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Saturday, 22 April 2017

Fire and Rescue Services

One of the greatest honours in my life has been to serve as a trustee of the Firefighters National Memorials at St Paul's Cathedral and in the National Arboretum. We have a major national commemoration of fallen firefighters every September, and very sadly in most years we are joined by the families of firefighters who have given their lives for others in the British Isles during the past year. I have also had the honour of serving twice as Master of the Worshipful Company of Firefighters; and thus, over nearly three decades, I have gained a close knowledge of the Service and of some of the fine people within it.

Like all sections of the public sector, Fire and Rescue Services have been subject to several rounds of cuts driven by the government's obsession with austerity. Simultaneously there has been a major restructuring of the service in response to the changing pattern of the demands falling on the Service. Happily the demise of open fires and the reduction of the use of gas for domestic cooking have led to a dramatic decline in the frequency of house fires, Half a century ago there were frequent house fires all over the country. They still occur, but with such a dramatic decline in their incidence that each of them figures on the national news. Nevertheless, there have been two serious fires in care homes within very recent weeks; perhaps evidence that cost-cutting in those establishments has been a contributory factor, in that with reduced staff the discovery of an incident may be delayed for long enough to enable the fire to develop to the stage where lives can be lost. It is also a sad fact of life in a socially-riven country that fires are sometimes started deliberately in the hope that the evidence of other crimes might be destroyed.

Thus firefighting capability has to be available all over the country, to provide a rapid response in the relatively rare life-threatening situations that arise. Part-time Retained Firefighters and trained and tested volunteers can help to reduce the cost of full nationwide coverage, but there is an unavoidable necessity to have the relevant equipment accessible in every part of the country. Risky experiments are taking place as to what is the absolute minimum of equipment [including pumping-power] that is needed on any economy-mini fire appliance in each locality; and all such experiments rely on the reasonable proximity of much more powerful resources. Infrequently but unavoidably, very large fires occur, usually on industrial and logistical premises: this requires that there needs to be a very considerable concentration of equipment and personnel that can be called up [from various bases, perhaps in several countries and cities] within a half hour. The cutting has reached the point where any more significant surgery to the service will undermine its firefighting capability.

Meanwhile, calls for rescue services continue to expand; requiring the countrywide availability of trained personnel with the necessary skills and equipment. Nasty, messy jobs need to be done, with the greatest sensitivity.

Cheeseparing bureaucrats and bean counters see firefighters apparently doing nothing necessary as they check their equipment and their manuals and run exercises,. Such luminaries suggest [for example] that they should double-up as ambulance crew - who would, of course, be out on calls when fire and rescue incidents also demand their attendance. Lives could thus be endangered by the unavailability of either fire crews or paramedics. This is another incidence of the government-driven impoverishment of national life.

Friday, 21 April 2017

M&S et cetera

Marks and Spencer has been an essential feature of every high street and shopping mall in the UK since time immemorial, as far as living humans are concerned. Over the past two decades, however, their star has been waning; and successive chief executives who have presented wondrous curricula vitarum have failed to re-established the predominant position that the company held at the time of the Queen's accession.

In particular, the firm has lost its leading place in clothing the country. To a considerable extent, the loss on the swings of fashion has been compensated by gains on the roundabout of food sales; but not completely. M&S was among the first firms to recognise that households with two working adults raising a family has limited time for food shopping and preparation but has more money in real terms that any previous generation. Hence wholly and partially prepared meals became a feature in which M&S was briefly the market leader. But so obvious was the success of that innovation that all the significant supermarkets emulated it, and now there is nothing special in range or quality about M&S prepared meals that gives them a natural advantage: beyond the fact that one generation of householders first began using M&S and have kept to the habit. M&S have the pricing disadvantage in that despite the large volumes of food they turn over they are also saddled with huge estates of shopping space, largely devoted to clothing: which is soon to become very much more expensive with the newly increased business rates from this month. For several years the firm has been cutting back on clothing and opening food-focused stores, and this week another new CEO has announced an acceleration of the move from clothing to food. Half a dozen major stores are closing, and this can be taken as a sign that the company has come to recognise that drastic action is necessary.

It looks another case of 'too little, too late'.

The rise of firms delivering ready-to-eat hot meals to the residence at a specified time is taking an increasing share of the market from those who are still affluent. Many families, however, are feeling financial constraint and are shopping around for their convenience food: something as good in quality as the M&S offering can be had of Morrisons, Tesco and the German discount stores at competitive prices. While Morrisons and Tesco have the albatross of significant estates of retail premises to deal with, the proportion of lossmaking space in their total register of assets and liabilities is proportionately less. The supermarkets are also ahead of M&S in the online arena, where they compete effectively with each other and with the bespoke hot food suppliers. M&S are discussing converting more shop space into food distribution, and even of opening new food stores: I have seen this locally, where the Co-op left their large Matlock property and M&S took it on just last year. While that shop was a local novelty it did well, but now the grind of competition is coming more into play.

Debenhams has announced yet another major review of the extent and siting of their stores, with promise of a radical redistribution; and Next, much fleeter of foot than Debenhams or Marks, is facing up to changes in the pattern of their customers' demand. Sainsbury's have extended their range hugely by taking in Argos, and making goods from their extended online catalogue available to customers by home delivery; or by collection, not just from Sainsbury's stores but from central places such as major railway stations.

M&S seems to be compounding rather than transcending decades of relative decline. This is sad, especially for longterm shareholders, but it looks like the hand of fate.

Death Taxes Deferred

It is a well-know saying that the two certainties in life are death and taxes. Governments have linked the two through death duties and inheritance taxes for several generations, and the present UK government intended to take this process a stage further by replacing probate fees by a progressive tax. That proposition met with a storm of protest, and it has been abandoned as part of the deck-clearing operation that every government has to undertake before a general election. No doubt, something like a progressive tax in place of probate fees will be introduced in the non-too-distant future.

The Justice Department, which had proposed this increase in the cost of administering a deceased person's estate, is facing ever-mounting costs. On the same day that the department climbed down on the death tax, they confirmed that they are constructing a series of isolation units for specially dangerous prisoners, starting with three units each for around thirty inmates. These will include the most dangerous indoctrinators of susceptible people who can be radicalised in the context of a prison. This necessary construction is yet another example of how the costs of government constantly rise: public safety requires that more is spent on security.

So alongside the heath service, social services, schools and transport, law-and-order demands more resources. The prisons are approaching anarchy, the police have been cut back too far, and the armed forces are overstretched yet constantly asked to face up to new challenges.

Taxes must be increased; and if governments continue to fail in stimulating economic growth, this means that taxes must increase relative to national income. There is no alternative.

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Bill Gates, British Reality and George Osborne

Bill Gates of Microsoft, usually described as 'one of the richest men in the world' after giving billions of dollars to good causes, was in London yesterday. In a set speech, he said that if Britain decides to reduce its foreign aid budget, people will die who would not die if the aid had been continued. That statement can be taken at face value, in respect of the unknowable proportion of the aid budget that gets through the web of exploitative contractors and venial bureaucrats and actually gets to where it is needed. If the total DfID budget was reduced, and the leakage from the system was reduced also, the same amount of good could be done for less.

Meanwhile, within the United Kingdom, lives are being lost and curtailed by the combined impact of actual cuts and of underfunding in the National Health Service. As long as the total expenditure of government is limited [as it always must be] some of the choices that parliament makes, under tutelage of the government, will result is some people being relatively advantaged to the cost of others.

The British economy, and its tolerance of taxation and other tolls taken by the government, are not large enough to fund all the good causes that the most beneficent citizens might be willing collectively to finance in an ideal world. I have repeatedly pointed out, that supposed 'economic growth' is no guide at all to the health of the system. 'Growth' merely records the notional amount of money that was turned over in one year [or month, or day] within the whole economy, compared to a previous period of the same length. Therefore 'strong growth' can be reported by an economy where more and more spending in successive periods is financed by consumers' borrowing to buy imported goods. If such an economy also sells control of its businesses to foreigners, who thereafter draw some or all of those firms' profits into their foreign bank accounts, the funds available to expand and to maintain the resources for production within the economy are reduced. So in successive years the balance of payments deficit increases, putting still more resources into foreign hands to be used for lending to the government [which thereafter will have to pay interest to the foreign holders of government debt], and into foreign hands to buy more indigenous companies. Far from being strengthened by a relatively high rate of 'growth', compared to other countries' data, an economy can massively be weakened as it appears to be 'growing strongly'.

This explains the apparent paradox by which George Osborne could spend his six years as Chancellor of the Exchequer boasting about the economy 'growing' more quickly than most others among the once-industrial countries, while he demanded cuts in real-terms government expenditure on all fronts. He talked a lot about 'inward investment', which meant the sale of assets to aliens. He talked about a 'march of the makers' [expansion of material production] that never happened. He deplored the low rate of 'productivity' in the system - the calculated average output of workers in various sectors of the economy, set against the cost of employing them - but he did nothing about it. As Britain's material output declined, thousands of 'zombie companies' remained in existence, with disastrously low productivity, simply so that banks that had lent money to them did not have to foreclose on the debt and thus increase the total of losses that the banking sector had to report; while this chicanery kept a lot of non-viable jobs in the employment statistics. As Osborne's policies made the country poorer and nastier, he retained the air of a master of the universe.

The announcement of a General Election yesterday was followed by the news that Osborne would stand down from parliament. This was the trigger for interviews in which his indefeasible complacency and self-satisfaction were unabashed. His successor at the Treasury has followed his policies, and will do so if he remains in office after the election. That means that government cuts will continue as the weakness of the economy becomes more apparent: thus the government's choices between British and foreign deaths will be more apparent. The deaths will continue to be chargeable to HM Government.

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Not Cut-and-dried

Yesterday, while travelling to my charity discussion in Catford, of all places, I heard of the coming General Election. Overnight, I was determined to blog about anything else. Then, in the bright light of dawn [at 7.15, anyway] it seemed the obvious topic: just to say, that the election could be a lot more open than the recent opinion polls would suggest.

Mrs May continued with her 'trust me to do do what I won't tell you' line. That will not survive the six weeks of campaigning. She will have to give clear answers on terms of adhesion with the EU,  on immigration, and all the other questions arising from Brexit: and when she does, it will be clear that the electorate has other things on their minds anyway.

Brexit was an accident: David Cameron thought to bury euroscepticism, and instead it buried him. Mrs May was an under-performing Remainer. Now she casts herself as the apostle of the Brexiteers, without putting any flesh on the bare bones of the concept of surviving 'outside' the EU. Unless she changes that fundamentally, her apparent majority will evanesce.

The biggest issue in the minds of the majority of voters, of all parties and of none, is that which this blog addressed yesterday; the degeneration of British social life through the egregious 'cuts' imposed by the last two Tory-led governments. The most certain voters are state pensioners: will they vote for a manifesto that threatens the link between inflation and pension increases? Will they vote away their bus passes and winter fuel allowance? Will they vote for more cuts in the health and social services, with the probability that care for the frail will become even more hit-and-miss, and both drugs and operations will be prioritised for younger people?

Jeremy Corbyn, who many Labour MPs do not believe is fit to be Prime Minister [ a view they share with the vast majority of the electorate], nevertheless has a prominent platform on which to continue to oppose the cuts, as he did in his first statements yesterday. The press will follow him, looking for gaffes and evidence of ineffectuality: but they have no option but to present his case to the public. He will plug away. He is reasonably articulate. He regards the Brexit vote as 'given', and the negotiation of decent terms - including Britain remaining in a broadened Common Market - as pretty well inevitable. The more airtime and column inches Labour get, provided they stick to the core message of Tory evil, they will have a negative impact on the Conservative vote.

The LibDems have a massive dilemma, which they do not yet appear to recognise. They can continue to deny democracy, by trying to reverse or nullify the Brexit decision: in which case they will continue to appear stupid, especially given the manner of speaking represented by their leader. He is much more likely than Corbyn to gob his way to embarrassment.

The one-trick pony from Edinburgh will continue to pretend that the Brexit decision licences her to demand a new referendum on Scots sovereignty: in which case her party has nothing material to contribute to the UK-wide election debate.

Labour will be more effective in preventing the Tories from having a massive majority than in holding seats for themselves, and may yet give a field-day to the LibDems as the repository of negative votes.

Now I will keep off the topic of the election until mid-May: by which time I will be able to retract any or all of the above in the light of what happens.

Monday, 17 April 2017

Ever-Meaner Britain

I will spend part of today at a meeting of Trustees who are trying to plot a viable future for a thirty-odd-year-old Charity that faces ever-harsher financial circumstances; as does almost the entire charity sector. Local authority funding is rapidly drying up, even for the local public library which we took into our premises when the purpose-built facility was closed in an earlier round of spending reductions. Well endowed grant-making charities are overwhelmed with requests for assistance to be given to worthy causes. In our own case, after a heavy investment of resources, especially highly specialist human resources that were unstintingly supplied by our brilliant staff, a package approved for the Health Service has not been implemented because of the cuts that are decimating the options available to the clinical commissioning groups. We will be able to plan for constrained survival of the charity; but we will also, of necessity, discuss how best to dispose of our [not inconsiderable] residual assets if the future becomes unsustainable for the organisation as an independent entity.

Similar issues have been discussed repeatedly by thousands of charities around the country over recent years, and the unremitting pursuit of George Osborne's squalid policies makes nonsense of the May government's rhetoric about about 'a country that works for everyone'.

Schools have reverted to the Victorian model of asking parents for a few pennies a week [now translated into a few few pounds] to supply the children with reading materials and outings that the state no longer funds. Research shows how important it is that ALL children have access to the same basic facilities. The strictly stratified performance of children in tests and examinations according to parental income, which is only marginally affected by differentials in innate ability, has become horribly clear in recent in-depth studies. In order that all children have the best chance of not falling completely into a poverty trap it is essential that they all have the same minimal provision in school. The gap between the most affluent and the poorest children on entering school is apparent in their vastly disparate degrees of socialisation, articulation, body mass and susceptibility to discipline at age five. Hundreds of thousands of children arrive at school hungry every day, and the funding of breakfast clubs is increasingly uncertain: so another burden falls on the goodwill of better-off parents and charitable sources in the neighbourhood. Of course, parental fecklessness and failings, ethnic differentiation and associated misunderstandings make their contribution to stretching the bottom of the achievement scale downwards; but society accepted the need to address these issues for over a century: until the Osborne axe reduced the resources that could be applied to that fundamental work.

So the government is continuing with Blair's policy of free schools, which do not readily bear comparison with the mainstream of educational standards and attainments. And, all on her own, Mrs May has resuscitated the idea of establishing grammar schools: a distraction in which the Education Secretary has become fully embroiled.The partial implementation of this daft policy will further denude the resources from all other schools - including free schools.

Britain is well beyond the point where social norms can be maintained. Britain is becoming a meaner society. Sharp-elbowed educated parents with modest means will continue to bag the best for their children, in a vicious contest for the crumbs that will not affect the really affluent who can still send their children outside the state system into private schools. The differentiation between the haves and have-nots will widen and can become a lifelong experience due to the evanescence of private charities; unless the policy is drastically changed in the near future. The apocalypse is coming close. Mr Osborne can write about it in the Evening Standard and Londoners can use his journal in substitution for the toilet paper they will no longer be able to afford.

Dictatorship versus Democracy

Within three months of taking his oath of office, Donald Trump is obviously becoming conditioned by the checks, balances and information flows that constrain any democratic head of government. The members of his cabinet and the senior appointees with direct access to the White House have shaken down and the relativities between them in terms of power and influence has become more evident. Perhaps the most striking departure from his campaign rhetoric is the concern that he now shows for China's interests and opinions. This is largely the consequence of presidents Xi and Trump confronting the terrible twins, opportunity and coincidence, as they address the question of how to rein back North Korea.

Over the past decade China has continued to import - and to pay for - a diminishing quantity of coal from the Pyongyang regime: which is just about the only North Korean commodity export that it can make any use of. The Chinese nuclear capability far exceeds that of North Korea, so they have no use for either military or civil applications of nuclear science [though Pakistan is widely reported to have drawn on those resources, together with other emergent stockists of nuclear weapons]. China has so far acted as a reluctant patron of the North Korean regime, using both votes in the UN and the threat of military confrontation to bar any outside power from striking any real blows at North Korea. Yet now that the threat of the North Koreans having intercontinental missiles with viable warheads in a very short time [maybe measured in months, rather than years] has changed the whole scene.

Almost all of the vast landmass of China has been within range of North Korean missiles for several years; and as that capacity is enhanced - as was displayed over the past weekend - and as the third Mr Kim shows that he accepts no constraints on his power, the risk that he could lash out at his dynasty's long-term patron must increase. Much of the territory of China's natural ally, Russia, also lies under the threat of North Korean missile attack; as do Japan, the Philippines and South Korea, whose capital is within artillery range of the North. The immediate neighbours and Russia have looked askance at the development of Pyongyang's armoury; but have not felt that the time for action had ever dawned.

Trump's perspective of  'America first' made it apparent that North Korea was the number one threat; an irresponsible government with total power over its people and half a century of weapons design have created a unique nuisance value.  The new president's briefings, plus an early meeting with President Xi, convinced him that he must get China on-side: then he must act as decisively as would be needed to put a complete block on North Korean nuclear and ballistic capability. The Chinese population needs to be reassured that their government has a grip of the situation, hence the top rank of the Communist Party recognise that they must do enough to prevent Trump from acting unilaterally to restrain Kim. The total concentration of power in North Korea means that an implosion of the regime would be immediate and abject, leading directly to complete anarchy and mass destitution; in which circumstances rogue scientific and military personnel could access the available horror weapons for release among their own people and over the borders in South Korea and China. China has been paralysed by fear of such an event for several decades, and must now act, alone or with the USA, to prevent it.

Meanwhile, President Erdogan of  Turkey is trying to make himself a dictator. He did not get the majority he sought in yesterday's referendum, and there are plenty of calls for the polling to be reviewed in the light of claims of fraud. The odds are that he will brush all objections aside, win the proposed second referendum on restoring the death penalty, and roll back all the advances in politics and society that Turkey has made since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the early nineteen-twenties. Access to the European Union will be denied to him, and an impregnable 'refugee-proof' border will be established with Europe. He will declare various sanctions against the EU, withdraw from NATO and may even try to rebuild the lost empire in Mesopotamia and Arabia  He will move progressively through the phases of paranoia and megalomania that have been well mapped in previous dictatorial careers; and eventual nemesis will be accompanied by mass misery among all who voted either for or against him in the referendum. Ever since the death of Ataturk democracy in Turkey has needed 'guidance', often from the military. Erdogan dismasted the military long before the fake failed coup a couple of years ago gave him the pretext to dismiss and imprison thousands of officers, judges, teachers and public servants. He was well into implementing a classical dictatorship long before his referendum. Pity the poor Turks, and even more the Kurds, as the process develops.