they might happen. Our non randomised survey of a few streets brought up this list of levels of trust.

Profession    Trustworthiness out of 10
Doctors                8.5
Royal Family        7.7
Teacher               7.7
Clergy               7.5
Police               7.1
Shopkeepers       7.1
Environmentalists    6.3
Lawyers               6.1
MI5/MI6               5.9
Economists       5.4
Entrepreneurs       4.9
Bankers               4.7
Estate Agents       4.4
Politicians               4.3

Politicians down at the bottom, below even estate agents. I forgot to include journalists in the options, which might have ended up with the politicians not being quite at the bottom of the heap. I do think that the media are responsible for some of the mistrust we have for our politicians. I illustrated this with a couple of examples. We hear often for instance, “X insists such and such”, and we often get the impression that X has gone out of his way to make a point to journalists, which they then obediently print. Such as “Osborne insists cabbages are good for you.” The truth is as likely to be along these lines:
Chancellor: I'd like to talk about the economy today.
Journalist: Just briefly Chancellor, what's your opinion about cabbages. Are they good for you?
Chancellor: Well, it's really about the economy.
Journalist: Just a quick word on cabbages
Chancellor: No, we have important news in today's employment figures
Journalist: All I need is a quick word about cabbages, then we can talk about the economy
Chancellor: Unemployment continues on its downward trend which is very good news for
Journalist: What's your problem with cabbages?
Chancellor: ….
Journalist: Are cabbages good for you?
Chancellor: Well, I suppose they are, yes. Now about the economy
Headline in next day's paper: Chancellor insists cabbages are good for you!!!!

Another thing I notice very often is the use of the word “vow”. Taking Osborne as our example again, this is a random sample of headlines culled from Google:

George Osborne vows to cut welfare...
George Osborne vows to slash spending by £25BILLION
'Britain's economy on the move again', vows George Osborne (it would be interesting to know how you could “vow” that. “Says” would have done. Or you could miss the verb out altogether: “'Britain's economy on the move again': George Osborne”)
Osborne vows 'responsible recovery
George Osborne vows first UK budget surplus in more than a decade

“Vow” means “promise”. In fact it means more than promise: it has religious connotations to it, something which we hold as an extremely high moral rule. Now, George Osborne is quite a clever chap, extraordinarily short sighted about some things, but a very good politician. He knows that there is a measure of chance about whether he will get to a budget surplus, or to £25b in cuts. What he really means is that is what he intends to do, always with a caveat about whether circumstances blow him off course, and he intends to get there or thereabouts. But media don't do subtleties: they won't print “we think we can get round about £25b of cuts, we'll be quite happy with £23b”. For journalists it has to be exact, it has to be a promise. And it gets turned into “vow” not because the journalists actually think Osborne is staking his life on it, but for one simple reason which has nothing to do with politics or indeed the representation of reality (which is what I naively assume news reporting is about). It is because the word is short. It fits into headlines better; you can get it into bigger fonts and not fall off the edge of the page. It is also, I think, because it is dramatic, though I think that is minor compared to its brevity. But for the sake of brevity, the genuine nuance of political life and decision making is lost.

The same is true about changes of direction. In our survey we asked “Should politicians be able to change their minds without always being accused of U-turns?” 74% answered yes. But it is very difficult for politicians to change their minds without a storm of criticism from the other side (because they know it works) and from the media - who ought to know better. Follow the dictum of Keynes - when circumstances change, I change my mind - what do you do?

Another interesting issue came up with regard to the change of reimbursement for MPs recently suggested by IPSA. There was a storm of protest when it came out, and the response of most leading politicians was unhelpful, saying that there should not be a pay rise at a time when other people were suffering lower living standards. (I think that is a very good example of the limits of politicians' power - they knew the wrong impression had been given but they knew they could not swim against the media tide.) The IPSA proposals were not actually for an increase in reimbursement. A rise in salary would be compensated for by less in expenses and less generous severance pay and pension arrangements. IPSA said their overall package was revenue neutral, in other words it shifted the forms of payment around without MPs gaining overall. We put this in our survey - stay as now, or increase the salary but with fewer perks, and our respondents were divided 49/51 on which was better.

The question that got most interesting responses though was “What words come to mind when you hear or think of Prime Minister's Questions”. I won't print all the responses, but most were along the lines of children, bear pits, hooligans. The single most often used word was “rabble”. Which leaves you wondering why they still do it, given the impression that most people get. The answer some of us came up with was that it is effective in Parliament, and that is what Parliamentarians see. If that is really the case, then the idea of the Westminster bubble perhaps has some validity.

All of this happened before the Rennard and Hancock cases came to public attention, proving that the LibDems can be just as sleazy as the other parties when we choose to be. Much of the commentary has focussed not on what the men have done, but on what the party has done about what the men have done. In my view this focus has been justified. It is a mucky period of our history. The procedures we have in place to deal with such things have not been, and are still not, as robust as they need to be. I suspect that this is because we have always thought of ourselves as the nicer party, ignoring the fact that some of “our” politicians can be just as grubby and just as street vicious as many of “theirs”. We have always prided ourselves on the rationality of our debate. When journalists have talked about the scrums we sometimes get into at our party conferences, we say, rightly, that it's called grown up debate.* And I am very thankful that we still have it. But we need to confront the realities of power, and particularly gender power. We have not done nearly as well by women as we should have, and the party - and Parliament - is the poorer for it. Partly it is a general issue that all organisations face, and partly it is a special one because of the special place Lord Rennard holds in the party's history. Yes, he did us a great deal of good. That doesn't mean we should let half the party down just to hold on to the memory of what he has done for us. Some soul searching is required, but also some determination to be ourselves a party in which no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity, and that includes conformity to the wishes of would be dominant males.

*Another example of how media report things badly:

Journalist: Is the party split over this??????
Any LibDem spokesperson: No, we're just having a grown up debate about the options
Headline; LIBDEMS SPLIT OVER [insert title of any policy we've debated in the last ten years]

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Ringmer debates: my country right or wrong?

Ringmer LibDems held a debate, open to all, on what national identity means. The material used to introduce the topic is available on Slideshare.

It's a bit surprising how viscerally some liberals dislike patriotism, less of a surprise how viscerally some conservatives dislike liberals for being unpatriotic.

I think there is a liberal form of patriotism. But the first thing to say is that it is patriotism made by choice. It is legitimate to ask why that choice has to be made. Many liberals eschew patriotism because of the evils done in the name of patriotism. But I think it is unavoidable in practical terms. We live by groups. Wherever we are, whatever we do, the human tendency is to clump. We identify with some things and against others. Nationality is only one possible form of identity; many others exist. If nationalities did not exist, we would find another way of dividing ourselves into groups, and we would find other reasons for denigrating, killing and maiming the people who are not in our group. The world has developed in such a way that nation states are the mechanism by which we establish territories and decide who to kill. In our world nation states hold the monopoly of legitimate violence. If it were not nation states, it would be some other form of group identity. As we are members of nation states, it is our responsibility to bend our efforts to making them behave with humanity and decency. To do that properly we must embrace our membership.

So how do we do that as liberals?

First of all, as I have already said, we must acknowledge that a liberal patriotism is chosen. I love my country because I choose to. I do not love my country because I must. (What kind of love would that be?).

I take pride in its achievements, and I acknowledge its shortcomings. I do not need to pretend that half of my country's history did not happen because I love it. (What kind of love would that be?)

My country is exceptional to me. And I can live with the fact that someone else's country is exceptional to them. I do not need to pretend that my country is better than anyone else's in order to love it. (What kind of love would that be?)

I express my love of my country  peaceably by upholding the rules and values of the place in which I live; and by being critical when criticism is needed - it is an expression of commitment to want to improve my country. And it would be an insult to my country as well as to me if I was expected not to object when the country is being pulled into doing something wrong.

And I express my love of my country by crying like a child during Danny Boyle's Olympic opening ceremony.