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Saturday, 19 January 2013

Hove Lawns or Hove Shittery? How Green Is My Council?

It may be snowing, it may be windy, it may just be a cold day. But in my city of 250 000 people the 50 000 dogs (at a guess) have to shit somewhere. But not in their owners' kitchens or back gardens. No, they have to shit in public - on the pavements, in the parks, on the sea promenade, on the beach ...

A favourite place is Hove Lawns, a  grassed area parallel to the seafront. All day long, a procession of people attached to dogs make their way there. Some walk, many come in cars and park up in side streets. Often they are attached to two or three dogs - it's fashionable to have several.

Cross the road, take the dogs off the lead - and off they go to shit.

Hove Lawns is also an area where parents take their children and where outdoor Keep Fit classes are held. I wonder how many of the fitness people realise that doing their press ups they are pressing their faces into dog shit.

I guess Hove Lawns has served as a convenient shittery for decades. But there are no signs warning parents and exercisers that the soil is contaminated. That might start people thinking about the Council's priorities.

As for the notion that dog owners are conscientious shit pickers - well, some are and some aren't. And when it's snowing or raining or their dogs have diahorrea - well, they aren't.

It would be surprising if they were. When a handful of people keep dogs - shepherds, blind people, the police - they cause no problem and are an asset to society. When half the population feels that a dog is an essential life-style accessory, dog keeping becomes profoundly anti-social. And dog owners know it. They just don't care very much. Let the Council deal with the shit.

The legal ban on Smoking in enclosed public spaces has transformed the quality of daily life. It's the single most successful piece of Quality of Life legislation in my lifetime. Perhaps in a couple of decades, people will realise that their Quality of Life could also be improved by banning dogs from all public green spaces, parks, promenades and beaches. Pavements too?

But I don't think Brighton and Hove's "Green" Council will lead the way.

Thursday, 17 January 2013

The UK has already re - negotiated its relationship with Europe

The United Kingdom's Coalition government has already failed in respect of the major commitments it made when it was elected:  to bring down the annual Budget deficit and to bring down the level of Public Debt. It ain't gonna happen in the current Parliament (which lasts until 2015). So Prime Minister David Cameron needs to distract us. He's probably hoping that Argentina will invade the Falkland Islands again - though this time it's not so clear that we would have military superiority (to put it less politely: it's not so clear that we would win). Failing that, there is always Europe to attack.

But what is there left to attack? In the past fifteen years, the European Union for all its frustrating bureaucracy and waste (the absurd farrago of Two Parliaments, for example) has brought about two huge changes in the European economic and political landscape: the Schengen Area of border-free travel and the €urozone.

The UK opted out of both and in doing so uniquely distanced itself from the European Project. Ireland opted out of Schengen but joined the €urozone; Denmark and Sweden opted out of the €uro but signed up to Schengen. The UK is the only EU "member" to turn up its nose at both. It is already semi-detached from Europe - and as a result is losing business daily.

It doesn't help that the UK after dipping its toes also opted out of the Metric system and partially out of the Decimal system. It seems our school teachers couldn't get their heads round them. As a result, we are now unique among "Advanced" countries in having no coherent system of weights and measures. In nearly every shop, confusion now reigns. Litres and pints, kilos and pounds, meters and yards, decimals and fractions - they are all hopelessly jumbled.

Of course, that's not something Mr Cameron has to worry about. Someone does his shopping for him. Someone also writes his speeches for him and is right now busy re-drafting the Big Speech which now isn't going to be given tomorrow.

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Profiling - Not As Bad As Its Cracked Up

In recent years, I find myself a repeated beneficiary of Profiling. Over 60, and I was offered Bowel Cancer screening, free under the National Health Service. Over 65, an influenza jab. Over 65 and male, screening for Abdominal Aortic Aneurysm - I declined this one; Aneurysm could be a good way to die - well, at least it's fast. And the alternatives are either anxiety (if you end up being put on Watch) or invasive and risky surgery (I'd think twice about that anyway).

These and other health programmes when offered to large groups defined only by age and sex seek to achieve some kind of balance between cost and effectiveness and also to recognise that the programme  itself may create anxieties or risks.  It is for these reasons that they are not simply offered to everyone.

In other circumstances, I find myself wishing there was more Profiling. When I try to re-enter the United Kingdom after a trip abroad, it irritates me - perhaps excessively - that I have to wait while my passport is scanned to destruction. Even more so, when someone standing behind the Passport Examiner quizzes me on Where and Why and How Long? have I been away. None of your business, seems the appropriate response, though I don't give it.

Do I like look a drug courier? Do I look like a people trafficker? Do I look as if I am carrying a Bomb in the Boot of my not-quite new Skoda Octavia ? Do I look like an Afghan warlord travelling on a false British passport? Do I look like I belong to any of the currently Hot categories? No, I don't and you know it. So why don't you leave me alone? Just as I am left alone when I drive across every West European frontier except this one between France and England.

The reasoning seems to be simple. Profiling me Out of this tedious scanning and quizzing would mean that other people were being Profiled In. The UK Borders Agency would probably catch ninety percent of those they want to catch if they restricted their scanning and quizzing to "Males who look as if they are aged between 17 and 37". The rest of us could just be waved through.

There are two immediate objections, as far as I can see.

(1) Once word got around, all those 17 - 37 males would offload their drugs, bombs etc onto their grandads and their girlfriends. This is not an unreasonable fear. Drug dealers often try to find couriers who don't fit Profiling criteria.

(2) It's unfair to 17 to 37 year old males, making them all suffer for the minority among them who ... etc.

This is a more serious challenge but I think it's mistaken. If you are a young driver (say under 25 and until recently a male driver), then you pay higher premiums based on the statistical fact that you are significantly more likely to have a serious road accident. Indeed this is true: you could halve road accidents by keeping young men off the roads. (As a young man, I should most definitely have been kept off the road; I managed a head-on collision within three weeks of passing my Driving Test)

So every young driver pays for the fact that a minority of them will have accidents. That's not unfair. That's what Insurance is all about. By analogy, if you belong to a group which is High Risk for some kinds of crime, then unfortunately you have to put up with the consequence of being thus Profiled. It's simply the flip side of benevolent Profiling: I get offered Bowel Cancer Screening and you don't - you lucky 17 year old - because you are not in a high risk group.

There is a further objection:

(3) Profiling is frequently abused and becomes a vehicle through which prejudices are expressed, notably racial ones. In reality, males who look as if they are between 17 and 37 get pulled over because they are black. Only by eliminating Profiling can you prevent Stereotyping.

I think there must be a flaw in this argument. In a world of finite resources, Profiling is essential to the effective "delivery" (I don't like that word but I'll use it) of a wide range of "services" (ditto). Its misuse tends to discredit the whole idea, but the whole idea is actually a very sound one.

Monday, 7 January 2013

Why Are We In Union With Northern Ireland?

A civilised relationship requires two consenting partners - and the right to change one's mind.

People in Northern Ireland have several times been asked if they wish to remain in Union with Great Britain, but no one has ever asked those living in mainland Britain if they want to be in Union with Northern Ireland. This may well be because they would say "No".

I would say "No" if I was asked. I can't think of any good reason to go on subsidising this loss making subsidiary of Great Britain. I have never been there and I don't feel I have very much in common with the people who live there. As far as I can see, it would make much more sense for Northern Ireland to federate with the Republic of Ireland with which it shares a history, a lot of culture and an island.

Of course, I realise that the people in the Republic of Ireland may also not want the North. Right now, they are not in a position to take on a loss making subsidiary. They are no longer as conservative as they once were and they must surely hesitate to involve themselves with so many political and religious reactionaries.

Great Britain pays the price of its Imperial past in peculiar ways. Most importantly, the tail now wags the dog.

 If Argentina invades the Falklands again, then British taxpayers will have to fund an expensive war to retake them. They will have no choice in the matter, for sure. Only the Falklanders are asked whether they wish to remain British. Well, of course they do. We pay the bills -  the garrison we already maintain there is way beyond anything the few thousands Falklanders could afford.

And if the Peace process in Northern Ireland breaks down, it is mainland British politicians whose energies will be absorbed in trying to sort it out and mainland British taxpayers who will pay the bribes necessary to separate the feuding communities.

It was not ever thus. When Britain had its back to the wall in World War Two, Churchill did nothing when the Germans invaded that other offshore liability, the Channel Islands. They were left to their own devices. By and large, they got on well enough with the occupiers. It was a great period for local stamp collectors.

And it was Churchill who in 1940 authorised an offer to the Republic of Ireland which would have set up a joint body to begin  "at once to work out the practical and other constitutional details of the Union of Ireland" in exchange for Eire's immediate entry into the War on the allied side. (For full details, go to

Of course, Mr Cameron is not Mr Churchill.

Sunday, 6 January 2013

Motorway Service Stations - a Model for Universities?

This week, The Economist has a very good piece about UK motorway service stations (5th January 2013, "Serviceable", page 21). If you want to open one, government regulations require you to keep it open 24/7/365 (and 366 in Leap Years). This seems like commonsense: people are on the move 24/7/365 and if they are on a motorway journey, they will need to stop for petrol, food, drink and the loo - and the loos (says the government) must also be open 24/7/365 and  free of charge.

Of course, motorway service station workers don't work 24/7/365. Staff work rotas.

The other day, someone reminded me of a truth I used to know very well: at weekends, my local university campuses (there are two: Brighton, Sussex) are deserted and most of their services closed down. This ought to strike us as strange. Reading, writing, thinking, experimenting are 24/7/365 things. People's brains are on the move all the time. And since universities are supposed to be connected with - and supportive of  - brains on the move you would expect this to be reflected in their opening hours. Universities are places where the lights should burn long into the night and all through the weekend.

Instead, the lights are burning in Brighton & Hove, the large town (or small city) which neighbours the university campuses. The pubs, the clubs, the cafes, the restaurants, the shops - some are open almost 24/7/365 but especially at weekends when Brighton fills up with students and other visitors arriving (often in tens of thousands) to sample its weekend delights (basically music, alcohol, drugs and maybe some sex though probably the alcohol and drugs are incompatible with much of that).

The only people missing from the Brighton late night and weekend scene are the majority of University staff, teachers and administrators who are busy doing Middling England kind of things: decorating the house, going for walks, giving dinner parties.

Innocent enough but the overall effect is to routinise intellectual life into some nine to five Monday to Friday office schedule.

Students - whatever they may think they are doing - are already living the kind of On / Off life their Middling England parents live - there's just more Off to it.

Academics have settled for attending their committees and meeting their Research Output quotas rather than pursuing the life of the mind which was once (perhaps) the vocation associated with their salary.

The life of the mind can of course be a troubling thing. Even what's left of my mind can have me sitting here banging away at the keyboard from 8 34 to 9 05 on a Sunday morning - almost a definition of Off time. But then I was always a bit defiant.

But I have learnt to compromise; the computer will go to Off and I will  take a walk along the seafront.

Friday, 4 January 2013

Danny Alexander's New Year's Resolutions

I picked up a copy of the London magazine Prospect. They asked some people for their New Year's resolutions. Danny Alexander, MP and George Osborne's Liberal Democrat shadow at the UK Treasury, came up with this:
Fair tax will be the top of my agenda for the next 12 months - cracking down on avoidance, and continuing to help hard working families with their tax bills through 2013 and beyond
Well, it's not Shakespeare but it does show that the air in London switches off your brain.

For the past fifty years - no doubt longer - when the UK Treasury has drawn up the government of the day's  annual Budget, it has always made sure that whether taxes go Up or taxes go Down, there are some Loopholes supplied so that high net worth individuals (previously known as The Rich) can pay less than the headline rates suggest. Thanks to this long-term help from the UK Treasury, around twenty offshore jurisdictions with the Queen on their postage stamps have thrived on the money legitimately shifted to them to avoid UK taxes. In the Channel Islands, it's been such a nice big earner that local residents don't have to pay VAT. You could look at that as the UKs subsidy to the Islands.

I'm not sure how you can "crack down on avoidance" when it is a legal art form created by HM Treasury  and crafted to perfection by a whole industry of tax specialists.

Of course, you could set yourself the New Year's task of "cracking down on the loophole-creators at HM Treasury" or "stopping George from doing quite so many favours for his chums".

But you can't crack down on avoidance. On evasion, yes, you can do that. But we've always known that evasion is different; it's the kind of thing plumbers and taxi drivers do in default of having been given any  loopholes through which to slip their cash. Avoidance is for the rich, evasion for the poor.

Quite how Mr Alexander is going to "help hard working families with their tax bills" I really don't know. Is he going to stand on the corner of Parliament Square, cap in hand, telling anyone who cares to listen that a chap from Starbucks came by the other day and dropped in £10 million and perhaps you would like to follow suit?

Actually, for Mr Alexander, hardworkingfamilies is really one word, as it is for all members of our political class. He'd prefer you didn't think too hard about it and about why, for example, he isn't going to help you if you are merely hardworking and not soldered to a spouse, 2.4 children and 1.4 dogs. The answer might have less to do with "Fair tax" and more to do with "electoral politics".

Thursday, 3 January 2013

National Insurance for Babies

Suppose you are a baby in the womb. You don't know whose womb and you don't know what sort of baby you are. So you don't know if your mother is going to be cruel or kind (and the same for your father if one is about), nor do you know if your parents are rich or poor. And you don't know if you yourself are going to be born fit or handicapped, healthy or sickly.

The womb is your veil of ignorance, even though behind it you can think very clearly about your predicament. Not knowing if you are going to be a lucky or an unlucky baby, it makes sense to ask if you can get yourself some protection against the worst outcomes or, at least,  the impact of the worst outcomes on your future happiness and well-being.

You are almost certainly going to end up casting around for something bigger than your parents to provide you some protection and help, if the need arises. You need to know that if your parents are cruel - whether by intent or as the side effects of addiction, it doesn't matter - you will be removed to a place of safety. You need to know that if your parents can't or won't feed and clothe you and care for you, then something bigger than them will do it for you or at least nudge your parents into doing it themselves.  Finally, you need to know that if you need care for handicap or illness, then someone will provide it - and that in reality means, pay for it. At this stage, you aren't very fussed about whether you will go to school or go to a school which teaches phonics or ...

An unborn baby, behind a veil of ignorance, is pretty soon going to figure out that it needs a Government - it isn't going to be very picky about what precise kind of Government, just one that is willing to look after unlucky babies. And, remember, just so long as you are unborn you don't know if you are going to be one of the lucky ones or not.

Unfortunately, unborn babies have little say in how the Governments of the world are run - though many governments do give some support to unlucky babies. Some even seem to like babies.

If I was an unborn baby thinking this through, then I would hope for a Government which insisted that my birth be recorded and that I be given a name (a fairly modern  historical development, which helps prevent babies disappearing without trace). I would also hope for a Government which, at the same time as it recorded my birth,  issued me with a National Insurance number and a formal list of the forms of bad luck against which it was insuring me and for which it would pay out to sort out.

But who should pay for the National Insurance of a baby - or, let's extend it - a child under the age of sixteen?

Most of the time, it is from general taxation that the costs are covered. I think this is a very bad idea because it not only dilutes or effaces the notion of Insurance (which is specifically to do with protection against bad luck) but also removes the idea of accountability to the baby or child.

If a baby is enrolled in a National Insurance scheme from birth then either the state should pay the subscriptions until the child is fourteen or sixteen or eighteen (and discovers just how much the State has paid to keep it insured) or the child's parents should pay or both.

I prefer that both should pay contributions. I think this would reduce the incidence of feckless parenting - rather as stiff dog licence fees would reduce the incidence of feckless dog keeping. If people decide to have children then the social context should not allow them to think that other people are going to pay for them ha ha.

In addition,  I think that it's in general a good idea to take responsibility for our own lives (if we are fortunate enough to have the health and strength to do so), and so I  suggest that children conrtribute to the costs of their own Insurance.

When I was a child in Primary school, we were sold National Savings stamps with pictures of Royal children on them. We stuck them in books and the Government took our money  - on very favourable terms, I suspect, though the official idea was to encourage children in the habit of saving

Well, maybe when children start doing Saturday jobs they should start paying National Insurance and do it as something to be proud of, helping to insure themselves against those of life's misfortunes which can be handled in this practical kind of way.