Saturday, 17 June 2017

Horror, Shock, Grief, Anger and Shame!

We still don’t know how many people died at Grenfell Tower and probably won’t for some time. It will certainly be dozens and dozens.  I have thought about them, the horrific way that they died and the grief of their families and friends every day since the tragedy. Sadly, adding to the distress of family members, the identification of the victims may not even be possible in some cases.

The government has announced a public enquiry and said that the terms of reference will be agreed with input from local people. But public enquiries can take years to report and so I feel justified in pre-empting the lengthy public enquiry process and expressing my opinion about the causes of this multi-fatality fire, based on what has been revealed so far by the press and the media.

It seems clear to me that this was a completely avoidable disaster and like some of the local residents I’m angry! 

The following BBC newsnight video analyses how the fire that caused this disaster developed and why it spread so quickly. At 2 min 55 seconds a fire in France shows how this happens.



The person or persons who, in the recent refurbishment, proposed to use cladding material with a flammable polyethylene central layer that would melt and de-laminate with heat, exposing the full surface of the core to the flames, is or are criminally responsible. As David Lammy MP suggests charges of corporate manslaughter may be appropriate.

For £2 per square metre more, or about £5,000 for the whole block, in the context of an £8.6 million refurbishment, panels with non-combustible cores could have been used and many lives saved.  Ian Abley comments intelligently on the background technical details

Ronnie King
Ronnie King, Honorary Secretary of the parliamentary All Party Fire Safety and Rescue Group, interviewed here by the Guardian, recounts his frustration when confronted by the inaction of government ministers concerning a review of fire regulations. Four ministers were warned that the risk was urgent and action needed to be taken.

In an earlier BBC interview he described how the use of double glazed PVC windows, the frames of which melt in a fire, allows fires to spread from one flat to another via the building exterior. He also gave the costs for retro-fitting sprinklers in existing high-rise blocks.

The next level of responsibility lies with whoever agreed to this proposal, whether it was one person or a committee. Who did what and their level of knowledge will be established by the public enquiry and the criminal investigation just opened by the Metropolitan Police.

one of several fires in Dubai
Then there is the responsibility of a series of government ministers including Liberal Democrat MP's Steven Williams and Brandon Lewis; Conservative MP's James Wharton and Gavin Barwell; and Communities and Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles, who by their inaction delayed the updating and tightening of fire safety standards. They ignored the numerous reports, and expert recommendations, which warned of the hazards of some cladding systems, as well as ignoring UK fires and international fires in tower blocks, notably in Dubai, that graphically demonstrated the hazards. 

Lakanal House
Sajid Javid who as Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills enacted the policy of "Cutting Red Tape”, also has responsibility for creating an atmosphere of reluctance to agree to changes to regulations. Under this arbitrary political doctrine, promoted by the Cabinet Office, to get one new regulation approved, two others must be removed. This has subsequently been changed to three. To class building regulations relating to fire safety as "Red Tape" shows where we are with government attitudes to human life!

Together ministers effectively blocked all attempts to revise fire regulations.  They have also shelved, for the last four years, a detailed Coroner’s inquest report on the Lakanal House fire in Southwark in which six people died. Such a policy and attitude from the centre of government has prevented the review and updating of building regulations applying to fire safety. 

Recently on the government's website ministers congratulated themselves for reducing the duration and thoroughness of fire inspections.

These ministers will probably escape criminal liability, but they are just as responsible as those more closely involved. They should be publicly shamed and not be allowed to sleep soundly in their beds. It would be too much to hope that they might feel guilt or remorse, because they will almost certainly justify and rationalize their actions in some way. The Nuremberg defence “we were just following orders” leads you back to the policies promoted by successive Prime Ministers and the cabinet which put people's lives below business interests.

Westminster politicians have lost sight of their duty to protect people in favour of political dogma and doctrine. The UK used to be a progressive country, that since 1974 led the way with Health and Safety, but not anymore. In 2012 Cameron announced that he was committed to killing off the Health and Safety culture. Killing off not revising or reforming! Such foolish and dangerous political claptrap deserves, like Cameron himself, to be confined to the dustbin of history! He and his family should try living in a "refurbished" tower block with flammable cladding, PVC windows, no sprinkler system and only one staircase. In fact I challenge him to spend a single night on the top floor of such a building!

I end up being ashamed to be English!* 

To consider fire safety regulations as “red tape” is outrageously insulting to the families who have lost loved ones! People should not have to die to demonstrate that ignoring expert professional advice to change building regulations relating to fire resistance is criminally irresponsible!

There are systemic failures of government here which I hope the Public Enquiry will point out. There's clearly a case for taking regulation relating to fire safety out of the hands of ministers, who have failed the public, and placing it with an independent agency.

I fear for the forthcoming bonfire of EU generated regulations that currently protect us and the environment from the ravages of political dogma, financial and business interests.

*(I say English and not British since Scotland has had regulations since circa 2000 requiring external cladding used above 18 metres either to be completely non-combustible or to meet the requirements of BR 135 - 2003).


Wednesday, 14 June 2017

“Oh Jeremy Corbyn”


After a spectacularly bad campaign Theresa May is endeavouring to cling on to her post with the support of a minority party from Northern Ireland, the DUP (Democratic Unionist party). The ten MP’s of this party of creationists, climate change deniers and anti-abortionists, which will block the passing of the law on same sex marriages, will keep her in office until there’s a rebellion on her back benches over something important, probably the terms of brexit. 

Our French friends can’t understand why she’s still there. I explained that at the moment all the alternatives are either worse or non-existent.  Just imagine Boris the liar as Prime Minister!  

Personally, I’m appalled that Michael Gove, the other member of the brexit £350-million-a-week lying duo, has been brought back. He’s trying to sound reasonable in radio interviews these days, but I will not forgive him or forget what Ken Clarke said about him when he stated that in a discussion about Syria he was wild, and if he was ever Prime Minister he'd probably start a war with three countries at once. I’m also concerned that he’s not likely to prioritize climate change in his portfolio, this article by Matthew Taylor quotes Ed Davey as saying that we should be very worried by this appointment.

"Ed Davey, the energy and climate change secretary at the time, said anyone who cared about the environment should be “deeply worried” by Gove’s appointment." 
“I didn’t think it could get any worse but putting Michael Gove in charge of the environment is like putting the fox in charge of the hen house. It’s bad news.”

I never thought that I’d say this but it’s a shame that Jeremy Corbyn didn’t win the largest number of seats. After such a personally successful campaign he could have commanded a progressive alliance which would not have to climb down from the hard brexit position that Theresa May has created with her own right wing. He now even has his own “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn” chant spontaneously created by his supporters.  


  
And he’s enjoying his new level of support in the House of Commons!


But such a small majority for Theresa May is, I suppose, the good news because she will have to be more inclusive and consultative. Good bye to Maybot, the imperious control freak parroting untrue slogans written by Lynton Crosby, hello to the listening leader!  There are already signs of change with the possibility being floated of a cross party brexit committee  including representatives of the devolved governments.

In terms of the brexit negotiations, however much one might dislike many of their policies, the DUP has a strong interest in steering Theresa May away from hard borders and a hard brexit. They want to maintain an open border with the Irish Republic, and they also want to put the economy and jobs first! So limiting immigration would be downgraded from being a non-negotiable primary policy driver in favour of free EU market access. 

That starts to sound more like the Labour manifesto!

Thursday, 1 June 2017

Thoughts from the North - Politics of course!


Sunday, 28 May 2017

Hi Michael,
I expect that you’ve been keeping up to date with the latest from Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn. 
With the most recent polls showing a greatly reduced lead for the Tories I feel that my blogpiece,  written last Monday, is at least partially supported by the current direction of opinion.

I’m concerned that Theresa May, as well as being weaker than she makes out, is scared of the Daily Mail, and the Tory right wing, and will tend to follow right wing ideology. If she does get elected, with a bigger majority, then a strong opposition is essential to call her to account!

So far at least, Jeremy Corbyn has had a good run in this campaign and seems to be better prepared than the Tories. Sometimes his arguments verge on being too subtle for the knockabout, sound-bite, Post-Truth, politics of today, but on the whole he’s doing quite well. I particularly like the fact that he’s not pre-announcing an immigration cap without relation to the needs of the economy. 

It’s very different from when he first took office as leader of the Labour Party and I wonder whether he’s found an appetite for the job and is learning how to lead.  I really begin to think that he would deliver a more pragmatic Brexit than the Tories, more in line with what I‘m hoping for than the hard brexit that we appear to be heading towards under Theresa May.  

As I’ve said before in an earlier blog, compared to the rest of the EU, the UK is in a weak negotiating position, and should be seeking to build co-operative relationships with other European leaders. So far all May’s achieved is various provocations guaranteed to get their backs up against the UK.

Your thoughts from the North will, as always, be greatly appreciated.

John

Mon, 29 May 2017

Hi John,
Yes, I am keeping fully up to date with the election campaign.

Theresa May has been disappointing recently on a number of fronts:

Nick Timothy
Fiona Hill
The dementia tax was an unnecessary own-goal, a direct result of her secretive style. If the press is to be believed (!) the dementia tax was put into the manifesto at the last minute by Nick Timothy with little if any external scrutiny. Both Lynton Crosby and Fiona Hill were against it. The sad thing is that Theresa May is at least trying to get a grip of a massive future problem, but got the detail wrong. It didn't need any detail at this point, just a
Lynton Crosby
commitment to a green paper based on Dilnot. Everyone would have been happy. She presumably felt unassailable and wanted to get a mandate for fundamental change to make things easier down the line.

Andrew Dilnot
Theresa May was then between a rock and a hard place when the cap was mentioned. Do a U-turn and include a cap in the green paper but risk being called weak and wobbly? Or stick to her guns and risk losing core voters in the south?  However, at the moment I think we have the right policy position.
The dementia tax issue suggests a complete lack of cabinet involvement and therefore accountability. A very high risk management style as we have just seen. This could be a disaster in the context of the Brexit negotiations. Hopefully she will realise that things will have to change.

Theresa May then denied that anything had changed after the cap was introduced. In a way it hasn't, as currently there is no specified level for the cap. But it has been seen as a massive U-turn, which must have the EU guys rubbing their hands and thinking that she will crumble under pressure. Because of her denial she has also been seen to be dishonest, I think.

I have watched Theresa May in a number of interviews and so far she has been probably the most evasive politician I can remember. I know it's part of the job, though. I also know that she has been trying to preserve secrecy on the Brexit stuff as far as possible, and you can't really blame her for that at this point.   
However, only time will tell what she is really like if she gets back into No10 with her own mandate. She may or may not be a true Red or Erdington Tory, as I hoped last summer (though at that time I didn't know those terms), and the cap, like the cap on immigration, may just be pragmatism to get in.  Once in power she may put some sensible red tory policies into practice. 
 
It's looking as if I may vote Lib Dem but I will see how the TV debates this week turn out. So far Theresa May has been a disappointment, as I say, and has a lot of work to do. She may be a great politician, just not very good at projecting a politician's persona. I think confronted by a TV audience she may get a lot of boos if she doesn't come clean on things!   
 
Then you think about Jeremy Corbyn. In spite of his age he hasn't even had a government job of any sort as far as I know. Would you get any ordinary job with that level of inexperience?
A là prochaine
M
Tue 30/05/2017

Hi Michael,
We agree about Theresa May. Your emphasized words in red say it all!  Theresa May is not only secretive but also seems to lack the sensitive antennae that one needs as a politician. If you don’t have them yourself, and you don’t consult your colleagues or advisers, you will run into trouble.  I think her secretiveness comes from a desire to be in total control and not delegate. A control freak in fact! I’ve always hated that type of personality! When you say “lack of cabinet involvement and therefore accountability” are you implying that if she takes some important decision herself without consultation she may have a revolt on her hands. Half the cabinet resigning or something like that! 

I’m concerned that Theresa May will take us down the hard brexit route because she’s scared of her vocal right wing and there’s no-one who dares to push back on behalf of the 48% remainers and those leavers who didn’t want to leave the single market. It all revolves around the question of immigration. The Tories make dishonest statements about limiting net immigration to tens of thousands when that would damage the NHS along with several labour intensive sectors like construction, agriculture, catering and care providers. At the same time it would reduce growth in the economy and the number of economically active tax payers who contribute to my pension. Jeremy Corbyn’s manifesto is realistic on immigration and if he isn’t capable of selling the fact that an artificial limit, not related to the country’s needs, is bad news for everyone then that’s a pity.

Erdington Tory? Does that mean a socialist brummie dressed in blue! So far if you discount what Theresa May says in the campaign and examine the policies that she has promoted before the election was announced I think she’s very right wing! Here is a detailed list comparing UKIP’s policy pronouncements with the actions or policies adopted by Theresa May’s government, the agreement is astonishing!

I’ve already voted Lib Dem by post; would your Lib Dem vote have any chance of success in your constituency?

I agree that Jeremy Corbyn has not impressed so far with his ability to get his party behind him and this may partly be due to lack of experience. When you’ve been an idealistic left winger all your life, remote from government, you can stick to your principles without risk of being called to account. He’s now going through that process, with his past statements and pacifism being scrutinized. So far he seems to be doing better than everyone expected.

As I’ve said before, I don’t agree with some of the dogmatic left wing stuff in the manifesto, but he won’t be able to pay for the industries that he has threatened to re-nationalize, so if he became Prime Minister that policy would have to be shelved. I do think, however, that he would make a better job of negotiating Brexit because he owes nothing to the Daily Mail or the UKIP wing of the Tory Party.  

I don’t worry at all about immigration, I am after all an immigrant myself.  So as I said before, it all comes down to immigration. If as a voter you really believe that the UK would be better off without migrant labour, then you should vote for Theresa May because she’s borrowed UKIP’s policies. Personally I think that the fear of immigration is artificially whipped up by the tabloids and has a whiff of racialism about it. Any argument implying that the pressure on schools and the NHS is due to  immigrants and not years of Tory austerity cuts is ill-founded. 

I thoroughly applaud Jeremy Corbyn’s resistance to setting an artificial cap on numbers just to get a few more votes.

A bientôt

John

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

"Strong and Stable" or "Weak and Wobbly"





The real Theresa May is starting to show herself.
  • ·         The budget U-turn on National Insurance.
  • ·         The U-turn on “no election”.
  • ·         The refusal to take part in any televised debates.
  • ·         The “private” campaign visits where the public, and on one occasion even the workers in their own building, were excluded in favour of invited Tory supporters.
  • ·         The lack of consultation on the dementia tax, the terms of paying for and recovering the costs of care in your own home, and the subsequent U-turn.
  • ·         Here are six other U-turns by Theresa May
She’s 14% ahead in the opinion polls (although that lead is narrowing) and yet she seems to be worried about adopting unpopular policies and defending her position publicly. Her tactics of keeping your cards close to your chest, in the form of the absence of adequate consultation and preparation (softening up by leaking and briefing in advance) have backfired.

Meanwhile she’s convinced both Labour and the Tories not to talk about the most important subject on the table, the terms of Brexit, saying that she doesn’t want to give away her negotiating position. There wouldn’t have been an election this early without the Brexit referendum and not to raise this “elephant in the room” is breathtakingly dishonest and cynical. It should be what this election is all about otherwise we risk being taken down the route dictated by the Tory right wing and the Daily Mail, who purely on ideological grounds, would prefer it if there was no agreement with the EU. Many Labour voters are switching to the Tories because they trust Theresa May to get the best deal rather than Jeremy Corbyn. I'm starting to think that trust is misplaced!


Repeating the “strong and stable” mantra won’t cut it anymore. She’s shown herself to be neither!

I’m sure that both the hard line Brexiteers and the EU negotiators are taking note.

Friday, 19 May 2017

Should you cost manifesto commitments?

There were two interesting interviews on the Today programme this morning. 

John McDonnell, Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, was talking about Labour’s manifesto and comparing it with the Tory’s and Ken Clarke MP was stating that in his opinion you shouldn’t cost manifesto commitments.

John McDonnell claimed that, in the Labour manifesto, all of their policy commitments had been fully costed so that the source of funding for each policy was shown in detail. He compared that with the Tory manifesto which doesn’t cost any policy commitments. 

In contrast, Ken Clarke said that it’s crazy to expect chancellors to refer to the last manifesto before taking decisions about spending and taxation. I can see his point, but effectively Ken Clarke, who is an experienced and wily old politician, was using one of the classic debating tricks that I was taught at school. You take a statement from the opponent and you extend the argument so that it begins to appear ridiculous, but you take care to ignore the original purpose of the opponent’s statement.

Clearly you can’t set out 4 or 5 years of budgets in a manifesto! But if Labour hadn’t costed their policies the Tories would say, “Look at all these spending commitments. Where is the money coming from?”  The political reality is that Labour is generally considered to be the tax and spend party, whilst the Tories are expected to be prudent with public finances, and are ideologically opposed to increasing spending.  So the Tories can get away with not costing anything while Labour can’t! But what if some Tory policies (ignoring brexit for a change) are detrimental to the economy?

Let’s take immigration.

The Tory manifesto on page 54, proposes to limit net migration to an undefined number "in the tens of thousands p.a."  This is the most recent in a series of such commitments that were also in the 2010 and 2015 manifestos, none of which have been adhered to. This commitment has also not been costedIn addition the Tories will double the Immigration Skills Charge on employers wishing to employ migrant workers to £2,000. Recent reports have, however, asserted that the UK needs about 200,000 migrants p.a. to maintain fiscal stability in the face of skills shortages and an ageing population. Furthermore, it's in danger of self-harm if the current number of migrants is artificially restricted.

Labour’s manifesto, on page 28 of the pdf, states that “working with businesses, trade unions and devolved governments to identify specific labour and skills shortages, they will put in place a system which regulates immigration in line with the UK’s economic needs”.

It’s clear which of these two policy approaches is likely to have the most simplistic appeal to voters and which is too subtle and reasonable to be easily absorbed and understood. But which is going to deliver what’s best for the UK economy?

I’m not a natural Labour voter but, in comparison with their recent chaotic leadership, their manifesto is a well thought out and well considered document. There are certainly things that I disagree with, like the re-nationalisation of several industries (which is not costed), but there are lots of other subjects where their policies are reasonable, more detailed and more sensible than those of their opponents.

If you are a life-long Labour voter, thinking of switching to the Tories, before giving Theresa May a landslide majority, and a blank cheque, perhaps you should first read the manifestos. The UK desperately needs a strong and stable opposition not a dictatorship!

Friday, 12 May 2017

England First!


This morning I listened to an interview on Radio 4's Today programme with Andrew Lilico, executive director of Europe Economics and Professor Ngaire Woods, dean of the Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford University. From their responses it was clear that they were on opposite sides with Lilico supporting "Leave" and Woods supporting "Remain".

Nevertheless, both agreed that there had been no trade deal negotiated between the EU and a non-EU country in less than 10 years and some had taken 14 years. Lilico considered that the fact that the EU and the UK were starting from a common position should shorten the time required, but in my opinion it's quite likely that the negotiation would start from zero (in terms of agreed items) and take just as long as a negotiation with any non-EU country would.

Both also agreed that, over the next 5 years, people in the UK will be worse off than at present due to rising prices for imported goods as a result of the fall in the value of sterling, stagnant wages and reduced or zero growth arising from reductions in investment and reductions in confidence affecting consumer spending.

When asked the direct question "will people in the UK be better off in 10 years time" the answer from both was more or less positive.

So the UK can expect about 10 years of low or zero growth, which would put it behind most of the countries of the EU. When compounded over 10 years, 2% growth annually is a 24% increase, and this is probably what the leading economies in the EU will achieve. Britain on the other hand will lose a major proportion of this growth, the effects of which will show in terms of unemployment, falling real incomes (after the effects of inflation on pay rises) and reduced tax income to the exchequer to fund public services.

Of course you could take the Gove position “Who needs experts?” But when opposite sides agree then perhaps one should take them seriously.

But I have a radical plan to replace this loss of revenue!

England First!

Britain spends about 60bn/yr on defence,  representing about 2% of GDP. Since we have decided to be more isolationist, to reduce our influence in the world and become a Norway or a Switzerland, why do we need an Army, Navy and Air Force? Especially, why do we need nuclear weapons and submarines?  Scrap all that and recycle the savings by spending them on public services and infrastructure. 

In addition, give Scotland and Northern Ireland independence, thus saving the money given to them under the Barnett Formula . While we’re thinking along these lines, in return for a financial settlement, we could also give the Falklands to Argentina, and Gibraltar to Spain. That should at least pay for the large warehouses and customs facilities that we'll need to avoid the 30 mile queues on Kent’s motorways which will result from leaving the Customs Union. It would also justify the decision to scrap the Navy.

This could be the key to a successful hard brexit. Assuming that there are no U-turns from Theresa May, everyone who voted “leave” to stop immigration will be happy. After all, there are hardly any “Pret a Manger” sandwich bars staffed by young Europeans North of Watford, so not many people would be inconvenienced, and there are plenty of people on zero hours contracts in different types of employment who would love to fill the full time, low paid jobs currently done by other European immigrants. 

Sovereignty would be well and truly returned to England, and there would be no need to waste two years on trying to negotiate with those very difficult Europeans. Even the Tory right wing, Nigel Farage and Paul Dacre of the Daily Mail would be likely to agree with this "England First!" approach.

Perhaps like Johnson and Gove I should buy a Battle Bus that I could use to promote the simplistic falsehoods (otherwise known as lies) associated with this plan. The £350 million per week lie worked for them and successfully duped a lot of people, why shouldn't a similar approach work for me!







Thursday, 4 May 2017

Less than two years to agree a divorce?

I’ve been impressed recently by Yannis Varoufakis who was the Greek Finance Minister and recently has established himself in the UK as a journalist, commentator and author.

He has recent and very relevant experience of dealing with the EU Commission and the leaders and ministers of EU governments when, two years ago, he was trying to find a solution to the Greek debt crisis.

His account of the negotiating tactics adopted against him by the EU is highly revealing and also depressing. Varoufakis describes the various methods used to delay and frustrate progress towards an agreement over the Greek bail-out. 

I think it’s quite reasonable to expect EU officials to follow the same path with Theresa May. The longer they delay, the more concessions they are likely to get from her, but also the more they are going to demonstrate to EU countries, with strong anti-EU elements, that leaving the EU is not a soft option and that you can’t have all the trade advantages, with none of the costs and disadvantages of membership.

There are 27 other countries in the EU so any inconvenient or painful economic results, following no agreement when the two year article 50 period expires, will be spread over all of them. In contrast the UK will bear the full costs and consequences of a failed negotiation. The fact is that the EU is holding all the best cards and is in a much stronger negotiating position than the UK. No amount of talking tough by Theresa May will help when, on the other side of the table, there are people holding all the aces who don’t even really care when the hand is played. 

For the EU delaying an agreement is a win–win situation. Among the EU officials there could even be an aspect of thinking that it’s better not to agree, than to agree something that will be criticized later.

If there’s no agreement the EU will say it’s due to Theresa May’s intransigence and the hard Brexiteers behind her will stand logic on its head and say that it’s a good outcome. 

Even without the punishment factor, when divorcing from the EU, it was never realistic to expect an agreement to be reached in two years.  Assuming that both sides are genuinely willing to negotiate, all negotiations take time because everyone has to have the opportunity to adjust their expectations down between meetings. In a negotiation of this breadth and complexity two years was never going to be enough. With this very short timescale all the pressure is on the UK and, unlike in the Greek/Euro crisis, there’s little reason for urgency on the other side.

Varoufakis’ suggestion is to change the terms of the whole thing by asking for an off the shelf “Norway Model” whilst the details are negotiated over say, seven years. He doesn’t really explain why this would be attractive to other EU countries, other than to say that pushing the decisions that far down the line would mean that the current set of EU Commissioners and government Ministers would be likely to be out of office, and therefore they would be more inclined to agree to a deal that their successors would have to see through.

But, even if this idea was sellable to the soon to be elected Tory government and its right wing, the Department for Exiting the European Union has unfortunately ruled out such an arrangement. In addition, EU Commission President Donald Tusk said, at the end of March, that any transitional deal cannot last longer than three years.

It looks like we’re heading for a hard Brexit!