Sunday, October 30, 2011

Food, glorious food

Sorry but it needs saying: without the banks we’d all be broke.

It’s easy to hate the banks. We all need a scapegoat and City spivs with their snouts in the trough are the best targets of all.

That’s why the anti-capitalist activists who set up a camp outside St Paul’s Cathedral in London have won a surprising degree of support.

We are all anti-capitalists now – if that means we all deplore the excesses of a system which imploded a few years ago and has still not recovered.

It’s not in the least fair that the people who perpetrated this crime against capitalism still get millions in bonuses and keep getting bailed out by the world’s taxpayers.

The Eurozone crisis – and it will go on being a crisis for months to come – is the latest example of the two-faced hypocrisy of a system which rewards the failure of the rich by impoverishing the poor.

It’s wrong, it’s not fair. But what’s the alternative?

To find out, I visited the small encampment outside St Paul’s as Europe’s leaders were gathering for yet another failed make-or-break summit on Brussels.

If a couple of hundred middle-class crusties can close down one of the nation’s most imposing landmarks, I reasoned, they must know something I don’t.

There’s a famous wartime photograph of St Paul’s defying the Blitz. Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, says we are now fighting an economic war so maybe it’s appropriate the anti-capitalists picked the cathedral for their protest.

But at 8.30am there are few signs of life from the orderly lines of cheap tents. The occupants haven’t surfaced though as most of them go home at night for a bath, a change of clothes and a decent meal, they probably aren’t there at all.

(There was no justification for the closure of St Paul’s, by the way. Worshippers and tourists could easily get in and out despite the tents.)

Commuters march past without glancing at the “occupy London” camp. The only protester in evidence is an apparently-drunk Pole singing loudly but tunelessly before breaking off to say to no-one in particular: “What the xxxx do you want?”

The posters are more helpful though their messages are confusing. One says simply “End wealth”, another demands “Let's have a maximum wage”.

We are urged to “Investigate the 13 families that run the world” while being assured “Capitalism is crisis” and “You are an artwork”.

The campers have a recycling centre, a first aid tent and another offering “tea and empathy”. It’s all calm and well-organised though there is a nasty smell of drains.

Early in the morning is clearly not a good time for an insight into the protesters’ plans for a post-Capitalist world.

But I think we can get the general idea from the poster which declares: “Capitalism so far embodies insufficiently damped positive feedback loops.” (Honestly, that’s what it says.)

In due course there will probably be an attempt to move these people on.

When that happens, there will be wall-to-wall TV coverage of the event and the usual suspects will have great fun playing to the cameras and getting themselves arrested – just as they did at the Dale Farm gipsy camp eviction.

What we see at St Paul’s is an incoherent howl of rage. It would be utterly insignificant but for the fact that the protesters chose such an iconic landmark, bamboozled the Church authorities and closed down the cathedral.

The fact remains, though, that while they have secured worldwide publicity for their protest, it is impossible to discover what alternative they propose to the capitalist system.

There was a horrible moment back in 2007 when it looked briefly as if every major bank in the USA and Britain – and quite possibly around the world – might go bust.

Never mind how we got to that terrible state, imagine how much worse it would have been for all of us if the banks had been crushed under the weight of their bad debts.

We are all paying the high price of the rescue in job losses, smaller pensions, fewer Government services and lower living standards.

It’s hard to believe but the destruction of our entire financial system would have been worse. We would all have been left penniless, jobless, with debts we couldn’t pay and assets turned worthless overnight.

Banks are a necessary evil. We need them to run even the most basic economy. We cannot live without them.

Banks are not to be confused with bankers, however. I have long believed legal action should be taken against some of the individuals who grew rich while plunging the world into the worst financial crisis in history.

They are not solely to blame, of course. Lazy regulators and over-optimistic politicians are just as guilty. So are those of us who borrowed as if there was no tomorrow.

Actually, the St Paul’s protesters are lucky we still have a capitalist system left to complain about.

Without it, nobody would have the time to stage juvenile demos on cathedral steps. We’d all be too worried about where our next meal was coming from.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Whatever happened to Euro stability?

I hate to say I told you so but I was looking back over my book “The Last of England” published in 2004 and now out of print.

In a chapter on why it would be disastrous for Britain to join the euro, it says:

The truth is that economically – never mind politically – the euro just will not work….

How is it possible to tie in the various economies of Europe so they are always marching in step and in the same direction? One answer is the imposition of a “stability pact” which forces all the Governments of the eurozone to curb their freedom to tax and spend, in the interests of the common good.

The euro’s supporters will tell anyone worried about the economy of the eurozone, and the single interest rate needed for the euro, to be reassured because this pact sets a ceiling on the level of public deficit allowed, at three per cent of GDP and aims to ensure no country boosts Government spending to a level which would have an impact on the Eurozone interest rate.

We are told … the Eurozone “stability pact” ensures the economies keep on walking at the same pace in the same direction. The pact in effect allows the European Central Bank to control tax levels and public spending in the eurozone countries.

The problem is that the stability pact is being undermined and ignored, even by those who first insisted on it. The IMF has said it is being “wrongly undermined by inadequate policies” in France, Germany and Italy. Romano Prodi, the President of the European Commission, said: “I know very well the stability pact is stupid, like all decisions that are rigid.” No wonder the Bundesbank says the problems are “definitely causing a dangerous situation for monetary union”.

It is no surprise the stability pact is being undermined. Consider what happened in Germany in 2002. Growth was down to half a per cent this year. The German Industrial Association said the economy faced “stagnation”. Germany wasn’t able to meet the stability pact demand for a three per cent limit on its budget deficit. Siemens threatened to cut investment in Germany because of the high taxes demanded by the stability pact. Germany, once the economic powerhouse of Europe, before the advent of the euro, is in a double-dip recession, endures unemployment of at least 4.3 million and, according to some people, 6 million.

It saw 40,000 insolvencies in 2002, the worst since the war, while one of its political historians has declared: “Today’s crisis can be compared to the end of the Weimar republic. There is no Hitler in the wings today but the symptoms of economic and political disaster are the same.”

And why is all this happening? According to the Nobel-prize winning economist Milton Friedman the answer is simple. In an interview in Germany, he said: “If it wasn’t for the euro, then Germany would not have its current problems. A single European monetary policy is not possible for the countries of the Eurozone.”

In France, the Government refused to accept the 0.5 per cent spending cuts required to meet its stability pact obligations and when it tried to cut public spending, there were riots in the streets, as there usually are when the French people dislike what their Government is up to.

In the summer of 2003, President Chirac officially concluded that, for France, the stability pact was a dead duck. He sent his Prime Minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, to Brussels to announce that France would not even try to control its budget deficit to keep it below the three per cent limit until 2006 at the earliest.

He argued that this was necessary because France needed to boost state spending as a way of breaking out of the recession which, not coincidentally, had been dragging back the eurozone economies since the creation of the euro itself.

Likewise, Portugal has seen strikes provoked by the spending cuts announced by the Government to stay within the bounds of the stability pact. Italy, too, has taken unilateral action which defies the stability pact agreement.

Meanwhile, even a Labour Chancellor, Gordon Brown, supposedly dedicated to taking Britain into the euro eventually, rejected the idea that he should cut spending to keep in line with the stability pact requirements. “I don’t think the British public want the European Commission to cut £5 billion a year from spending, as is implied by these proposals,” he said at the time – and he is right.

No Chancellor will willingly abandon his freedom to fiddle with the economy and his ability to boost public spending in time for a General Election just to keep in step with the rest of the eurozone.

The truth is that the stability pact is a lovely theory but won’t work in practice.

It is sometimes argued against this that a currency union works perfectly well in the United States, so why shouldn’t it work in Europe? But there are big differences, according to Professor Martin Feldstein, President of the US National Bureau of Economic Research. For instance, the US has a flexible labour market, the EU does not; the US has a mobile labour market, the EU does not; and, crucially, the US has a centralised tax system. Without these things, according to Prof Feldstein, the EU will see “as a minimum” higher cyclical unemployment and “from a strictly economic point of view, they are liable to run into some serious problems ahead”.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The daring dozen

Congratulations to the following West Midlands MPs for not being creeps and yes-people and voting in favour of a referendum on Britain’s relations with the EU:

Tories: Dan Byles, Warwickshire North; Marcus Jones, Nuneaton; Chris Kelly, Dudley South; Jeremy LeFroy, Stafford; Karen Lumley, Redditch; James Morris, Halesowen & Rowley Regis; Mark Pritchard, The Wrekin; Richard Shepherd, Aldridge-Brownhills; Robin Walker, Worcester.

Labour: Roger Godsiff, Birmingham Hall Green; Steve McCabe, Birmingham Selly Oak; Gisela Stuart, Birmingham Edgbaston.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Dumb and dumber

We won’t get a referendum on our continuing membership of the European Union.

It’s all been stitched up in advance. A three-line whip of Tory MPs scuppers any realistic hope of getting the vote through the Commons.

A decent minority of principled MPs will support a referendum – mainly Conservatives but with a smattering of Labour MPs.

The Lib-Dems should also vote in favour of the referendum because, despite their Europhilia, they have in the past acknowledged the need for the consent of the people to the creation of a Superstate.

But they won’t want to risk a No-vote in a referendum and will hide behind the Coalition whip.

In a free vote, it is still possible there wouldn’t be a majority in Parliament for a referendum even though we all know there is a sizable majority in favour of one in the country at large.

But we shall probably never know.

Monday’s Commons vote is a rare opportunity for MPs to “speak for England”. Alas, the majority will almost certainly remain dumb.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

...and another thing

How can the taxman get it so wrong and expect everyone to pay for his mistakes – when he can let giant corporations off millions with deals done over dinner? It’s the price we pay for a massively complicated system and IT systems which, as usual, don’t work. Why can’t tax be simple – then, perhaps, more people would pay it?
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MPs are taking another week’s holiday. This is a cause for celebration. It means that’s another week when they won’t be able to meddle and make things worse.
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I can't see anything wrong with a "boob tax" but with so many people now doing "cash-only" jobs is there a danger that surgeons may be pushed into the black economy? The real answer is to cut taxes.
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As the London luvvies were getting excited about Liam Fox I met some soldiers at a Help for Heroes event who were much more concerned about their comrades being killed and maimed in a pointless, endless war.
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The world's population hit 7 billion this month. Isn't it time all foreign aid was aimed at stemming the absurdly dangerous global birth rate?

Friday, October 14, 2011

Now who are the fruitcakes, Dave?


Who are the fruitcakes and loonies now? Those people who said the European Union was bad for Britain – or our beloved Prime Minister?

David Cameron, in one of his many unguarded moments when the PR fa├žade slips for a moment, condemned Eurosceptics as “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists”.

Now they have been proved right, can we expect an apology? Of course not.

Instead, a great fuss is being made about the promise of a Commons debate on whether to hold a referendum about Britain’s membership of the EU.

Will this be the liberating moment? Could it be the watershed when all that has gone wrong with this country because we are governed from Brussels starts to come right?

Don’t bet on it. Nobody knows what sort of referendum we’ll get. Should it be a simple “in or out” question or something more complicated about bringing back some of the powers we have lost?

William Hague called the Euro “a burning building with no exits” and, with the flames licking around Greece and Italy, surely nobody doubts he was right all along.

Yet the last thing the Government wants at a time of Eurocrisis is the infinite complications of a referendum which forces it to extricate Britain from the failure that is “ever-greater economic and political union”.

It’s not just the single currency.

We saw this week that Theresa May, the Home Secretary, thinks the European Convention on Human Rights is a ridiculous piece of law which should be abolished.

Admittedly she did her case no good at all by wittering on about an illegal immigrant from Bolivia who couldn’t be deported because he had a pet cat called Maya.

The flying fur over Mrs May’s catastrophic “kittengate” contribution to the Conservative conference should not distract us from the fact that we have a Home Secretary who abhors our human rights laws.

The country can’t deport convicted murderers and rapists because it may be in breach of their human rights. Mrs May spoke for millions when she said it was time to restore sanity.

While the Euro burns, the Eurocrats are busily working away at their plans to create a single Superstate no matter what the peoples of the EU might want.

Take another of their challenges to our country. The Government has been given a two-month deadline to bring our benefit payments into line with their demands.

It means we could end up paying billions more to “benefit tourists” from across the EU if they find themselves better off on our social security than they would be at home.

We could soon be forced to pay child benefit, child tax credit, state pension credit, jobseekers' allowance and unemployment support allowance to any citizen of the Superstate.

Iain Duncan Smith, the Pensions Secretary, believes it could cost us £2 billion.

He says: “At a time when the British people are tightening their belts, and the European Commission orders us to open our doors to benefit tourists and pay them benefits when they arrive here, I have a simple message for them: No, no, no.”

If you think that’s expensive, what about the EU bailout fund? This started off at 400 million euros and has already rising to 2 trillion but even that won’t be enough if Italy goes the way of Greece.

Don’t think this is just a problem for countries which swapped their currencies for the euro. Some of it will be our money. We are, to coin a phrase, all in it together.

So our Government is planning to print more money. They call it quantitative easing but really it’s no different from going to a printing press and running off a load of forged £50 notes.

The impact is the same – inflation. Prices are already rising sharply and the Bank of England seems to have abandoned its job of keeping the rate down to two per cent.

Inflation is the only way the Governments of Europe can convert their massive debts into something manageable – inflation makes their debts worth less and hang the consequences for the little people with pensions and savings.

Chancellor George Osborne says Europe’s leaders “have got to get out and fix their roof, even though it is already pouring with rain”.

He also questions why they “plunged headlong into the euro without thinking through the consequences”.

He’s right, of course. It beggars belief that the most powerful and, you might have supposed, intelligent men and women in Europe should have been so caught up in their own fantasies they led us into this situation in the first place.

The very few who warned that it would all go horribly wrong were derided as right-wing Little Englanders.

These “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists” have banged about the EU and been ignored, mocked or sidelined for years.

Now we have a Chancellor, a Foreign Secretary, a Home Secretary, and a Pensions Secretary all lining up to condemn our involvement in the EU.

It’s time they did more than complain. They must give us a referendum – in or out? They won’t – because they’re afraid of our answer.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

DIY NHS

How is it possible that NHS spending has tripled over the last ten years and yet nurses are so over-stretched they can’t help to feed their patients?

The Government pours billions into the ever-open mouth of the health service – yet its staff are so rushed off their feet they can’t spoon food across the parched lips of the elderly and infirm.

Some nurses think of themselves as too qualified to care. The problem is they have degrees and they have spent hours in classrooms and lecture theatres.

They learn lots of theory and no doubt get detailed medical instruction but they’re not used to looking after people’s basic bodily needs.

In 2008, Tory Peer Lord Mancroft brought the wrath of the NHS down on his head when he recounted his experiences as a patient at the Royal United Hospital in Bath.

He said it was a miracle he was still alive after his experience of filthy hospital wards.

He went on: “The nurses who looked after me were mostly grubby – we are talking about dirty fingernails and hair – and were slipshod and lazy. Worst of all, they were drunken and promiscuous.

“How do I know that? Because if you’re a patient and you’re lying in a bed, and you’re being nursed from either side, they talk across you as if you’re not there.

“So I know exactly what they got up to the night before, and how much they drank, and I know exactly what they were planning to do the next night, and I can tell you, it’s pretty horrifying.”

Lord Mancroft’s experience may be rare. But Peter Carter, head of the Royal College of Nursing, still thinks nurses have too much work to do.

He plans to extend hospital visiting hours so relatives can feed patients, help them go to the loo and make sure they have something to drink.

One of the reasons for this, he admits, was that newly-qualified nurses were “simply not up to the mark” because they spent too much time in the classroom and not long enough on the wards.

At the same time, Dickon Weir-Hughes, chief executive of the Nursing and Midwifery Council, is complaining that the healthcare assistants who are regularly employed to do the nurses’ dirty work have no qualifications.

Professor Weir-Hughes wants this army of 300,000 people to be required to obtain a qualification – and be segregated from graduate nurses by being forced to wear a different uniform.

This kind of nursing apartheid is inevitable. The last Government encouraged nurses to become over-qualified.

As a result, some of them are not trained or encouraged to deliver the care which most patients assume is at the very heart of their profession.

You can’t blame nurses themselves. Many are wonderful, maintain the very highest standards of care and deserve the old epithet of “angels”.

But the NHS is designed and run for the benefit of its staff, first and foremost. It has been perverted from its original aim of looking after people and is now the most inefficient, indulged and indolent of all the public services.

We spend about £120 billion a year on the health service. The last Government tripled the budget from £37 billion in 1997.

The Coalition has pledged to “ring fence” NHS spending, despite the cuts, though this hasn’t stopped the healthcare industry warning of death and disaster as even they are asked to take greater care over how they spend our money.

Yet NHS productivity hasn’t improved and this is a national scandal no politician dares to address.

The inquiry into the deaths at Stafford Hospital shows day by day how low the NHS has sunk.

It is astonishing that Sir David Nicholson, one-time head of Staffordshire Strategic Health Authority, should now be chief executive of the entire NHS. Nothing succeeds like failure, it seems.

He admitted he appointed the wrong man as chief executive of the hospital where up to 1,200 patients may have died as a result of lack of care and he admitted he had no idea there was any cause for concern.

Lessons, he solemnly declared, would be learned.

They always say that, as if it makes the sacrifice, pain and misery of patients and their families somehow acceptable.

As the vast ranks of “healthcare professionals” manoeuvre in pursuit of pensions, pay and privileges, the long-suffering patient remains an inconvenience best left to someone else.

The nursing profession’s separation from patients was marvellously illustrated by East Kent Hospital where staff went around dispensing drugs while wearing tabards warning patients: “Do not disturb.”

The aim was to prevent nurses being interrupted as they made their rounds handing out pills.

Luckily the outrage this caused has forced an about-turn but even now the nurses will wear notices declaring: “Drug round in progress.”

It’s not quite as rude as the original but it’s still symbolic of how removed from their patients some nurses have become.

We need nurses to offer kindness, care and compassion. Qualifications are all very well but sometimes all a patient needs is a hand to hold and a word of sympathy.