Friday, 14 November 2008

Redwood's blog for the Tory take on devaluation

It's just as well John Redwood pens a blog. Without it, I'm not sure what the official Tory line on the economic crisis and the pound's devaluation is. Am I supposed to shrug and support the idea that in free markets currencies should be left to find their own levels, look for a ray of sunshine in the benefits to exporters (except those whose feedstock or raw materials are imported and priced in dollars), or excoriate Brown for yet another devastating miscalculation. Thankfully, it appears the latter is the correct choice.

But whilst the weak pound helps Gordon's countrymen sell their whisky to foreigners, it's also going to make the 50% of food we import more expensive and rob us of much of the benefit of the fall in the oil price.

And now is also the time for a freeze on recruitment to the entire public sector, with the exception of the fighting forces, the emergency services and the prison service. Churn is traditionally lower than in the private sector, but even if it's in the range of 5% - 10% annually this could pay big dividends. Education and health have been so over-funded for the past few years that they can take a couple of years of shrinkage, and the redeployment of public sector workers across the sector to fill important public service gaps would tighten things up nicely. There's no reason why a Smoking Cessation Advisor can't draw a broom and barrow from the municipal stores and get on with cleaning the streets.

C'mon George. Time to get out of first gear.

Back to hat, scarf and gloves

We stopped wearing hats and gloves in public sometime after the second war. It's always been assumed that this was solely because of a change in the fashion mood, but I have another idea.

It's recently been reported that one in four passengers on public transport have faecal bacteria on their hands. And most colds and flu viruses are picked up through the skin of the hands by touching contaminated surfaces, such as handrails and hanging straps on trains, tubes and buses. So next time you look at that tube strap, imagine it covered in little bits of poo and flu bugs. Why would you not wear gloves?

Sorry if this is sounding a bit Howard Hughes-ish, but I think our forebears were onto something. And perhaps they wore hats to prevent the head-lice that infest the moquette upholstery from finding a new home on their own heads. And scarves to prevent the thriving colonies of bed-bugs that live on public routes from the East End into the City from hitching a ride home.

As public hygiene improved in the sixties and seventies, the hats and gloves disappeared. Now that we're back to the thirties in terms of public health, perhaps they'll make a comeback.

Thursday, 13 November 2008

Brown's callous coldness doesn't shock me

Listening to yesterday's PMQs on R4's 'Today in Parliament' last night I was surprised but not shocked by Brown's callous clumsiness. The cold calculating autocrat's lack of any empathy for the death of Baby P is wholly in line with every ounce of fakery, falseness and brutality that makes up the man. His sickening pretence at being 'normal' at the last Labour conference is now exposed as no more than a cold and calculating theatrical performance, rehearsed and choreographed to the point of credibility. As Quentin Letts has it in this morning's 'Mail';
The country at large, watching, may finally comprehend that this is a Prime Minister for whom no matter - be it the wreckage of an economy, or even now the violent death of a babe in arms - is too horrific to be weighed and tasted for his own selfish advantage, everything seen through the wonky prism of narrow, gut-churning electoral gain.
By contrast, Cameron's part was one of genuine outrage and passion, reflecting the mood of the nation at this horror. If he got his facts slightly wrong, it doesn't matter. We all know what he meant. I felt proud of him - he spoke for me and for millions of the country's electors against the cold ruthlessness of an overblown State and an impotent PM .

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

From Maria Colwell to Baby P

Sandy Fawkes, who died a couple of years ago, was always a favourite of mine in the 'French'. A couple of triple Bells, and the latest tale of betrayal by yet another film company who reneged on yet another promise to film her trip across the US with a mass murderer, a few scathing dismissals of whatever inferior talent was then in the news, the odd put-down, sharp and painful as a paper cut, to any blow-ins who got too familiar at the crowded bar all provided good value and very good company. I liked her very much.

One topic though never failed to provoke white-hot anger. Sandy was fashion editor on the 'Express' in the '70s, and her old man Wally drew 'Flook' for the Mail. A story came in that was dumped. A kid had been killed by its step-father. It was, she said, not regarded by the paper, or any other, as a story worth pursuing. She protested to the editor; she fought, and was allowed to write a piece of news story on the death of Maria Colwell. Her anger and indignation roused the rest of Fleet Street, and it became front-page news across the country. Well, that was Sandy's story. And every new tale of child abuse never failed to raise in her the anger the poor editor of the 'Express' must have felt back in 1973.

As the 'Standard' reports tonight, Baby P died in fear and pain and utterly betrayed by every adult around him to whom he looked for care and trust; he was paralysed from a broken back, had eight fractured ribs, fifteen wounds to his mouth and in total some fifty injuries to his broken little body. I trust in God that when he gave up the struggle for life and closed his eyes on this world he experienced a last, a final loving embrace from the Father who guides each one of us into that dark night.

His killers - his mother, her boyfriend and a lodger - were today cleared of murder because it could not be determined which had struck the fatal blow.

My skill at words is not enough to express a fraction of the pity, pain and anger that I feel, nor tell of the salt tears that drip on this keyboard as I write. Or of my anger at the purblind icy care of the State that assumes so much and is capable of so little. And I don't mean that there wasn't enough State in Baby P's short life; there wasn't enough of us.

There will be time enough to rail against the lunatic social engineering that makes this horror commonplace. For now, let's mourn the wee man's life. And I miss so much Sandy's eloquent rage at this time.

Cameron unconvincing on the economy

Cameron made a brave effort with Humphries on the 8.10 slot on R4's Today this morning. He's a skilled performer, but unfortunately only as good as his material. And this morning it was dire. He argued the technical point on the unemployment benefit vs. NI holiday proposals that his shadow chancellor has come up with - yes, £8k saving per person over a full year against a smaller fall in lost NI. Two years ago during normal pre-budget statement positioning it would have been fine. Even now, as a position on moving a billion or two around in the budget, it was OK.

However, it wasn't on a scale relevant to the challenges facing the economy. He's still a politician fiddling with a few millions here and a few millions there when economists are talking about economic measures worth 1% or 2% of GDP to counter the recession. It came across as banal and lightweight, as demonstrating he doesn't really appreciate the scale of the economic crisis. It was as if he'd signalled a major fiscal initiative then announced an increase in the stamp duty band from £250k to £255k.

Brown and Clegg's pronouncements will leave Cameron nowhere. This was a dreadful mistake. He desperately needs to be bolder. He could have said 'like Keynes, when the facts change I change my mind - and the facts now bear no relation to those even a few weeks ago'. He could have talked about GDP in big numbers, could have demonstrated his command of the economic situation, but instead got tied up in a techie fiscal budget footnote that should have been dealt with by a junior Treasury shadow.

It's not good enough, Dave.

Monday, 10 November 2008

Shoplifting

It's becoming quite open now. About a month ago, I watched a guy in a Sainsbury's Metro do a one-for-you one-for-me in which for every item he put in his basket he put another in his bag. Then briefly joined the short check-out queue, clicked his tongue in mock frustration, left his basket on the floor and walked out. It was very neatly done. The Nigerian security guard was busy deliberately looking elsewhere - why should he risk a knife in the guts for his employers?

Retailers estimate shoplifting costs at £2bn a year - or £90 a year for each one of us. And as shoplifters face nothing more than an £80 fixed penalty notice these days, where's the disincentive? Of course, the real sufferers are the poor; I wrote a while ago -
Funny old thing, the free market. A leaked Home Office letter predicts a rise in crime - acquisitive crime in particular - as a result of the recession. This will mean more burglary, vehicle thefts and, in London in particular, street robbery as well as a plague of shop thefts. The people hardest hit will be the poorest living in the most deprived areas - traditional Labour voters. As supermarkets raise their prices to pay for theft losses and increased security the poor again will bear the brunt. Crime is an irritation to the insured middle classes, but a curse to the poor. Heroin addicts tend to burgle within a 400m radius of their council flats to feed their habits - and it's the plasma TVs, wiis and Christmas presents of their fellow council tenants that are most at risk.
The Standard reports that Tesco have had a 36% year-on-year increase in shoplifting. And we've hardly even entered the recession yet. Who knows; if things get really sticky next year, the middle classes may join in, scorning the £80 FPN for a bagful of 'Finest' comestibles. Perhaps a thriving wine-bar trade in stolen Queen Scallops and Lemongrass will develop, or you'll be offered a pack of duck breasts with the security tag crudely removed.

O tempera o mores!

Estate agents more highly trusted than ministers

The Committee for Standards in Public Life has found that 9% of people trust estate agents highly, but only 7% trust government ministers highly.

Any comments, Hazel?

(H/T Looking for a voice / Guido)

Halon & Freon fire supressants

Ships' engine rooms are commonly fitted with inert gas fire suppression systems; unlike water they don't make the vessel heavier, and can leave engines and equipment undamaged. However, they're also invariably fitted with loud and very noticeable audible and visual warning alarms to warn people to get out. So I expect the cause of the fatal accident on the Russian sub will be the usual equipment failure or human error. Still, they are usually more reliable than sending the crew down with hoses, as this MCGA inspection report I published in February 2007 demonstrates:

DETENTIONS

The Cambodian flagged general cargo ship 'Piligrim 2', 1551 GT, at Shoreham.

The Port State Control Officer (PSCO) from the Maritime and Coastguard Agency found twelve deficiencies, two of which were major non conformities under the ISM Code.

The PSCO noticed a heavily corroded extinguisher at the gangway, and found several more CO2 extinguishers with the horns missing. An accommodation fire damper was found lying on the deck.

The PSCO had clear grounds to request the crew to carry out a fire drill. It took considerable effort for the crew to understand, as the master and officers spoke almost no English. The Inspector had to write 'Fire Drill' on a piece of paper in large letters and hold it up.

The drill was not up to the required standard, as was displayed by the fire team. The team leader showed up in a fire suit wearing trainers and donned the breathing apparatus upside down with the waist strap around his neck which proceeded to choke him.

The second member of the team, without a breathing apparatus set, grabbed a length of hose and dashed into the engine room, the scene of the fire, which was supposedly ablaze. His progress came to an abrupt halt halfway down the first ladder when he ran out of hose.

At that point the inspection was suspended and the vessel was detained.

Winter election prospects?

There's been a degree of speculation floating around the blogosphere on the prospects of Brown calling a Winter election. If there's any truth in this, the UK's prospects for 2009 must be worse than any of us realise, for an election now could only be for the reason of minimising the damage to Labour, and not for keeping it is power.

In support of the notion are Brown's gathering of the old, bankrupt, corrupt team around him, a forthcoming tax-cuts bribe, the party's finances being just this side of solvency, and a Cameron lead of under 15% in the opinion polls which, with the electoral system skewed to Labour, would lose Brown only about 120 seats, and the expectation that as things get worse in 2009 the electorate will increasingly turn on Brown.

Against are the unwillingness of Labour MPs to lose their seats until the very last moment in 2010 and keep hoping in a Micawberish way that something will turn up, the party's finances being unable to bear the costs of an expensive campaign, the reluctance of Labour's voters to turn out in the cold weather, and the desire for a final slash-and-burn series of rearguard socialist social engineering measures that will be hard to reverse.

I think a Winter election would be an act of desperation, in expectation of the later loss of over 200 seats for Labour which may mean the end of the party as a national one and its slow extinction as a regional rump in the NE and NW, where it would linger for a while.

VAT proposals not as lunatic as they sound

All the evidence is that firms are hoarding cash. This may be for a couple of reasons; firstly, industry no longer trusts the banks to treat them fairly so future investment or cash-flow cushioning will be funded by saving rather than borrowing, and secondly the recession will create casualties and allow cash-rich firms to snap them up. So tax cuts for business will be unlikely to result in greater investment; firms will just hoard the cash saved.

As with firms so with individuals. Personal tax cuts and low interest rates may well result in taxpayers paying off debt or hoarding cash rather than spending it to stimulate the ailing retail sector. The most effective fiscal measure to keep people in work would be to cut employer's NI, and lower the costs of employment. A cut in VAT is also being mooted as being effective in stimulating retail spending, and suffering sectors such as leisure marine electronics will certainly be expecting to feel the benefit. I'm dubious - see final para.

But EU Referendum has already eloquently pointed out that the government isn't actually allowed to cut VAT without the EU's permission. Which is unlikely to be forthcoming. Now I'll bet the majority of UK taxpayers didn't know that - so it's an excellent hare to set running in the media, to raise expectations and then to place the blame for cruelly demolishing them on the EU.

An EPIRB - Emergency position indicating radio beacon - is really just a toy for the boys if you're a coastal leisure sailor. A DSC VHF is very cheap and will broadcast your position if you press the big red button, so an EPIRB is really only worthwhile if you're going to be out of VHF range of a coast station. Still, it's a nice shiny toy. When the price was over £500, only those with deep pockets could afford the industry standard, the McMurdo Smartfind (RRP £545). Now desperate retailers are knocking them out at £299 including VAT. A cut in VAT from 17.5% to 12.5% would only further reduce the cost to £286; I suspect this wouldn't make a hap'worth of difference to most people's buying decisions.

But some well orchestrated squealing in the MSM about the government's inability to cut VAT will come in very handy indeed.

Beckett's welfare housing reforms just plain stupid

The government commissioned a major piece of research from the LSE a couple of years ago on welfare housing. The study broadly found that, once ensconced in welfare housing, tenants gave up searching for work and settled back to a lifetime on welfare benefits. In particular;

The LSE report finds that if you have no qualifications, you will be 43% likely to be workless if you live in non-welfare housing, but 70% likely to be workless if you live in welfare housing. 35% of single parents outside of welfare housing are without work, but 64% of those in welfare housing are out of work. Amongst those of working age on welfare estates, around half are without paid work. Two groups predominate amongst these; those on incapacity benefit, and single parents. One in eight private house moves are work related, but just a very few thousand moves a year amongst 4m welfare tenants are for employment reasons.

So you would have thought the government's major policy push would be a stick and carrot approach to getting welfare tenants into jobs, wouldn't you?

Beckett's latest piece of lunacy is intended to have quite the opposite effect. Welfare tenants who find work are to be evicted or forced to buy their welfare homes. This idiotic proposal is designed to free up space on welfare estates for those clients of Brown's State who will behave themselves and stay on benefits.

Honestly, you couldn't make it up.

Sunday, 9 November 2008

Not secret, not contentious and not newsworthy

Our administration is clearly feeling the need to ratchet up the climate of fear in the UK today. The Telegraph leads with news of a 'leaked government intelligence report' that warns of increased terrorist activity. By the time this has reached the BBC - an ever-willing accomplice in creating popular fear on behalf of the government - this has become 'a secret intelligence report'.

Rubbish. Both stories describe the document as being marked 'restricted'. This is the very lowest level of what's called Protectively Marked Information, and applies to printed field instructions for cooking rations, to manuals of map reading, equipment maintenance instructions and the like. Above it are 'confidential', 'secret' and 'top secret'. So not secret, then. And the fact that there are Jihadists in the UK who would love to see an act of terrorism here is hardly contentious. The information quoted is also pretty much given openly on MI5's website, so it's hardly newsworthy.

No, this smells of a piece of planted government spin intended to frighten people. And since the BBC is now too corporately stupid to spot it, and the Telegraph has sacked all its experienced staff and has no-one left to spot it, it manages to get through.

Sabretache comments intelligently on the post below that many wars are the 'manifestations of the gross, pompous, blind, stupid, failures of leadership'. Transparent efforts by those in power to mislead, to distort, omit and misrepresent evidence such as this contemptible little story are often the precursor to ill-considered and avoidable actions that are such failures of leadership.

The greatest threat I face is from Jacqui Smith and those like her whose well-meaning but deeply stupid zeal seeks to restrict our freedom 'for our own good'. The government should be very wary indeed of planting stories such as this, if indeed this was a government plant, in order to secure short-term political objectives.

Only the monstrous anger of the guns



One of these men could be my grandfather; he fought on the Somme in 1916 with the Royal Irish Rifles, some of whom are pictured here. He came back, and had a son. That son, my father, became a professional soldier for twenty-five years, landing in Normandy at dawn on D-Day, wounded by shrapnel, returning to fight through to the Northern German plain. Then Palestine. Then Korea. Then Cyprus.

They were both men who faced the monstrous anger of the guns, and it was their bravery and that of all those who stood beside them that have ensured that I have never been called upon to do so.

We must speak for the dead that are buried so thickly in Flanders, and in clumps across the globe, that have left no sons or grandsons to do so. And remember always that our freedom and our precious realm are prizes that cost an agony of suffering to win and hold.
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.