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Thursday, 30 July 2015

Looking Back on the Lord Sewel Affair 2015.

There is so much News, we process it very fast, and we Move On. We never sleep on the News, as if it was a tricky problem we have to deal with but only after some reflection.

But if you do sometimes slow down, turn the News this way and that - a bit like a lawyer thinking how to present a case – the world sometime settles into a different pattern to that imposed on it by instant judgement.

Imagine you are the head of some large organisation. You pick up a copy of today’s newspaper and there is a photograph of a colleague – in fact, a senior colleague – snorting cocaine (or, at least, what he hopes is cocaine) through a rolled up banknote. How do you react? And what is the first thing you think to do?

I won’t prompt you with a list; just think about it.

Trying to answer my own question, the first thought which occurred to me was, Call him in to see me. And take it from there.

When Baroness d’Souza, Leader of the House of Lords, saw a photograph of her deputy, Lord Sewel, making unorthodox use of a banknote, her first reaction was to report him to the Metropolitan Police for a suspected criminal offence, possession of a Class A drug.

In France, they would call this a dénonciation and the French have always done a lot of denouncing.

The same is true at the Palace of Westminster. They are always on the phone to the Metropolitan Police. Go back to the 1960s and you can find the Home Secretary, Henry Brooke, calling the Met. and asking them to find some crime (any crime) that can be pinned on Dr Stephen Ward, a chap who was causing the Establishment a lot of trouble at the time. The Met. took up the challenge enthusiastically and eventually got a suicide as a solution to the problem. Nowadays, it may not be so straightforward - though I fear I am being over-optimistic.

London is the cocaine capital of Europe. Research organisations regularly test wastewater in dozens of European cities for cocaine residues which have been pissed out and in 2014 London was top (out of 42 cities). Unfortunately, researchers can’t tell us what contribution the sewers around Westminster make to the total score. You can double-check the wastewater results by swabbing banknotes – yes, all Londoners are carrying coked-up banknotes.

As a result, the Metropolitan Police would be overwhelmed if everyone who thought their neighbour was snorting behind the curtains phoned in to tell them. In fact, I guess it would come very close to wasting police time. I’m pretty sure the police do not want to know.

But when someone at the Palace of Westminster phones up, you have to want to know and the police duly raided Lord Sewel’s flat - with a battering ram, according to newspaper reports, and if so just to prove themselves willing to go the extra boot for the Baroness.

I churn it around and I find myself asking, What crime did not get investigated as a result of this police hyperactivity? * See footnote

I have never taken cocaine, not even to see what it must have felt like to those many Westminster politicians who “experimented” to see what it felt like to some previous “experimenter” and so on back through the centuries via British Prime Ministers and American Presidents. And of course, writers and artists galore.

But I have read that cocaine makes those men prone to loud opinions and general boorishness even more intolerable and watching the video of Lord Sewel I think I understand what was meant. He may have spoken many a true word but the tone is obnoxious.

I really don’t mind if people snort cocaine as long as they don’t do it just before they wave  me into their dentist’s chair or invest my savings or are about to decide whether to bomb a far away country.

Coke or no coke, it seems Lord Sewel was doing a good job running the semi-criminal organisation known as the House of Lords which is undoubtedly full of rogues and bastards (as he put it), albeit with an average age of 71. (Lord Sewel is 69). 

He was very near the top and he had introduced “reforms”. I doubt he would have done a better job if his tastes had inclined him to fox hunting rather than foxy ladies, though he might have had more friends to defend him when The Sun on Sunday attacked.

The foxy ladies brought out the Tricoteuses in the House of Lords who thought the whole thing was more about sex than drugs. But is it or should it be?

In my life time, politicians and police have moved away from the idea that they should take an interest in what people do in the privacy of their bedrooms. It was always a prurient interest and interventions were always tasteless. I recall taking part in a debate alongside the late Reverend Dr Ian Paisley. That was back in 1967. I was intrigued to hear him thunder against the Roman Catholic Church’s opposition to contraception. He treated it as (prurient) interference with what happened in the marital bed.

But the backing off has actually turned rather selective. There is considerable reticence around what gay men get up to in the privacy of their bedrooms (or dungeons), though some of it is terrifically baroque. I am not sure that The Sun on Sunday would have splashed its video if Lord S. had been engaged in a gay orgy. Such an action would have been condemned as homophobic.

There is much less reticence about what heterosexual people (aka, men) get up to, and it can be openly spoken about and condemned without risk. Normative standards for acceptable heterosexual activity have been very much in evidence the past week; things have not changed much since I was listening to Ian Paisley.

I could go on churning this around. Unfortunately, there is no need to. Lord Sewel has gone to the guillotine, voluntarily, and the House of Lords can go back to corrupt business as usual.

Added 21 August: I read in today's newspapers that the Metropolitan Police's clear up rate (solved cases) for burglaries now stands at a historic low of 6%

Added 22 September 2015: The Metropolitan Police has announced that it has dropped the enquiry into Lord Sewel's alleged drug taking due to "insufficient evidence". The truth is they never wanted the "case" in the first place and only put on a show to oblige Baroness d'Souza and the Press. 

Added 29 March 2016: I forgot to add that in December 2015 Baroness d'Souza was herself in trouble for some fairly exotic Expenses claims. She likes to keep a car parked outside whatever she is doing inside and this can and does run into three figures each time.

Monday, 27 July 2015

Is Britain Open for Business?

Not if the United Kingdom Borders Agency has its way.

This is the organisation which creates the queues when you try to enter or leave the UK. It also - rather surprisingly - controls the entry of goods into the country. It now does the job which Customs and Excise used to do. As a result, there are queues and I'm not the first person to remark upon them.

Recently, a large and well-known Swiss auction house, David Feldman, sent me a parcel of material I had successfully bid for in a Geneva auction and for which I had paid. It was fully documented, since this is what Swiss Customs requires, and as a result transited Swiss customs in 29 minutes - that's the kind of information which Swiss Post's online tracking data give you.

On the 5th of July the parcel arrived at Coventry Airport, a major "hub" for air freight, and was "Handed to Customs" - that is to say, the Borders Agency, at 17.27pm. It remained with them until 9.49 am on 22nd July when the "Handover to Domestic Sorting" occurred. That's over 16 days later. The handover entrusted Parcelforce with the task of collecting the 5% Import duty levied (correctly and fully expected) on the parcel plus their own fee for doing the work of Customs. On 25 July, after paying an extra fee for Saturday delivery, I got my parcel. Interestingly, it no longer had its accompanying documentation - it had been removed from the packet strapped to the package.

What does UKBA think it is doing? Does it think that delaying commercial freight for 16 days is acceptable? Why did it take Swiss Customs - not noted for laxness - 29 minutes and British UKBA-doing-the-job-of-Customs 16 days? Are they trying to beat the Existing World Record still held by the Soviet Union?

What was UKBA up to? Remember they got hold of this parcel on 5th July. In a letter dated 10th July they wrote to me asking me to provide documentation (the Invoice I had been emailed and against which I had paid for the goods) and an HMRC Import code - you can look that up on line nowadays - and to declare whether the import was a Trade or Private affair. Dire consequences were threatened for wrong answers. This letter I received on the 14th and replied by return of post, incidentally pointing out that the parcel would probably be documented with the information they required. My first class letter probably got to them on the 15th or, let's say, the 16th. It then took until the 22nd for them to digest it, work out the tax due and pass the parcel to Parcelforce.

Interestingly, while browsing online I discovered a report by John Vine, former Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, dealing with Border Force operations at Stansted Airport. Incidentally to his main themes, he remarks that goods held by Customs for examination at Stansted are not held in secure areas. That means that someone who has paid a shipper for secure handling of their parcel does not get it - and there is nothing the shipper can do about it since they have no control over UKBA activities. Whether they have secure storage at Coventry, I don't know.

What causes the kind of delay to which my parcel was subject? I doubt it's staff shortage. It might be lack of staff training. Most likely (and I am inferring this partly from John Vine's Stansted report) is lack of clear aims and methodology. It's the result of pulling out parcels in transit more or less at random and then not really knowing what to do with them. Except sit on them and send out the Usual Letters.

They must have a lot of storage space at Coventry if they are routinely delaying parcels for a fortnight or more. Storage space costs money and secure storage even more. Sending out piddling letters also costs. My guess is that the Treasury will see no income accruing from the Import Duty I paid. If UKBA achieved Swiss levels of efficiency, it surely would have.

I will be sending a copy of this to Sajid Javid, the UKs Business Secretary. He's the man who wants Britain to be Open for Business.

This becomes legible if you Click on Image to Magnify

Added 17 August 2015: And here is Mr Javid's Reply; click on Image to make it legible:

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Living Well, Indoors and Outdoors

Living well is about many things, of which I am going to mention only a few, and it is about indoors and outdoors. Chances are, if you don’t know how to live well indoors you won’t know how to do it outdoors and vice versa.

Living well indoors is about many things. A bit at random: Opening the windows to let in fresh air. Changing bedclothes regularly. Keeping up with cleaning surfaces and vacuuming carpets (or paying someone to do it for you). Picking things up and putting them away. Binning and bagging and taking out the bags to the bin (and making sure the lid on the bin is kept shut to keep out the landgulls and pigeons, the foxes and  rats). 

In other words, it’s about self-organisation and about treating your immediate environment as worthy of attention, just as you treat yourself as worthy of attention when you shower and dress in clean clothes.

Living well outdoors is about not fouling public spaces which you share with others. It’s about not dropping litter and not treating pavements and parks as dog lavatories. It’s about not making lots of noise except in places designed for lots of noise. It’s about getting your car serviced regularly so that it doesn’t belch more fumes than it has to. It’s about not smoking in shop doorways or bus shelters – and, ideally, not smoking in public at all.  Basically, it’s about not making places unpleasant for other people.

You may not think of what you are doing as unpleasant but it is, just as your indoors may satisfy you but makes other people feel they will catch something if they so much as sit down or makes them feel sick from the stench: occupational hazards for workers in the emergency services and social services who are exposed to close encounters with those living failing and chaotic lives.

I had these thoughts this morning, idly browsing through the online responses to a piece in The Guardian about an outdoor smoking ban. I just felt: here are hundreds of people who don’t know how to live well, outdoors or indoors. I could imagine their smell.

Friday, 17 July 2015

The Bureaucratisation of Everyday Life

I walked into my local cinema today to buy two film tickets in advance. It’s a municipal enterprise so they had a bit of a problem booting up the computer. But after a couple of minutes, Yes there are seats available and I put down the money (cash, eight quid – a municipal bargain I thought).

Then she asked for my name. Oh no. Here we go. “Jeremy Clarkson”. It’s tempting but I always flunk it. Then my address. At this point I put on my biggest smile and said, “No. I just want to buy two cinema tickets”.

“It’s in case the show is cancelled”. “I don’t mind. Let it be cancelled. I just want to buy two tickets”

She could have said “It’s so we can contact your next of kin when the place burns down”. It would have been more plausible.

Fortunately, at this point the municipal computer system crashed and I was issued with two handwritten apologies for tickets – and they still don’t have my address in their System. One up to me.

I hate this bureaucratisation of everyday transactions where you can’t just Shop and Go.

You go on line and have to give your life history before you can buy anything. Then you immediately get an email, “How was your online Experience today?” Then later you’ll get another one, “How do you rate your Satisfaction with your recent purchase?” and then maybe "People who bought what you bought also bought ..."

It’s a whole industry of fairly pointless effort which at best feeds into some sweaty Power Point presentation to some bored audience of Passionate People.

I don’t want people to be passionate about unblocking my drains. I just want them to unblock them. I will say Thank You nicely, probably tip (I have always tipped) and then close the door on that episode in my life.

Still less do I want some online business to be Passionate about selling me a pair of socks. I just want the socks. If they aren’t very good, I will probably bin them rather than send them back. Life is short.

Computers and online shopping have the potential to simplify our lives. But they are being used to complexify it and drag us into endless form filling and feedback. I don’t know how it can be reversed other than by Awkward Squad behaviour which finally gets the message through to the Power Points.

The best I can hope for, I suppose, is that market traders don’t get infected:

“Now, govn’r, how did you feel today about my banana selling? Did you get Customer Satisfaction? No, no – not from the bananas but from me, Guv : for the bananas themselves, you take this little form – see Guv – and tick one of these little boxes and next time you’re here we can Review your Satisfaction and add it to my Online profile. Best bananas, best banana selling - that's what I'm Passionate about, Guv”

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Benefits are not a Socialist Thing

Compassion is not the preserve of any one political ideology. Compassionate people do not make the same political choices. But they are likely to think Benefits a good thing because Benefits, like Charity, extend a hand to the unfortunate.

But it’s just because it is so like Charity that the distribution of Benefits as a major sector of government activity is not a good thing. Governments are not charities. They rely on taxes, not donations and they have no right to give away taxes as if they are given them to do as they think best with.  Only if taxpayers tell them they want their money given away to the poor or the feckless should governments do so.

Benefits are certainly not a Socialist thing. Socialism, in most of its forms, concerned itself with exploitation not misfortune. It wanted a fair (or fairer) distribution of the proceeds of labour. It saw government as an instrument to create greater equality or – in its social democratic form – a level playing field which would allow the talented child from a poor home to rise and create a richer home for his (usually his) own children.

Greater equality can be created either through redistribution – in practice, progressive taxation – or by legislation which sets minimum wages and maximum wages .

The potency of redistributive taxation has been weakened in recent decades by the growth of indirect taxes, primarily VAT, which are regressive in character. They take the same amount from the poor as the rich which implies that they take a bigger percentage of the income of the poor than of the rich. Curbing and abolishing Indirect taxes ought to be a prime objective for the redistributive socialist but, for some unclear reason, it never is.  It is tax havens like the Channel Islands – deliberately afforded a better life by the UK Parliament - that can afford the redistributive effect of charging no VAT to their inhabitants.

Gordon Brown also introduced several regressive Benefits, notably the (entirely bogus of course) Winter Fuel Payment which as a flat tax-free sum is worth more to a richer higher rate taxpayer than a basic rate taxpayer. (You simply work out how much a 40% taxpayer would have to earn to get £200 net and compare it with what a 20% taxpayer would have to earn to measure the regressiveness).

As for legislation, Britain’s Conservative government has recently embraced the cause of a Minimum Wage high enough to be a Living Wage as an alternative to Benefits. It is a move which Socialists can welcome. They just need to press for a Maximum Wage too. Thomas Piketty (in a recent Financial Times interview) suggests a cap of 10 or 20 times the average or median wage as the maximum which can be paid to company bosses. It is a differential in line with what prevailed fifty years ago but which has been hugely widened in the past couple of decades by predatory management raiding companies for huge salaries and bonuses, even to the point of bankrupting those companies.