Monday, November 28, 2011

Lungs and liberty

I have just spent a traumatic hour watching Love on the Transplant List, a gut-wrenching documentary about Kirstie Mills, a 21-year-old with cystic fibrosis waiting for a lung transplant. She'd been given six months to live: the average waiting time for donor lungs is twelve to eighteen months.

Kirstie became ill and went into hospital a few days before she was due to get married. She came out of hospital for her wedding day only to go straight back in the day after. Out and back in again after an abortive honeymoon, her condition deteriorated - with two 'false alarms' along the way, where donor lungs became available that weren't a match for her body - to the point where she was on life support and literally hours from death. At the last possible moment, donor lungs became available, and she finally got the transplant. If it was unbearable just to watch, I can only imagine what it must have been like for her family.

The first thing this made me feel was really fucking proud of the NHS. Whether it was her two nurses being there (complete with fascinators) to look after her on her wedding day, or the consultant we'd seen interviewed earlier helping her into an emergency helicopter when she became ill on her honeymoon - the fact that this is how we look after ordinary citizens, for free, is pretty damn amazing. Okay, I'm prepared to believe that the camera crew following them around may have helped things along a bit, but nonetheless - I'm sure there are plenty of countries where someone of average means in that situation just would not have lived to tell the tale. (This burst of NHS patriotism may not be unrelated to the fact that on Friday I saw the awesome Laurence Clark's stand-up show about American healthcare, 'Health Hazard'.)

The second thing this made me feel - in common with most day-to-day experiences these days, it seems - was really fucking angry with David Cameron. Because at the weekend, the Guardian ran a feature where lots of people of varying degrees of fame and fortune got to ask the Prime Minister a question, and one of the questions was about moving to an opt-out system for organ donation. And his response (I'm quoting it in its entirety, in an effort to be fair) was:

"I think it's very difficult to have a policy that basically says if you haven't filled in the form, your organs can be harvested without your permission. It is a huge leap. But there are hospitals and healthcare systems we can learn from that have encouraged people to sign up to make their organs available. So there's a lot we can do without going the whole hog to opt-out."

This is exactly the kind of anaemic, empty libertarianism that really pisses me off. The sort that doesn't stop to think about why we value freedom, or what the consequences of failing to act on something might be, but instead unthinkingly applies the principle that state interference is bad. Effectively, David Cameron is saying that he values the rights of dead people more than he values the rights of living people not to become dead people. Or, to put it another way, he's saying that the right to life is less important than the right not to be interfered with by the state, even if that interference is something which won't affect you until after you are dead, and which you are empowered to reverse.*

But that's just it: in the tradition of thought David Cameron comes from, the right to life doesn't enter into the argument. In the jargon of political thought, it's the old positive/negative liberty debate: negative libertarianism refuses even to ask what effect a given course of action has on someone's freedom to do something, and instead only applies the test of whether it leaves people free from interference.

I've always been sceptical of this principle, and the fact that it's now basically running the country hasn't made me any less so. But it seems to me that organ donation must be one of the most extreme cases, and one that really exposes its emptiness as a basis on which to build your politics. Normally in political debates, the freedom 'to' is a bit nebulous and hard to pin down (the effects of a more generous welfare state on people's lives, for example) while the freedom 'from' is pretty clear (being able to keep more of your lovely money rather than having the state take it away in taxes). But in this case, the 'freedom to' is about as hefty as it gets - the right to life - while the 'freedom from' is paper thin, almost stripped back to the abstract principle, since it doesn't materially affect anyone living and is completely reversible. To continue doggedly applying the same meaningless formula in that situation seems to me like taking blind ideology to a morally and politically irresponsible degree.

* It's annoying that people often talk about an opt-out system as if it was a system of compulsion, which it's explicitly not. It seems to me there's a much, much bigger moral difference between a system of compulsion and a system of opt-out than there is between opt-out and opt-in.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

You say red tape, I say workers' rights...

When the government launched the Red Tape Challenge, the spin they put on it was that businesses would be much better able to create jobs and growth were they not bogged down by ludicrous, nannying regulations like the Indication of Price (Beds) Order. Haw haw, we were all supposed to say. Beds. Stupid Labour, passing stupid pointless regulations about beds. Whose idea was regulation anyway? Burn it all!

Turns out they meant to say that businesses would be much better able to create jobs and growth if we made it easier for them to fire people and harder for staff to get redress for unfair dismissal. Quelle surprise.

Price of beds... workers' rights... price of beds... workers' rights... Still not seeing the comparability, but I guess it's all a rich tapestry. A rich tapestry of bullshit.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Soaring rewards at the top are shocking but hardly surprising

This is a slightly edited version of a blog I wrote for work over at Any Other Business. There's more I could say on this subject, but for FairPensions' sake I try and keep a reasonably clear line between work and personal blogging, so I've left it pretty much as it is.

Last week it was revealed that the pay of FTSE 100 executives rose by almost 50% last year. The overwhelming impression for me was one of deja vu: last October saw a parallel media storm after the same research company announced that CEOs' pay had risen by 55% over the previous year. (This year's study referred to all boardroom pay, not just that of the CEO, whose pay this year rose by a mere 43%.)

Shocking? Yes. Surprising? Not really. Deborah Hargreaves of the High Pay Commission hit the nail on the head when she spoke about a 'closed shop' that needs to be broken open. A lot has been made of the idea of employee representation on remuneration committees as a potential brake on high pay. But at least as important as who should be on these committees is the question of who shouldn't be on them.

At the moment, cross-pollination among Britain's corporate elite means that theoretically 'independent' directors are often deciding on pay for people who, in turn, are responsible for setting their own pay. Hardly surprising, then, that they all continue to conclude that they're excellent chaps deserving of the most generous rewards. That's why, in the government's forthcoming consultation on executive pay, FairPensions will be arguing strongly for more robust measures to prevent conflicts of interest. Of course, it's not the only issue here, but it's an obvious place to start.

The real puzzle, then, is not why these committees keep ramping up top pay, but why shareholders - including those who look after our pensions and other savings - continue to overwhelmingly endorse them. An interesting snippet from the BBC report of last year's findings on CEO pay is that the researchers thought:

'shareholders were likely to be annoyed by what it called the "business as usual" approach to executive pay, after only a short period of restraint during the economic downturn'.

I say 'interesting' because, eminently reasonable though it might sound, sadly that assessment isn't going to be winning any awards for Year's Best Prediction. At this year's AGM season, when - as we've just discovered - pay packages soared out of all proportion to shareholder returns for the second year in a row, the reaction of investors didn't register much above 'mildly peeved'. Yes, there was noticeably more noise around executive pay than in previous years. But, for all that, not one FTSE 100 remuneration report was rejected by shareholders in their advisory vote.

[Edit: Since I wrote this, a newly released piece of research hints at why this might not be quite such a perplexing puzzle after all: asset managers' own pay rose by 18% last year, apparently due to "pressures to attract and retain talent" - exactly the same dubious justification that's usually trotted out for phone-number salaries at chief executive level. Indeed, some of the companies which faced significant opposition to their executive pay packages at this year's AGMs were themselves investment firms.]

The government is currently considering whether to strengthen shareholders' powers to veto remuneration packages. FairPensions has always argued that, if shareholder oversight is to have any meaning, shareholders need the tools to hold boards to account. But, crucially, they also need the will to use them. Perhaps ultimately it will fall to us, the individuals whose money is at stake, to strengthen their arm.

Monday, October 31, 2011

In defence of Early Day Motions

The best description I've ever heard of Early Day Motions came from my brother-in-law, who once referred to them as "parliamentary Facebook groups". I think this is a neat way of summing up what EDMs do and don't do. They don't lead to parliamentary debates (except in very exceptional circumstances); they don't change the law; but they do offer an opportunity for MPs to put their views on an issue on the record - and, if they get big enough, they tend to attract some attention.

After the 2010 election, a lot of the new intake of Tory MPs decided they weren't going to bother with EDMs. Some of them explain why in, er, this EDM. I agree with at least some of what it says: campaigners sometimes fixate on EDMs and mould supporter campaigns around them as if they are somehow an end in themselves, even though, as the motion notes, they "very rarely have any influence on policy". Sometimes NGOs can activate their supporter base without much thought as to whether the flurry of work this creates for MPs' offices is actually well-targeted to help achieve their aims. And yes, there are probably too many EDMs (although it's worth noting that the most frivolous, like this one about Countdown and this one about Coronation Street, tend to be entirely the MPs' own work and not that of "public affairs professionals"). I suppose I technically count as a "public affairs professional", although I work for a charity and not the sort of evil lobbying agency that phrase implies. I'm certainly quite selective in how I use EDMs - I find they're mainly useful for getting press coverage and for flushing out MPs who you don't yet know but who are sympathetic to your cause.

But this EDM also betrays a certain contempt for its signatories' constituents, complaining as it does of "the huge volume of correspondence" generated by EDMs. Guys, I hate to break it to you, but corresponding with your constituents is sort of in your job description. EDMs are one way in which voters can express their concern about an issue to their elected representative and ask them if they will register that concern. They seem to me to be a pretty efficient mechanism for doing that: I certainly can't think of a more efficient one. So by complaining about how much they cost, the anti-EDM contingent is basically complaining that democracy is expensive. Well, yeah. So is your second home. Shall we take that away as well? No, thought not.

Tabling an EDM to explain why you're not going to sign any more EDMs displays more than a well-developed sense of irony. It's an implicit acknowledgement of their real value: as one of the few truly open forums in which MPs can put their position about something on the public record. If you're so inclined, you can look up your MP's EDM record to get a sense of the issues they care about and the extent to which their views align with yours. It will certainly give you a much fuller picture than their voting record, unless they're an arch rebel. In other words, EDMs are one of the few tools that exist to help you hold your MP to account for what they do between elections. Perhaps that's not the function they were originally intended for, and perhaps they no longer fulfil that original function. But that's evolution for you. It's not the same as obsolescence. As one MP who I used to work with was fond of saying, EDMs get politicians off the fence. If you, a constituent, write to your MP and ask them to sign an EDM, they have to either sign it or refuse to sign it: there's no third option.

Except the Tories who have taken such a principled stance against this "waste of taxpayers' money" now do have a third option: they can stay on the fence, because they don't have to directly address your request, or indeed write back to you with anything helpful about their views on the issue at stake. Instead, they can just politely explain that, sorry, they don't sign EDMs. They are, perhaps not deliberately but very definitely, opting out of being held to account. And that's a poor way to thank the people who put them there.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

St Paul's to re-open

I don't know, you wait two months for a blog, and then two come along at once...

Really this is just to direct you here and here to reports that St Paul's is re-opening after it turned out Occupy London wasn't really so much of a health and safety disaster after all. I feel sort of vindicated by this turn of events. (Also, the government really needs to learn where to get off telling protesters to 'pack up and go home'. And as for banning occupations... whatever happened to your fervent commitment to cutting red tape and trusting people? Oh sorry, my mistake, I forgot that only applied to businesses wanting to unfairly dismiss people. Citizens exercising their right to protest can clearly just fuck right off.)

Also, in the event that you'd like to take ringside seats, my friend and I are continuing to politely disagree over here at his own blog, which incidentally is strange and lovely and generally rather less shouty than this one.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

What really happened at St Paul's?

The other day, I had an argument with a friend who was criticising Occupy London for 'making their protest a battle with the cathedral' by forcing it to close. Yesterday, I was told that the activist twitterati were pointing the finger for the cathedral's closure at the malign influence of its corporate sponsors. I think they're both barking up the wrong tree.

Now, at this point I should confess that I haven't really managed to make it down to St Paul's, due to work and stuff, so what follows is deduction based on prior experience and may be at least equally off the mark. But (and now I'm starting to feel like a third-rate Jonathan Creek) I've looked at it from every angle and this is the only way the sequence of events makes sense to me.

The question is, why did St Paul's cathedral swing so suddenly from welcoming the protesters with open arms to taking the pretty drastic step to close down until they leave? The anti-protester answer would be that the protest became so disruptive and unreasonable that they couldn't tolerate it any more and relations broke down. I just don't buy this. I walked past St Paul's on Thursday; a friend walked past at the weekend. We both got the impression that there was no problem with access and that things were generally – as these protests invariably are, if you bother to look past the headlines – good-natured and under control. Apparently the occupiers had rearranged their schedule so as not to disrupt any cathedral services with amplified noise, and generally went out of their way to be nice. What changed? This, to me, just doesn't add up.

The more cynical explanation that corporate sponsors were exerting pressure may be closer to the truth, but it still doesn't ring true to me. I see quite a bit of the financial sector in my day job – it's sort of my job to keep an eye on them – and frankly, I'm afraid I just don't think they care that much. In fact, it's been pretty fascinating to see the response from the more thinking elements of the investment industry, which, briefly summed up, seems to be 'yep, they've got a point'. In the last couple of weeks, I've seen fairly mainstream investors openly describe today's capitalism as 'dysfunctional' whilst commenting on the protests. To those who say that Occupy is having no impact, I'd say that admission is a sign of the times. So the conspiracy theory doesn't quite add up either.

But the cathedral's statement – all 'fire hazard' this and 'health and safety' that – forcibly reminded me of a couple of experiences I've had at the hands of people who wanted to suppress protests. And at this point, anyone who reads this blog at all regularly will know that, with tedious predictability, I'm going to point the finger at... yes, the police.

In the summer of 2008, I was at Heathrow Climate Camp, doing a shift in the kitchen. It was a bit more stressful than I'd expected, because the police made damn sure that the environmental health inspectors were round there to check us out. They did this because they were quietly confident that the hygiene standards of a bunch of hippies in the middle of a field could not possibly be up to scratch and that this would give them a reason to shut down the camp. Thanks to the awesome person co-ordinating the kitchen, who really knew their stuff and made damn sure everything was safe and clean, they failed.

A few years before that, I was sitting in Cambridge Police Station next to a friend with whom I was organising a student demo against university arms investments. And again, they made damn sure we were aware that, should we proceed in this foolhardy endeavour, we would be PERSONALLY LIABLE for the inevitable horrific injuries suffered by any unfortunate demonstrators who got mown down by rogue cyclists. The intention seemed to be to frighten us into thinking twice about organising a protest at all. In the event, all it did was to make me freak out about the need for stewarding and spend an unnecessary amount of time sourcing volunteers, hi-vis jackets and first aid kits.

My point is: this is the police's modus operandi. Health and safety concerns, and associated threats of liability, are a convenient tool for intimidating people who might think about organising or harbouring a protest. And, unlike beating disabled students over the head with sticks, it doesn't leave you on the wrong side of the argument. It's more subtle and sinister than that. Indeed, it seems to have been remarkably successful in making people – including my friend – view the protesters as the bad guys, the dicks who've forced the cathedral to close. Maybe I'm totally wrong, but to me this just has the same whiff about it as my experiences at Climate Camp and in Cambridge. I'd put good money on that the Met were, not necessarily wholly responsible for the decision to close, but certainly lurking somewhere in the background. (Something in today's news reports makes me wonder if the City of London Corporation is also at the back of it somewhere – but that's something I feel less qualified to speculate about.)

What worries me about this is that it seems to be terrifyingly easy to render a protest illegitimate precisely by restricting and circumscribing it. Occupy London couldn't go to the London Stock Exchange, because the landowners successfully got an injunction. (As an aside, I seem to remember that some FOI requests I was involved in a few years ago showed police contacting landowners to encourage them to seek injunctions against protesters.) So they found sanctuary at St Paul's. Now that the cathedral has closed – despite, it seems, the best efforts of protesters to make sure it could stay open – they're attacked for being there. To those who think Occupy London is culpable, I'd just make this small plea: I know, from bitter experience, that these things are never what they seem. Please think twice before accepting attacks, however seductive, on a protest's right to exist.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Time to break the habit?

Apologies for prolonged failure to blog; it's summer and I've been busy carrying a cello around Edinburgh. Anyway, work have once again kindly agreed to let me cross-post this blog I just wrote for them over at Any Other Business to tide you over. Usual disclaimer - No Wealth But Life represents my personal views only and has no formal affiliation with my employer, etc.

Kent County Council has become the latest local authority to come under fire for its investments in tobacco. Why it has been singled out is something of a mystery - as last year's Evening Standard investigation into London boroughs' investments showed, councils who don't invest in tobacco are the exception rather than the rule. But Kent's response is a perfect illustration of a seductive habit - one that may be comforting to investors under pressure, but is less than helpful to those around them.

Faced with media criticism of the pension fund's tobacco holdings, Kent's spokesperson did what investors in their position seem to have done since time immemorial: they fell back on the well-worn mantra, "We have a responsibility to obtain the best possible return on investments."

It’s standard practice for funds, when questioned about the ethics of a particular investment, to respond that their hands are tied by their duty to maximise return. But where does this duty come from? As part of the research for our recent report, I was lucky enough to trawl through pretty much every major court case on investors’ legal duties. I looked long and hard for the oft-invoked ‘duty to maximise return’, and I can confirm that the phrase doesn’t appear anywhere.

This isn’t to say that there’s no basis at all for this view: there is, as they say, no smoke without fire. What the law does say is that pension funds have a duty to act in the best interests of their beneficiaries, and that this will usually mean their best financial interests. But does that rule out disinvestment from particular companies on ethical grounds? Not necessarily.

There is nothing in law that bars pension funds from considering their members’ ethical views. Of course, it would be unfair for them to accommodate the views of a minority if this would result in a serious loss of income for the majority who don’t care. If excluding an investment was really going to damage returns, you’d have to be able to show a pretty watertight consensus among your beneficiaries that the investment was wrong. In the case of tobacco, this might be unlikely.

But what if an investment could be excluded without damaging returns? Lots of funds exclude investments on this basis: if you can show reasonable grounds for thinking an exclusion won’t make any significant impact – for example, because you can substitute another stock which behaves in a similar way – it should be permissible by law. In the case of tobacco, some campaigners have even argued that it makes positive financial sense to exclude it, because litigation and increasing regulation mean the tobacco industry does not have a long-term future. That’s also the view taken by Newham Borough Council, whose pension fund excludes direct investments in tobacco firms.

Of course, not every given exclusion will pass this test. But the important thing is that the test should be applied: if lots of members are unhappy with a particular investment, the fund should examine whether that concern could be addressed without harming the other members’ interest in a decent pension. Instead, too many funds fall back on the easy response of claiming there’s nothing they can do.

So if your pension fund invokes the ‘duty to maximise returns’ to justify an investment you think is unethical, ask them what analysis they’ve done of the impact of excluding that stock. If the answer is ‘none’, challenge them to explain why. They might not thank you for it, but it’s in everyone’s interest to help them break the habit.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

I am extremely very busy doing spying

So, two heads roll at the highest levels of the Met over phone hacking. I can't say I'm crying for them, but it does beg the question why nobody resigned over Ian Tomlinson's death - and why Bob Broadhurst, in charge of Operation Beat-up-Climate-Campers on the same day, actually appears to have been promoted since.

When Paul Stephenson gave evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee yesterday, he apparently repeated the line that investigating phone hacking was 'not a priority' in 2009 set against the terrorist threats the Met was expected to deal with. Frankly, I think he's got some nerve saying that on the same day the Court of Appeal overturned the convictions of 20 environmental activists on the basis of unlawful police infiltration.

The judgement criticised the police for effectively planting an agent provocateur (undercover cop Mark Kennedy) in the environmental movement, and then prosecuting dozens of peaceful protesters for the acts he encouraged. Kennedy was deployed by the shadowy National Public Order Intelligence Unit, which used to sit within the Association of Chief Police Officers, but in the wake of the scandal was transferred to - you guessed it - the Met.

Just for the record, the action for which those protesters were prosecuted took place in, um, 2009. Presumably the same 2009 in which the police were too busy to investigate phone hacking. The previous year, £5.9 million - including a substantial Met contingent - was spent on policing the Kingsnorth Climate Camp, another completely peaceful protest. So thanks, Paul Stephenson, for helpfully highlighting the hypocrisy of the police's insane vendetta against peaceful civil disobedience in general and the environmental movement in particular.

In other protest news, the CPS has finally dropped over 100 cases against protesters for sitting in Fortnum and Mason which should never have been brought in the first place. And, although this is not new news, senior officers have apparently admitted deceiving those protesters into mass arrests. Sadly a few others have received hefty sentences for lashing out against heavyhanded police, even though there's no evidence they hurt anyone (unlike the cop who left a teenager in a coma after last year's student demos - but then, that's obviously different).

Monday, June 13, 2011

Mark Kennedy - the saga continues

Well, this is currently making me feel pretty vindicated about this (and, to a lesser extent, this).

For those without the time or energy to follow links: it turns out the CPS knew about the infiltration of the climate movement by police spy Mark Kennedy at the time they were prosecuting 26 activists for thinking about taking direct action - and, more crucially, knew about the evidence he'd obtained that basically exonerated six activists of the charges they faced. The trial of these six activists collapsed when that evidence became public, after the activists themselves uncovered the spy. It's now being suggested that the convictions of the remaining 20 may be unsafe.

The CPS's position on Ian Tomlinson now looks even more absurd than it did before. It was bad enough that they refused to charge the officer involved because there was 'no realistic prospect of a conviction', based on nothing more than the testimony of a dodgy pathologist. It became worse when that pathologist's evidence was soundly rejected by the jury at Tomlinson's inquest, thus demonstrating that it might indeed have been possible to bring a successful prosecution.

But it seems like an obscene irony that, we now discover, the CPS was quite happy to proceed with charges against well-meaning activists who, let's not forget, hadn't actually done anything, despite having much more serious and credible evidence to cast doubt on their culpability. Of course, in this case there was a realistic prospect of a conviction - because, um, the police and CPS suppressed said evidence.

As ever, there are now calls for an inquiry - but, as this person points out, we've had half-baked inquiries every time a tiny corner of the huge festering mess that is the policing of protest in this country has been exposed. I wouldn't say they've made no difference at all, but there has to come a point where we stop chin-stroking about the symptoms and address the cause: police contempt for the right to peaceful civil disobedience, and the insidious rise of the category 'domestic extremist' which puts those who believe in it neatly in the same box as Abu Hamza and the BNP. There does need to be a proper inquiry, but it needs to be serious, independent and far-reaching - and most importantly, it needs to come at the issue with a respect for the traditions of civil disobedience and a willingness to ask the right questions.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Dear Lib-Dem hating leftie friends...

Come on, Left. I know it's fashionable to hate the Lib Dems right now, but after a couple of exchanges on Facebook about the NHS reforms I've decided enough is enough. By all means, challenge and question the moderating effect that coalition government is having on Tory hideousness. That's a legitimate debate to have. But the self-justifying disdain some people now seem to be harbouring, to the extent that when Lib Dems clearly are moderating a policy we all oppose, you have to find ways to explain it away and carry on hating them regardless, is frankly just silly.

Two arguments I've seen to play down the Lib Dems' role in forcing a rethink of the NHS reforms, and why I think they're both wrong:

  1. This has happened because the policy is a political liability – the Lib Dems had little or nothing to do with it”

Um, Iraq war anyone? I worked in parliament for nearly two years, which admittedly does not make me a world expert - but my experience with majority governments was that they pretty much do not give a shit what you think. If they want something badly enough, they will push it through regardless of public opposition. We are talking about a government that didn't feel the need to consult the medical profession before launching this thing at Parliament in the first place. Why should things be any different six months down the line? And why is everyone so conveniently keen to forget that the original 'pause' in the Bill's passage through Parliament was announced not following some cataclysmic protest, but shortly after the Lib Dem Spring Conference overwhelmingly rejected the proposals?

  1. Yeah, well, pity they didn't start opposing it before they got slaughtered at the elections”

Um, except they did. See above. (As an aside, the Lib Dems' policymaking process is one of the really brilliant things about them. It's kind of like how I imagined parliament ought to work before I started working there and all my illusions were shattered. Ordinary members bring motions to conference. Hundreds of delegates sit and listen to a reasoned debate. Then they vote on the motion and any amendments, and if they pass it, it becomes party policy. Might sound trivial, but to my knowledge no other major party still does it.)

Fair enough, Nick Clegg signed off on the White Paper: the proposals needed his support to get off the blocks in the first place, and that at least puts him legitimately on the hook. And fair enough, he does seem to have grasped the urgency of the issue rather more immediately since May 5th. But there is a distinction between party leadership and party itself, and that's exactly what's so great about the Lib Dems' policymaking process. At the first opportunity it got, the party rank and file told him in no uncertain terms that the reforms were unacceptable. And, from pretty much that point onwards, things started to change. This is democracy in action, and you can be damn sure nothing like it would have happened without a coalition government. How much things will change remains to be seen – but, at the very least, reserve judgement until the outcome is clear.

I don't think the Lib Dems have got everything right in the last twelve months, far from it. All I'm saying is, I wish people would reserve their contempt for the people who are actually contemptible and their anger for the things worth getting angry about. Give credit where credit's due and, more importantly, recognise an ally when you see one.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

George Osborne and the Axis of Charity Evil

You know you're doing something right when George Osborne thinks you're the scourge of society. In a marvellous speech of his today at the Institute of Directors, I learned that organisations like the one I work for are apparently now the "forces of stagnation". Having set out his stall as "unequivocally pro-business" and extolled the virtues of deregulation and low taxes (for which Miles Templeman, outgoing Director General of the IoD, has - quelle surprise! - been a "tireless advocate"), he went on to say:

"Delivering this will not be easy. The forces of stagnation will try to stand in the way of the forces of enterprise. For every line item of public spending, there will be a union defending it. For every regulation on business, a pressure group to defend it. Your voice, the voice of business, needs to go on being heard in the battle."

I'm confused, George! Yesterday we were the Big Society. Today we're the Forces of Stagnation. I don't know what to think any more. I suppose I'll just have to carry on thinking that you're a horrendous Thatcherite idiot.

Really, I just do not know where to start with this bullshit. I think the thing that annoys me most about it is the way that civil society groups are presented as the vested interests, while business leaders asking for lower taxes and less regulation are "tireless advocates" for what's best for Britain. Honestly, what exactly does he think the IoD is if it's not a pressure group? But it's the good kind of pressure group, the kind that agrees with his neoliberal politics because it's in their direct self-interest. Not the bad, nasty, stick-in-the-mud kind, the kind that defends regulations because... because... um, maybe because it's the right thing to do? Maybe because those regulations are there for a reason? Maybe because they protect vulnerable people who don't have Miles Templeman to stand up for them in the corridors of power?

I've blogged before about the 'Red Tape Challenge', which the government has likened to a trial in which regulations will be deemed "guilty until proven innocent". Soliciting a case for the prosecution and not one for the defence is one thing. Attacking the defence as the "forces of stagnation" is another - and for me it feels like the last straw.

Monday, May 9, 2011

He's got a whole field of ponies and they're all literally running away from his taxes

Today, one of my many news-digest mailing lists informed me that

"Peter Hargreaves has soared 46 places on The Sunday Times Rich List, placing him ahead of musical maestro Andrew Lloyd Webber, Lord Alan Sugar and Easyjet's Sir Stelios Haji-Ionannu."

Peter Hargreaves, I thought. Why does that name ring a bell? Oh yes, it's because back in February, I posted an immoderate rant about an article he wrote which suggested that the government wasn't nearly serious enough about cutting spending and that, if you were filthy rich, the only morally responsible thing left for you to do was furiously avoid paying your taxes.

Peter Hargreaves is now the 65th richest person in the United Kingdom. Peter Hargreaves is a billionaire. Peter Hargreaves' tax bill is probably within the same order of magnitude as the cost of some of the vital public services people are battling to save - my local library, for example. Basically, the amount of tax Peter Hargreaves pays has a not-entirely-negligible impact on the deficit.

Peter Hargreaves does not believe the deficit isn't an issue. On the contrary, he believes it's an enormous issue. Clearly, for every billionaire who pays less tax, the government has a bigger gap to plug, which means harsher spending cuts. So by endorsing tax avoidance, Peter Hargreaves is effectively saying he thinks that money is much better off stashed in his bank account than paying for services for the poor and vulnerable. Not only that, he presumes to moralise on the matter. Is it just me, or is that utterly grotesque?

(Incidentally, Stephen Lansdown, Hargreaves' partner at Hargreaves Lansdown brokers, comes in at a mere number 90 on the rich list, with a piffling £750m personal fortune. Amateur.)

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Ian Tomlinson verdict should put the CPS on the hook

Very encouraged to see that the inquest into Ian Tomlinson's death has returned a verdict of unlawful killing. The Guardian reports that the CPS is now reconsidering its decision not to prosecute the office who shoved him.

But surely the next question has to be why on earth they made that decision in the first place. The ostensible reason why charges could not be brought was that there was "sharp disagreement between the medical experts" about the causes of death, and that this was so irreconcilable that there was no realistic prospect of a conviction.

It was obvious at the time that this was outrageous: the 'disagreement' was the result of a discredited pathologist giving a dubious analysis which was contradicted by two other pathologists in two independent post-mortems. Now that a jury has considered that pathologist's evidence and dismissed it as unsound, the decision looks indefensible.

As I understand it, in order to decide not to prosecute, the CPS has to be pretty damn sure that there is simply no way a jury could come to a guilty verdict. In this case, a jury not only could: it effectively has. That is surely enough to demonstrate that the CPS acted improperly in pre-empting deliberation of those issues by the criminal courts.

I hope the CPS comes under serious pressure over the coming days and weeks to explain itself - and that questions are asked about the real motives for its original decision.

(Incidentally, it makes me very angry that this verdict has not been enough to prompt an urgent question in parliament - neither was Tomlinson's death at the time, although we tried our best to get one - yet some smashed windows on the anti-cuts protests apparently were. In my experience - with a few honourable exceptions - this is completely typical of parliamentary and government attitudes to police treatment of protesters, and it's unacceptable. In our political system, the state's use of violence is supposedly legitimated by parliamentary democracy. If parliament shrugs its shoulders when the police kill an innocent man, that notion massively loses credibility.)

Friday, April 22, 2011

Opportunist? Moi?

David Cameron, 12 May 2010, asked if he thought coalitions were a good thing:

"We did both have a choice. We could have gone for a minority government backed up by the Lib Dems. But we sat down and looked at it and both thought this is so uninspiring, it's not actually going to do what we came into government to achieve. We want to give the country good government."

David Cameron, 18 April 2011, arguing that AV will lead to more coalition governments:

"That undermines accountability and that's not right. That's what I believe AV could give us - power with less responsibility and pledges with less accountability."

Yes, yes, I know he tries to make a distinction between coalitions in 'exceptional circumstances', which can apparently be a 'good thing', and the idea of coalition governments becoming routine. But he doesn't give any reasons to back that up, as far as I can see, so really it's little more than the age-old tactic of acknowledging the glaring flaw in your own argument in order to fool people into thinking you've addressed it. Really, Mr Shiny-Face, are you seriously trying to exploit people's dissatisfaction with your own government to try and scupper AV? That's a pretty breathtaking move.

Incidentally, I also think this is another example of the Tories playing a much cleverer and nastier game than the Lib Dems when it comes to coalition politics. Notice the detail of Cameron's 'AV-means-more-coalitions' argument:

"I can absolutely put my hand on my heart and say in preparing our manifesto we really did go through every pledge and thought, 'We could be accountable for this. We aim to have, and believe we can have, a single party government so don't put anything in your manifesto you don't believe you can deliver,'" he said.

"If you move to a system where coalitions become the norm rather than the exception I think you might find politicians start being very casual about what they put in their manifesto because you can put in policies that you know you can get rid of as you form a coalition."

Indeed, politicians "may start to put things into their manifestos that might sound good but they can't deliver because they know that in a coalition they're not going to have to answer for them."

Things like, ooh, I don't know, let's pluck a hypothetical example out of the air... pledges to scrap tuition fees? Is it just me, or is the subtext here, 'Well, personally I take my manifesto pledges very seriously - but some people, like Nick here, are sadly not quite so conscientious, and I think you should all bear that in mind when casting your vote.'

Nasty, cynical stuff.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Why I'm getting excited about the Red Tape Challenge

When I first saw the launch of the Red Tape Challenge, it made me want to throw things at other things. Now, however, I'm quite excited about it. Not because I've had some kind of Damascene conversion to the joys of libertarianism, but because it seems, finally, to have woken civil society up to just how dangerous the deregulatory agenda is.

I've blogged before about the farce that is one-in, one-out, so feel free to go and read that if you need some background. Done that? Good. So, the Red Tape Challenge is that latest manifestation of this policy: the idea is that every regulation ever will go up on this website, and the public (ie. businesses) can submit comments on which ones they find tiresome or inconvenient. The regulations will then be reviewed - and will be, ahem, "presumed guilty unless proven innocent". In other words, every regulation that's ever been made will be abolished unless somebody can make a good case for it to stay. As David Cameron put it in his letter to all government ministers:

"In the past... the assumption was that regulations should stay, unless there was a good case for getting rid of them. Our starting point is that a regulation should go or its aim achieved in a different, non-government way, unless there is a clear and good justification for government being involved."

The most obvious problem with this approach arises from the question: who in practice will be making the case for and against? The idea is that, because they're on the 'front line', businesses' "understanding of how things really work will mean you know there is a better way of doing it." I sort of get that. I get that there are things that make life hard for small businesses - the kind of local shops and services I try to support - and that they should have a chance to highlight those problems. But in practice, that's not what this exercise means - or at least, certainly not the only thing it means.

Big business has millions of pounds of lobbying muscle only too happy to explain why all that pesky regulation it has to comply with should be swept away. Now they're basically being asked for their wish list, and told that, unless someone can make a pretty seriously good case for the defence, the assumption is that they'll get it. But there's a reason we don't let businesses make regulatory policy. The whole point of regulation is that it makes companies do stuff they would rather not have to do. If I were the government, and any big company or trade body came and told me a regulation was worthy but unnecessary because there was a 'better way of doing it', I'd be immediately suspicious: if you're so committed to doing this anyway, why are you so desperate to get rid of the regulation?

Meanwhile, the civil society organisations who would make the case for regulations to stay - organisations like the one I work for - have mostly tiny budgets and are fighting on many fronts as it is. To extend the courtroom metaphor, it's like giving your 'guilty-until-proven-innocent' defendant access to the cheapest legal advice going while the prosecution is represented by some silly-money hotshot barrister. Of course, as with all such government initiatives, it's hard to know how much of it is cosmetic and how much is genuine. But I don't think we can afford to be complacent.

My biggest fear about the Red Tape Challenge has been that individual NGOs and trade unions would be too busy fighting their individual battles to get involved in the deregulatory war. But in the last couple of days I've seen trans friends getting outraged at the notion that the Equality Act is 'red tape', and Greenpeace and 38 Degrees condemning the fact that environmental regulation has been put up for grabs. I am finding this genuinely encouraging. We're still no match for the corporate lobbyists. But it's starting to look like the Red Tape Challenge could achieve what I've been wishing I could for months: mobilise the public in defence of regulations that protect us all.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Bob Broadhurst and the 'mindless yobs' - takes one to know one

It's now a week since the anti-cuts protests; I'd hoped to have blogged about them sooner, but work has been a bit chaotic. Anyway, now the dust has settled and many of the things I was going to whine about - like the media's inability to distinguish between 'violent thugs' and people sitting on a shop floor, thus implying the police had arrested 149 people for violence rather than, um, 11 - have been very ably exposed by other people. Perhaps the distinction between the 'minority' of a few hundred who broke away from the main march and the far smaller minority of a few dozen who smashed stuff up is too subtle for the mainstream media.

It's also been pointed out, although nobody much seems to care, that the police lied to a group of entirely peaceful protesters inside Fortnum and Mason, telling them that if they left the building they would be allowed to go, whereupon they were promptly arrested and charged with aggravated trespass.

Underlying all this is the police's continued insistence on conflating 'peaceful' with 'lawful'. There doesn't seem to be a category in their brains labelled 'peaceful civil disobedience'. This was pointed out after the G20 protests, in the inquiries that followed Ian Tomlinson's death, but nothing much seems to have changed. As a result, the narrative, as always, pits the nice law-abiding marcher against the 'minority of troublemakers intent on causing violence', with no room for those in the middle, those who believe in peaceful civil disobedience but abhor violence as much as anyone else. Even more concerning, the police definition of 'lawful' protest is so narrow that it seems only to cover protests explicitly authorised by the police. That is truly worrying. A right to peaceful protest that stops when the state says so is no right at all.

Commander Bob Broadhurst encouraged this narrative, even trying to co-opt the term 'protester' and brand anyone not engaging in the kind of protest the police find acceptable as 'not a real protester'. "I wouldn't call them protesters. They are engaging in criminal activities for their own ends," he told the press on Saturday. It's worth noting that trespass is not actually a criminal offence, although 'aggravated trespass', the charge being levelled at the Fortnum and Mason occupiers, is. It's a pretty dubious charge, particularly as video footage shows people were able to carry on shopping while they were there. I know some of these people. They are definitely protesters, and they are definitely not criminals.

It was this same failure to distinguish between 'peaceful' and 'lawful' that led to hundreds of people being beaten up and violently dispersed after the Climate Camp protests at G20. The Climate Campers were just blocking a road, the same way any march or rally does. They'd made clear they were going to leave after 24 hours. It was night-time, so they weren't really in anyone's way. But they hadn't asked police permission, and the police decided it was time for them to go. So, as any reasonable law enforcer would do in that situation, they pushed them into an ever-more confined space and thwacked them over the head with sticks. I heard horrific stories afterwards, including one from a woman who may have suffered a miscarriage because of her treatment at the hands of the police.

And this wasn't a 'minority' of 'criminals' or 'mindless yobs' among the police. It wasn't a few bad apples. It happened because the Silver Commander ordered it. I know because my boss at the time was on the phone to him at one in the morning, asking what the fuck he thought he was doing. Was he the least bit repentant to hear that his officers on the ground were beating people up and that we were getting calls from terrified protesters pleading for our help? Nope. Was he bothered by suggestions from my boss, who happens to be a lawyer, that what he was doing was totally unlawful? Nope. His response: 'See you in court'. And that commander's name? Bob Broadhurst.

And who was in charge of policing the student protests where a crack on the head from a police officer left a boy bleeding into his brain? Yep, Bob Broadhurst again. This guy is responsible for more violence and more unlawful activity than anything managed by evil balaclava-clad anarchists last Saturday. After what happened at Climate Camp, I'm convinced he should have been in court, never mind at liberty to oversee protests again. But if anything, he actually seems to have been promoted since then - he's now head of the Met's public order branch. That is, frankly, a fucking outrage.

So next time Bob Broadhurst feels like branding a bunch of protesters as 'criminals' and 'mindless yobs' just for sitting in a shop, I'd suggest you take his words with a good pinch of salt.

UPDATE: It's occurred to me that I failed to make an important distinction myself in this post - ie. that between people engaged in vandalism or criminal damage (ie. smashing stuff up) and the yet smaller minority of people who were allegedly engaged in actual violence (ie. throwing lightbulbs full of nasty at police). I wasn't there, and often reports of the latter turn out to be untrue or greatly exaggerated, but whether or not it actually happened the fact remains that vandalism isn't in and of itself 'violence', and I regret colluding with the implication that it is. In my defence, the post was written in something of a rush.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Did we own the banks before the crisis?

I wrote this post for work over at Any Other Business, and they've kindly said I can re-post it here. In celebration of the fact that I have just all but finished the report referred to in the post, and can therefore stop working thirteen hour days whilst eating baby food out of a jar, I thought I'd do so. Enjoy.

A lot is made of the fact that 'we' – the taxpayers – now own some of the banks that failed during the financial crisis. The government, through UK Financial Investments, owns an 84% majority stake in the Royal Bank of Scotland and around 40% of Lloyds, and has often been criticised for its timidity when it comes to using that stake to control bank behaviour – whether it be restraining bonus levels or promoting sustainable investment.

But it's rarely pointed out that 'we' had a stake in the banks already: through our pension funds, life insurance policies and other savings. In 2008, pension funds accounted for 12.8% of UK share ownership, insurance companies for 13.4%. Although that's less than it was thirty years ago, it's still a lot: just a hair over £300bn.

Of course, there are two obvious differences between the government's holding in RBS and the holdings you or I have in, say, HSBC through our pension funds. Firstly, the government is a single shareholder with a large stake: it could, if it so chose, unilaterally influence the policies of the institutions it owns. By contrast, the 26% of UK shares owned by pension funds and insurance companies are dispersed between hundreds of different institutions. When you drill down even further, to the level of the ultimate owners – us – it's dispersed between millions.

Secondly, we as owners are far more distanced from the companies we own than the government is. UK Financial Investments is independent of government, the reason often given by the Treasury for its refusal to intervene to change bank practices. But that was a choice made by the government at the time of the bail-out. Most of our investments are legally owned by a set of agents (our pension fund or insurance company) who then outsource the job of managing those investments to another set of agents (the asset management firms). Unlike the government, we have no choice in this situation. In fact, we're so far removed from the rights we have as owners of major companies that it's hardly any surprise most of us aren't even aware of them.

This makes the duties owed to us by the people who manage our money absolutely crucial. The way they behave has an enormous influence on our future wellbeing – not only because it determines the level of our pension or savings, but also because of its indirect influence on the things that determine our quality of life – from financial stability to climate change. In the wake of the crisis, many accepted that institutional investors hadn't done enough to curb excessive risk-taking in the banks – they had taken their eye off the ball, behaving as 'absentee landlords'. And it's us, the ultimate owners, who pay the price for those mistakes.

The tendency to forget who the ultimate owners are has also contributed to the rise of what's been called 'agency capitalism' – whereby, essentially, intermediaries do incredibly well for themselves while the incomes of the people whose money they're managing continue to stagnate. Between 2002 and 2007, the fees paid to investment agents by our pension funds rose by over 50%. Meanwhile, real annual returns on our pension savings averaged just 1.1% - lower than in previous decades. FairPensions' upcoming report, 'Protecting our Best Interests', will argue that the government needs to take a fresh look at the duties our agents owe us to make sure they really are putting our interests first.

Some agents, such as pension fund trustees, owe incredibly stringent duties to their members, known as 'fiduciary duties'. At the heart of fiduciary duty is the idea that you have been entrusted to act on someone else's behalf, and you must bear that in mind in everything you do, never becoming complacent or using your position to further your own ends. It's a noble ideal. Crucially, it puts the people whose money is at stake back in the driving seat. Arguably, rediscovering the essence of fiduciary duty would go a long way towards encouraging a more responsible financial sector. Perhaps it's time to go beyond bashing the banks and look at the people who, on our behalf, have the right to tell the banks what to do. As Pensions Minister Steve Webb observed in a parliamentary debate just before Christmas, “There is occasionally a need to remind those who manage our money that it is our money.”

Monday, February 28, 2011

Oh God, won't somebody please think of the rich?

A major downside of having bought a single share in BP for work purposes last year is that my brokers, Hargreaves Lansdown (it feels so wrong even typing that phrase) now keep on sending me crap. I am pretty sure they have now sent me crap to more than the value of the share (which was about a fiver, if anyone's interested). Moreover, said crap has a tendency to add to my levels of outrage more than I think is really healthy at this troubled time.

This month's edition of 'Investment Times' arrived on Sunday, and I didn't even have to remove it from its plastic wrapping to find something objectionable. On the front cover is an article by Mr Hargreaves with the headline "Who will bear the burden?" As you might imagine, the "burden" in question is that of reducing the deficit. And the answer to the rhetorical question appears to be "Not the rich, anyone but the rich!"

The article starts off by expressing concern that "neither the government, nor the public, exhibit the stomach for cuts in public expenditure". You can pretty much guess what's coming from the fact that this guy's biggest concern about the Tories is that they're just not keen enough on cutting things.

Next, he moves on to Labour and "the unions" - accusing them of "misinformation" designed to disguise the scale of the national debt. Surely, Mr Hargreaves concludes, "the general consensus is that we should be reducing our public debt as soon as possible."

Then, in a leap of logic I'm still struggling to fathom, he starts opining about how hard done by the rich are in today's society: apparently, "Britain has a perverse attitude towards wealth and success", reflected in the fact that "even right-wing politicians are suggesting that people with money and savings are the easy option to effect the bailout." I'm not quite sure what he means by "the bailout" in this context - I assume he's talking about the deficit again. He seems a little confused, poor man.

Anyway. Onwards and upwards: "There is no account taken of their prudence, their work ethic and the tax they paid accumulating those savings." Hmm. That would be the kind of "prudence" displayed by the millionaires who brought the financial system crashing down on all our heads? I see. Well, it sure is a mystery why nobody's taking that into account.

"Sadly" - oh so sad! I am practically weeping as I type this - "the only thing that people with savings can do is place as much of them as possible out of the taxman's clutches, for it is through taxes that wealth will be used to balance the books."

Ah, so now we get to the point. It turns out this whole article has been a rambling, incoherent intellectual justification for tax avoidance. And sure enough, when you look inside (as I have just done after finally bringing myself to tear off the plastic wrap) it turns out that the lead features in 'Investment Times' are all about how Hargreaves Lansdown is the discerning choice for all your tax-dodging needs. There's even another little vignette inside, where Mr Hargreaves complains that "[the government's] first port of call is those with the broadest shoulders" (really? I want to live in Mr Hargreaves' world please), and reiterates that "placing as much capital as you can into tax shelters is therefore vital." Well, Mr Hargreaves, why didn't you just say so in the first place? Really you could have just printed a picture of yourself sitting on a sack of money sticking two fingers up at the nation and saved us all some time.

Frankly, I am struggling to get inside the mind of someone who genuinely believes that the government is somehow more enthusiastic about taxing the rich than it is about cutting poor people's benefits. But leaving that aside for the moment, it seems to me that the rest of this article can be briefly summed up as follows:

1. It is very, very important that we reduce the national debt. Stupid lefties do not understand this.
2. It is therefore very, very important that rich people pay as little tax as possible on our enormous quantities of wealth.
3. Why? Um, because we're awesome.

Sorry Mr Hargreaves, but with shoddy arguments like that, you're not doing any favours to your claim that you deserve your millions for being so thoroughly brilliant.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

One in, one out, shake it all about

There's a maxim at the heart of government policy that shapes every single thing this coalition does - a maxim based on an ideological belief in a small state, which cripples the ability of government to actually do anything.

No, I'm not talking about public spending cuts. I'm talking about something called 'one-in, one-out regulation', and I'm continually surprised that so few people seem to have noticed it, because to me it adds huge force to the argument that the cuts agenda is ideological, not driven by necessity.

The premise is simple. Every time the government introduces a regulation, it has to get rid of one. Never mind that truly proportionate regulation should mean introducing regulations when they're needed, and repealing them when they're not. Never mind that there is absolutely no logical reason why the two decisions should be related. And never mind that this is ludicrously difficult to put into practice: is it one line of regulation in, one line out? One statutory instrument in, one out? And can you get around it by scrapping some archaic rule about who can graze their goats on Westminster Bridge that nobody even knew existed? When the policy was first introduced I even heard officials joking about whether it would be 'one letter in, one letter out', leaving them scrabbling around for more concise ways of saying the same things.

As far as I can tell, Whitehall seems to have spent the first six months or so of the new parliament desperately trying to find ways to make this self-evidently nonsensical policy slightly less nonsensical. Essentially, what they have come up with is this. Every time a department wants to introduce a regulation, it has to be accompanied by an impact assessment, estimating the additional burden it imposes on businesses. This then goes to the 'Regulatory Policy Committee', and from there onwards and upwards to the 'Reducing Regulation Committee', as explained in this helpful flowchart (you really couldn't make this shit up). If approved, the regulation has to be accompanied by an equivalent 'out': in other words, the removal of requirements that add up to an equivalent cost 'burden'.

And this bureaucratic process is entirely based on the numbers in the impact assessment, with no room for common sense. So if a regulation adds short-term costs but produces intangible, difficult to measure long-term economic benefits (say, by helping tackle climate change) - nope, it's still an 'in', and if you want to do it you're just going to have to find an 'out'. Sadly, this is far from hypothetical. I've seen it in my day job - this is dominating every decision departments take, hampering effective measures on climate change and many other things. The press release that first announced the system did at least say there would be an exception for regulation to tackle systemic financial risk. But even this grain of sanity seems to have sunk without trace; there's certainly no mention of it anywhere in the government's guide to one-in, one-out. This is not proportionate regulation - this is government by hokey cokey.

Astonishingly, this seems to have been the compromise position in coalition negotiations: the Conservative manifesto said:

"A Conservative government will introduce regulatory budgets: forcing any government body wanting to introduce a new regulation to reduce regulation elsewhere by a greater amount"

while the Lib Dem manifesto said it would:

"reduce the burden of unnecessary red tape... using ‘sunset clauses’ to ensure the need for a regulation is regularly reviewed, and working towards the principle of ‘one in, one out’ for new rules".

I must admit I was surprised to discover this when researching this post: I'd always thought it was a Tory policy. I am hugely disappointed that the Lib Dems have gone in for this bullshit, but then, I suppose they never thought they'd have to implement it.

Anyway. To the point of this post: I think this is as much proof as any campaigner needs that the cuts are ideological and not a 'tough but necessary' response to the deficit - and here's why. The way I see it, there are two main ways governments can do stuff. They can spend their money and do stuff themselves. Or they can pass laws and make other people do stuff. This government has made it a fundamental principle to do both of these things as little as humanly possible. And that, right there, is your libertarian small state (or 'big society', or whatever the latest euphemistic bullshit term for it is).

One-in, one-out is a farce. Everyone secretly knows it's a farce, right down to the civil service and at least some government ministers. Not only that, it's a dangerous farce. In a week where the government has U-turned on forests and housing benefit, is it too forlorn for me to hope that if it's exposed publicly as a farce, we might be able to force a rethink? Probably, but I still think it's a story that needs to be told.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Are companies moral beings?

Excellent quote from Vodafone on Saturday, explaining why they shut down their Egyptian mobile phone network on Mubarak's orders: “We didn't have any option as the government was within its rights under emergency powers that it invoked after the outbreak of demonstrations.”

Great stuff, Vodafone – interesting use of the phrase 'within its rights', there, I thought. I had a brief vision of somebody standing in the dock at Nuremberg saying, “I didn't have any option as the government was within its rights under emergency powers that it invoked after the Reichstag Fire.” Now, of course I'm not equating cutting off someone's mobile phone supply with complicity in genocide. The point of that slightly dubious comparison is that when an authoritarian government gives itself arbitrary and unjust 'rights', in a move that will clearly be regarded by history as illegitimate, the mere existence of those rights doesn't begin and end the question of whether you were justified in complying.

We don't expect individuals to roll over and comply with unjust orders from despotic regimes. We don't automatically exonerate those who were complicit in atrocities or acts of oppression simply because they were acting within the law. Being told to do something by a government, however illegitimate that government may be, is not a moral defence.

But for companies, it almost seems that the opposite is true. Sure, public opinion makes the distinction between what's acceptable corporate behaviour and what is legally permitted (eg tax dodging) or legally demanded (eg Yahoo giving the Chinese government information about dissidents). But there's a strong school of thought that doesn't make this distinction – as Milton Friedman famously put it, 'the business of business is business', and anything else is irrelevant.

And that school of thought still seems to be the one that holds sway in UK and US corporate governance frameworks. Much has been made of recent changes to UK law which require directors to 'have regard' to factors like their social and environmental impacts. But these changes are based on the notion of 'enlightened shareholder value'. In a nutshell, they encourage companies to think about their wider impacts on the basis that these wider impacts may ultimately affect their bottom line. It's progress, but it doesn't change the basic principle that anything which doesn't affect their bottom line is not truly their concern.

At a seminar I attended for work recently, someone suggested that the role of the law in relation to legal persons (like companies) should be to replace the role of virtue for natural persons (ie. individuals). Yet in some ways the law seems to have the opposite effect: companies exist to make a profit, and have no obligations to anyone but their shareholders. Investors exist to make money for their underlying owners, and will often loudly proclaim that their 'fiduciary duty' to do so absolutely prevents them from considering the rights and wrongs of what they're doing. The law not only doesn't require them to be virtuous: it actively reassures them that being virtuous is none of their business.

This is especially worrying when you think about the lessons of social psychology: people feel less responsible for their actions when they're cogs in a huge machine. It makes even less sense to rely on the 'virtue' of individuals within big organisations to make them do the right thing than it does for individuals acting on their own behalf. If we refuse to attach moral responsibility to those organisations, there's a danger we're left with a moral vacuum.

So what's the answer? How can moral responsibility be transferred from individuals to massive legal entities? I have a vague feeling I might be indulging in some slightly woolly thinking here, although I can't quite pin down how, so feel free to rip this to bits in the comments...

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The cuts have been with us a while, and we shouldn't forget it

Last week, I joined the Justice for All campaign against legal aid cuts. You should too. In a nutshell, the government is proposing to drastically restrict the people and cases that qualify for legal aid, with potentially disastrous consequences for access to justice for the poorest and most vulnerable groups: welfare recipients, people in debt, low paid workers contesting unfair dismissal, asylum seekers and refugees, and so on.

In fact, I couldn't put the case against cuts to legal aid much better than this blog on Left Foot Forward today by the Shadow Justice Minister, Andy Slaughter. I find this quite ironic, because one of the reasons I'm interested in legal aid cuts is that I spent quite a lot of time in my last job challenging legal aid cuts being imposed by, um, the last government. That would be the government that reintroduced means testing for Crown Court legal aid (with painfully stringent thresholds that left people of well below average income being expected to contribute to their own defence), and that proposed to scrap free advice to prisoners about the legality of their treatment. The demand for euphemistically named 'efficiency savings' from the Ministry of Justice is nothing new. And, as one of the biggest-ticket items of expenditure, legal aid's position on the chopping block is nothing new either.

Of course, what is new is the scale and ferocity of the proposed cuts. Tentative salami-slicing seems to have been replaced by taking a massive hacksaw to the entire edifice. Where one round of proposals in 2009 amounted to cuts of £23m, the package currently out to consultation plans to cut £350m by 2014-15. In fact, in some ways, I have a newfound respect for the MoJ as it was then: what looked to us at the time like petty and mean-spirited reforms that would barely save a bean now looks more like a department under huge pressure to make cuts, desperately trying to do so by shaving off a bit here and a bit there without slashing services for the most vulnerable. Now, it seems, services for the most vulnerable are the first to go. The axe is cheerfully being taken to legal aid as part and parcel of the war on benefits, and the idea that access to justice is a citizen's right seems to cut about as much ice as the rest of the welfare state.

Nonetheless, the fact remains that a lot of the brilliant organisations behind Justice for All – Citizens Advice Bureaux, Justice, Advice UK – were raising the alarm about legal advice reforms well before this government came to power. Nobody else gave a monkey's: after all, it's not exactly a sexy issue. Now, though, they are beginning to succeed in mobilising a mass movement in defence of legal aid – because now, it can be positioned as 'a cut'.

In itself, this is obviously fine. Anything that helps mobilise dissent against injustice is all to the good, and if that's a silver lining to the present situation, then hooray – God knows there are precious few. But I sometimes feel that the anti-cuts movement is a bit too ready to collude with the myth that all cuts began life on May 6, 2010. “Yes, Labour also planned to cut the deficit, but it wouldn't have done it till the economy had recovered”, etc. As far as I can see, this is just not true. Admittedly, my experience of the previous government is limited to the MoJ. But let's take that as a case study.

From 2008-2010, the MoJ was not just talking about cuts: it was very definitely cutting. £1bn over the next spending period, to be precise. So, to be clear, around half of the cuts being planned by the current government were happening anyway. Not just legal aid: courts were closing left right and centre; the probation service was being subjected to cuts of 20% (around the level of cuts the department as a whole is now being asked to make); officials admitted that they had gone as far as they could go with 'efficiency', and that any claims that further cuts could be made without affecting frontline services were disingenuous. In shadowing the department, budget cuts were consistently one of the major issues we dealt with.

It suits the Tories to ignore this, because they can blame the cuts on Labour's 'profligate public spending' and 'Whitehall waste'. It suits Labour to ignore it, because it means they can quietly deny responsibility and position themselves as the party of the anti-cuts movement. But it doesn't suit the rest of us. The argument against cuts is surely even stronger once you realise how much services were already being squeezed before 'cuts' became a household word. Maybe this is just one more area where grassroots movements need to reclaim the narrative and expose the political consensus for what it is: a convenient untruth.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Misogynistic quote of the week

So, the cover story in Guardian Weekend yesterday (yes, I am that desperately middle class) was an interview with Laura Hall, who apparently 'became the poster-girl for Booze Britain' after getting an alcohol asbo last year.

Having missed that vital bit of news myself, reading this feature over breakfast was really just a way to haul my sleepy brain into the land of the living via a nice cup of tea. But it did yield a good hit of righteous indignation (which, after all, is what your average Guardian reader is going for on a Saturday morning) when I got to this little gem:

“Last year district judge Bruce Morgan said of her 29 drink-fuelled convictions: 'I don't think I have seen a more deplorable record … A female with a record like this – it's absolutely despicable and represents all that is rotten in society nowadays.'”

I'm sorry? I mean, I know your stereotypical judge is a crusty old dinosaur who thinks it's ok to say things like this, but seriously? The quiet misogyny of it was just breathtaking: the idea that violent alcohol abuse might somehow be acceptable from thrusting young men, but when a 'female' starts doing it – not even a woman, mind, but a female – well, then clearly something is very wrong indeed and she should probably be burned as a witch. And these are the people in charge of administering justice in this country! Sigh.

Incidentally, the fact that the journalist was quite happy to blithely quote this remark and move on without further comment really does make me wonder. Apparently, he (or his editors, I suppose) figured we'd all be more interested in gasping at how many pints she could down over lunch, so the article ended up reinforcing those prejudices rather than challenging them. I mean, yes, I get that it was a personal profile and not a piece of political commentary. But you'd think that with 3,000 words to play with on this supposed symbol of 'ladette culture', they could have found just a bit of space to ask why she's achieved such notoriety basically for being female whilst in charge of an alcohol problem.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

In the fight against discrimination, we have to start with ourselves

Today, I did something I never thought I'd do.

I was on the tube coming back from a meeting, at around lunchtime. It was busy – I'd managed to nab the last seat in the carriage – but not packed. Having exhausted the reading potential of the adverts on the opposite wall, my eyes wandered and fell on a man sitting opposite me, of Arab appearance, wearing traditional religious dress and a large, bulky jacket. He was clutching some kind of satchel to his chest and had – or was it my imagination? - a look of concentration on his face.

I started to feel a sense of rising panic, half-expecting the carriage to explode around me at any second. I knew it was ridiculous and I hated myself for it, but there was a tiny part of me that insistently kept saying, 'Yes, but do you really want to bet your life on that?'

I got off at the next stop and waited for another train.

I am now suitably ashamed of myself and would dearly love to forget this ever happened. It's certainly against my better judgement to broadcast it to the internets. Better, surely, to dismiss it as the result of a brain addled by tiredness, poorliness and too much stress.

The main reason I'm not doing that is a conversation I had last week at the choir I sing in. We were discussing a new song that had been written for us to sing on Conscientious Objectors Day, a nice uplifting tune about fighting for peace and resisting hate and bigotry. Some people weren't happy with a line that referred to 'the lies and the distortions / that keep us in our blinkers'. They said they were fed up of self-flagellation: we weren't the blinkered ones, otherwise we wouldn't be singing the song in the first place. They asked if the wording could be changed.

While I wasn't completely convinced, I understood where they were coming from – white middle-class guilt doesn't help anybody – and I didn't give it much further thought. Until today.

This experience has forcefully reminded me of the lessons of social psychology, from the classic experiments of Stanley Milgram to this eye-opening test (which I'd really encourage anyone reading this to take). We are all blinkered. We all make unconscious judgements and hold unconscious prejudices. We all do things that are wildly inconsistent with our better-considered beliefs, things that, if we were surveyed in the abstract, we would confidently assert we'd never do. Judging by appearances, stereotyping, internalising what the media tell us, blindly following authority – these are all things that seem to be hard-wired into our brains.

This isn't a counsel of despair: I do believe that we can and should fight these tendencies. But we can only fight them if we're aware of them. We can only end discrimination if we accept that we're not immune from it. It's not good enough to complacently assume that we're somehow better, that bigotry and closed-mindedness are for other people, less well-informed or less caring than ourselves. Nobody thinks they're a bigot, just as nobody thinks they'd administer lethal electric shocks to a stranger just because a man in a white coat told them to. Maybe you wouldn't; maybe I wouldn't. I've always hoped I wouldn't, ever since I found out about Milgram's experiment. But after today, I'm that little bit less sure.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Mark Kennedy story just confirms what we knew all along

Nearly two years on from the furore over the G20 protests, what many long suspected has finally been confirmed: the police are infiltrating the climate movement. Most of what I'd want to say about the unfolding saga of undercover cop Mark Kennedy is summed up by this very good piece in the New Internationalist, written by Danny Chivers, one of the defendants at the Ratcliffe trial. But, as someone who spent a lot of time in my old job trying to highlight the police's unacceptable attitude to the environmental movement, here for what it's worth is my two pence...

Firstly, this really does expose the emptiness of the Met's justifications for its aggressive approach to Climate Camp. Back in 2009, days before the G20, I was involved in organising last-minute talks in parliament between the camp legal team and the Met. Then, as in previous years, the police put heavy emphasis on how problematic the camp's secretive approach was: how it forced them to over-react because they didn't know what protesters were going to do and so had to assume a worst-case scenario. We now know, of course, that this was utter bollocks: they knew exactly what Climate Camp were planning, every step of the way, because they had a deep mole in the movement right from the start.

Secondly, it's very interesting that information about the shadowy National Public Order Intelligence Unit is finally, slowly, coming to light. Together with some brilliantly tenacious and committed journalists from the Guardian, I spent a while trying to dig up information about what this body was actually spending its money on. The government always said they couldn't tell us - although it turns out this was also technically bollocks, since they seem to have been quite happy to tell someone else who asked the same question a few months later. And since they're under the auspices of ACPO, the NPOIU isn't subject to FOI (yet) – along with the National Domestic Extremism Team and National Extremism Tactical Co-ordination Unit, which seem to classify climate campaigners right up there with Al-Qaeda in terms of worthiness of their attentions. Now, at last, information is trickling into the public domain – confirming everyone's long-held suspicions about the amount of money the police are throwing at spying on protesters.

On which note, I think the Guardian deserves an awful lot of credit for plugging away at this issue when nobody else gave two shits. If it weren't for Paul Lewis' determination, we'd never have found out what really happened to Ian Tomlinson. Two years later, he, Matthew Taylor and Rob Evans are still on the case. This is real investigative journalism, a hugely important public service, and full credit to the Guardian for giving them free rein to do it.

At the other end of the media scale, the wooden spoon goes to the Evening Standard, which duly devoted Thursday's front page to what seems to be the Met's public relations backlash: video footage of a student protester apparently running with a petrol bomb, along with hysterical copy about how many yobs they've arrested so far in 'Operation Malone'. Apparently, it's going to be a hugely long and expensive process ploughing through all those thousands of hours of CCTV footage. In the spirit of public sector efficiency, maybe while they're at it they can keep an eye out for number-less policemen bashing kids over the head with sticks? Just a thought.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Why the Telegraph's hubris is bad for British politics

Over Christmas I tried to avoid looking at newspapers as far as possible, feeling I needed a break from the unremitting hideousness of it all. Generally this succeeded quite well - the one exception being the morning I wandered bleary-eyed into the kitchen and was ambushed by the Guardian informing me that Vince Cable had been subjected to Death by Telegraph.

This is the latest in a string of dubious political character assassinations by the Daily Telegraph, and their seeming ability to radically change the course of British politics by engineering 'scandals' is starting to bother me.

With the expenses scandal, at least they were publishing information that was of legitimate public interest – although I never found their constant boasting about what a brilliant public service they were doing all that convincing. The public interest would have surely been better served by making everything they knew public up front. Selectively drip-feeding it over the course of several agonising weeks did a pretty good impression of serving, um, the Telegraph's interests.

Worse than that, they seemed to target MPs based on how much they loathed them rather than the gravity of what they'd done. The Tories, despite being many of the worst offenders, seemed to get off astonishingly lightly, with the bizarre result that come the election, people actually seemed to be voting Tory as a protest against the expenses scandal. Towards the end, the Telegraph really started scraping the barrel – I remember one MP being 'exposed' claiming for bananas, and the local opposition protesting outside his office in banana outfits, regardless of the fact that they turned out to be his intern's lunch expenses. It was at roughly this point that I started to feel like I was in The Thick of It.

Anyway. Fast forward to just after the general election, when the Telegraph apparently decided to take down David Laws. Again, arguably over something of legitimate public interest, but outing someone in that way is not really the classiest of moves. And, thanks to the Telegraph, we now have a Chief Secretary to the Treasury appointed on the basis of party seniority rather than, you know, relevant knowledge and experience. From a public interest perspective, not exactly an open and shut case.

And now Vince. To me, this was not investigative journalism, and it was not the behaviour of a media outlet defending the public interest. They weren't nobly digging to uncover some outrage or misdemeanour. It was a fishing expedition. It's a fairly safe bet that if you lie your way into an MP's surgery by posing as constituency activists and ask a few well-directed questions, they are going to say something scandal-mongers can work with. And that's clearly what they were banking on. Because, let's be honest, they just don't like Vince Cable.

Personally, I have a problem with that. Whatever you think of Vince, his diminished political stature has real implications for what is clearly quite a delicate balance of power within the coalition, at a truly terrifying time in British politics. The Telegraph did that. Just for a laugh. And, if I was trying to systematically undermine any moderating influence the Lib Dems might have on government policy, this is exactly how I'd go about it.

Yes, they got their fingers burned – getting responsibility for the BSkyB takeover handed to Jeremy Hunt was clearly a spectacular own goal. And I really hope they'll be chastened by that experience, because this was a real act of hubris: it's as if they feel they can just take politicians out on a whim whenever they feel like it. The very fact that this particular episode ended up having consequences they didn't intend just highlights the cavalier attitude they must have had to the consequences when embarking on the sting in the first place.

Many and varied as the reasons to hate Rupert Murdoch are, I'm not aware of any media outlet other than the Telegraph trying to interfere in politics in such a brazen way, and succeeding so well. Maybe the public's anger about media megalomaniacs needs to be spread around a bit more?