Saturday, 11 October 2014

Why can't they see the link?

I picked up a copy of the Daily Mail today. Not my usual reading material, but its purchaser had finished with it and, occasionally, I like to see what rubbish it's spouting. Today it excelled itself!

Due to UKIP's electoral success the front-page headline tells us that "After historic Ukip surge, MPs tell Cameron and Miliband... YOU CAN'T IGNORE MIGRATION NOW". It then goes on to tell us how "David Cameron and Ed Milliband are being told to 'wake up' to public anger over uncontrolled migration following Ukip's stunning by election advances." Anger that has, of course, been whipped up by the media, including the Daily Mail, for years! But the article goes on to tell us that  "Conservative MPs warned the Prime Minister that he must now harden his stance on free movement within the European Union" and that "Jack Straw said he [Ed Milliband] should do a 'lot more' and take a stronger stance on immigration to win back traditional voters.' Inside the paper, Simon Danczuk's commentary headline states, "MY PARTY'S TOO SCARED TO TALK ABOUT MIGRATION". Similarly, a piece by Sue Reid is under the headline "Immigrants, HIV and the true cost to the NHS". Quite simply, there are pages and pages of articles in this paper telling any reader who can be bothered to wade through them all how awful immigrants are, and what a burden they are on the UK tax-payer.

Inside the paper, there is also a double page spread, with the headline SCHOOL OF JIHADIS which states, "Set in one of London's wealthiest areas, it's the Eton of state schools. So why have SIX former pupils of Holland Park School been linked to terror?" It then goes on to give pen-portraits of six pupils who have, in some way, been linked to Islamic State (IS), pointing out that this represents a quarter of the 24 jihadists from London. Paul Bracchi and Tim Stewart, the authors of this piece, are clearly mystified as to why intelligent, young men and women, who have achieved so much in their school careers, should want to align themselves with a groups like IS. The article offers no explantion - just incomprehension and amazement.

However, reading the aricle, I think the pen-portraits may offer a clue - Mohammed el-Araj's father is of Palestinian descent. The parents of Mohammed Nasser were from Eritrea. Hamzah Parvez's family come from Pakistan. Amal el-Wahabi and Nawal Msaad are both of Moroccan descent. Nassim Terreri is a British Algerian. So every single one of these young people is, in some way, one of the migrants that the paper has spent so many pages declaiming as lazy, good-for-nothing scroungers who (or so the paper claims) are not wanted in this country.

Now my own heritage is solidly English - for all the generations my brother has tracked down, my family come from the South East of England - so I don't really understand what it is like to grow up with a heritage that is split, in some way, between the country of one's birth and the country of one's family. But I do know that, as they grow up, many young people struggle to find their own identity, and I can certainly recall many discussions when I was in my early 20s about what was wrong with the world, and how it should be put right; discussions that helped to shape my own political views. Is it really impossible for these journalists to imagine the informed and well educated young men and women from Holland Park School being engaged in similar discussions? Discussions that would be influenced by their mixed heritage and the headlines screaming at them from the news-stands on a regular basis. Is it really so hard to see that, if the country of their birth appears to hate them, then some of those young people will turn to other countries and organisations to find their sense of value and worth?

The incomprehension of the Daily Mail's journalists is simply caused by their inability to see that they have helped to create the very circumstances that have driven these young people to sign up to IS.

Friday, 28 February 2014

Elections and Voting

When I turned 18 I was excited to cast my vote for the first time. But, over the years, my excitement has withered until I only vote because women chained themselves to railing, threw themselves under horses and were imprisoned in the fight to win me the vote and I feel that - given the lengths they went to - I really ought to be able to get off my backside and walk into my local polling station. However, I understand from many news reports that many adults share my apathy and most 18 year-olds fail to feel any excitement about being able to vote, with a majority not bothering to put their cross on a ballot paper. This all got me to thinking, why does voting now seem like such a chore.

For me, the answer is simple - no party is actually offering me the things I want. In fact, in many ways, I can see little difference between the main parties! So, what would I like a party to advocate?

Social Security

I want every adult to be given a sum of money each week. We can discuss how much, but it should be enough for somebody to live on, and the minimum income a person gets whether they are working, retired or on the dole. We can also discuss at what age a person becomes an adult. But I want everyone to be free to spend that money as they choose. If a person wants to live in a palace, eating gruel or live on caviare in a shack then that should, in my opinion, be their choice. I do not believe that, just because a person is out of work, they are incapable of making decisions for themselves to the point that they have to be told what money they can spend on their housing and what on day-to-day living expenses. If a person has a job then they are free to spend their wages as they choose - they can even spend it all on cigarettes, alcohol and in the bookies! While we might feel such choices are foolish (and I'm not arguing otherwise) we don't suggest stopping wage-earners doing these things. But, somehow, when a person is out of work, some people feel we should control how they spend their money. I disagree - social security is meant to be a safety net for working people who currently don't have a job, so lets treat people as responsible adults and let them decide how to spend their money, regardless of its source.

I also want the amount paid to be a flat sum of money - not more if a person is married, has children, or is disabled. That may sound harsh but I don't know of any workplace where people are paid differently because of their personal circumstances. In fact, along with campaigning for me to have the vote, many women (and men) have also worked hard to try and ensure I am paid the same as my male colleagues. (OK, I know we haven't entirely won that battle yet.) If we do agree that certain groups of people should be given more money then we also need to adjust income tax so they keep that extra money when they start work. I don't sign up to the idea that people deliberately have children so that they can get more dole money, or that people on the dole don't want to work, but I do accept that some people can get more money on the dole than they can ever hope to earn in unskilled jobs, which leaves them trapped in unemployment with all the health and social problems that can cause.

Income Tax

That neatly brings me on to income tax. I want the level at which people start paying income tax to be £100 a week more than the money they get on social security. That way, everybody who goes to work should be better off than those on the dole, despite having to pay for transport to work, for work clothes (whether that's smart office wear, or overalls) and, probably, extra for any meals they eat away from home.

At the other end of the pay scale, I believe there should be a limit to how much one person can earn in a single year - we can argue about how much is acceptable. Therefore, I want a 100% rate of income tax. I want there to be a point where we say - regardless of whether you are a banker, a leader of industry, a footballer, a pop star, a politician - that enough is enough and any earnings beyond that point are taken in tax.

I know somebody will say that this would mean good (sic) people would leave the country. Well, fine - let them go! There is research that shows high earners actually contribute less to society than those on modest or low wages. This is simply because, if all your money goes on day-to-day living, then you'll be spending it locally, on food, rent, local entertainment. But when people earn huge sums of money, they invest much of it, so it does nothing but earn more money and, when they do spend it, much of it will be spent outside the UK. The 'trickle down effect' is a myth, believed only by the very wealthy, and which can be seen to not work not only in the country as a whole but also in areas like football where the top level soaks up all the money, starving the grass-roots of funds in the process.

Working Hours

While we're on income, I want the minimum wage to be set so that everybody earns at least enough to pay the base rate income tax (as described above) when working a 40-hour week. Let's get away from this long-hours culture because it is damaging to the health of people who work the hours and limits the number of available jobs! If you have two people, both working sixty-hour weeks then, actually, I believe you should be employing three people all working only 40-hours a week. Henry Ford did carried out some research that showed long hours actually reduced productivity! So we'd all be better off with a shorter working week - more people would have work and they'd be more productive!

I also want people to have decent breaks between shifts. It's always annoyed me that, when the big shops went for Sunday opening, the 'Keep Sunday Special' campaign limited the shops' opening hours but did nothing about the shifts the employees can be asked to work. As far as I'm concerned, shops can open any hours they wish. If you want to keep Sunday special then you can simply not go shopping that day! But, lets make sure all employees (including shop workers, and people like nurses) have a decent break between shifts - I suggest 12 hours is reasonable. Also, shifts should not be more than 12 hours long, and should not be split. I used to know somebody who had to work split shifts, and they are a nightmare.

Zero-hour contracts should be illegal - if a person has a contract then it should include a set number of hours and an agreed salary. There are a number of industries that have always relied on casual labour, and they have worked by having a list of known contacts who can be called in at short notice. While this looks, superficially, like zero-hour contracts, the difference is that the employee is not limited to working for one employer and, if called when it's not convenient, can decline being called in. Zero-hour contracts impose limits on what 'employees' can do without giving them a salary so seem to me to be nothing more than exploitation.


That brings me on to another area where I want big changes - the general tone of our legal framework. Unfettered capitalism results in people and the environment being exploited for the benefit of business and the people who run it. Any company or business has only one purpose - to make money! While I am a loss to see any overall system that creates money like capitalism, if we are all to benefit, then it needs to be constrained by laws about the impact industry has on the environment and on employees and those who buy the goods or services the industry supplies. Things like the Fair Trade movement have shown that people are willing to pay a little more for goods that have been produced by people who are paid a fair price for the goods they sell, so lets make this the standard way of doing business.


I believe in the National Health Service. It is not that expensive - depending on the system you use, it is the  15th or 16th most expensive per person, but our life expectancy is better than the USA and Denmark who both spend more on health care than we do (and a lot more in the case of the USA). Yes, there are problems with the NHS, and it could be improved, but moving towards the American system of private health care is not the answer. So, while I support changes being made to the NHS, I want them to be made whilst ensuring health care is free at the point of delivery.

One of the areas I'd like to look at is the growing number of managers within the NHS - what do they all do, and what benefit do they deliver? I have heard some stories that suggest to me the NHS may be riddled with a culture where people are so frightened of being wrong that they don't make a decision, instead passing all decision making 'up the chain'. This kind of atmosphere seems to breed more and more layers of management because that makes it impossible to 'pin the blame' on any one person.

I also want to stop big business making a fortune by supplying goods and services to the NHS. Of course,  industry needs to make some money but, in some areas, the NHS is seen as a cash-cow to be exploited at every opportunity!

The Armed Forces

Another area that is seen by  some within industry as a cash-cow are the armed services. Again this is an area which I believe could benefit from reforms. But the biggest change I want to see is our armed forces only being used to defend the United Kingdom and the British Overseas Territories, or to act in keeping with our national obligations to the UN. It is time to stop sending our young men and women to die in countries where we have no business interfering, and it is definitely time to stop being the lap-dog of the USA. Wars cost a fortune both in the simple cost of building weapons, shipping them round the world and using them but also in the costs to individuals and their families when people are injured or killed. Plus, there are no winners in a war - only one side that loses less badly and, in the case of Iraq and Afghanistan, I'm not sure we were on the side that lost less badly.

There is more I could say.... but this is already turning into an epic blog and the simple answer is nobody is actually standing for the things I want to vote for. All the main parties seem to be wedded to the idea of saving money, and the need for austerity, as if the budget of a country worked in the same way as a household budget. So I guess I'll have to go on helping the Greens to save their deposit!

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Permenat Way

I'm a volunteer at the Colne Valley Railway, where I'm a member of the P/Way Team, helping to repair, maintain and even lay the track. I am so glad we don't have anything like the Dawlish Wall on our line!
Photos taken from Express & Echo.

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

How do we stop it?

This evening I've been to see The Railway Man which - as Wikipedia will tell you - is the story of how one Japanese Prisoner of War - Eric Lomax - comes face to face with one of the guards who tortured him - Takashi Nagase. At the end, when the two men meet, Eric asks Takashi what he tells people about what he did. Takashi replies that they don't talk about it; Eric nods in agreement, "Neither do we." Because what we have here are two men who are both tormented by their memories of war both, as Eric's friend Finlay says of the two British officers, are unable to sleep or to love because of the torment their minds inflict on them.

There are no winners in war, but still it goes on.

In one scene in The Railway Man, Eric Lomax is shown being subjected to water boarding by Takashi Nagase. After the war, Japanese soldiers were tried and executed for water boarding, but the French used it in the Algerian war, the British used it during The Troubles in Northern Ireland and the Americans used it on Al-Qaeda suspects in 2003 - despite being signatories to the United Nations Convention against Torture since 1988, a convention that specifically bans torture under any conditions.

The film does end with Eric Lomax forgiving Takashi Nagase. While another film I saw recently - Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom shows how Nelson Mandela came out of prison instructing his followers to act peacefully when it would have been just as easy to encourage them to rise up in an orgy of violence, especially as violence was erupting in many areas of the country. During his presidency, Nelson Mandela set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as a way to build peace between the various factions within South Africa who had spent so long perpetrating or being victims of gross human rights violations. But his beloved ANC is riven with factions and in-fighting while his family do battle with each other and the ANC over rights to his name and the country continues to add to its history of violence.

If even a man of Nelson Mandela statue cannot leave a legacy of peace in the country he loved, what hope is there for the rest of us, and what of those wars still waging across various parts of the world?

But it remains so pointless - as Neville Chamberlain said, at Kettering in 1938, "In war, whichever side may call itself the victor, there are no winners, but all are losers." And still it goes on. Still young men (and now young women) are told - as Takashi Nagase was - that they will win, and they will have honour. Nobody mentions that they may die, as 160 million people did during the 20th century, or that they may return home with bodies permanently damaged or - like Eric Lomax and Takashi Nagase - they may remain physically fit and healthy but so mentally scared it impacts the rest of their life.

It is madness, but how to stop it?

I was one of the million people who took to the streets of London in 2003, in an attempt to stop Tony Blair declaring war on Iraq. It made no difference. I support various charities who work either to campaign against war, or to try and pick up the pieces left behind by war. I sit up late at night, writing irate blogs about the futility of war.

But still it goes on.

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Affordable Housing

From time to time, people talk about the need for "affordable housing" - most recently by Shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls, at the Labour Conference. But what do we mean by 'affordable housing'?

The first thing to look at is the cost of housing. Taking data from Lloyds Banking Group's website, it is very clear to see that average house prices have risen, fairly steadily, but does this, by itself mean houses are not affordable? The answer to this is clearly no - assuming wages have risen at a similar rate!

Rather helpfully, the Lloyds Banking Group website also has data about the ratio of average house prices to average salaries.
A close study of this chart indicates a long-term ratio of 4 - i.e. a person on an average salary going for a 100% mortgage would need to be able to obtain one that was equal to 4 times their salary. To me, this still seems a little high because, when I first looked to buy a house, the going rate for a mortgage was 2.5 times the higher wage plus 1 times the lower, or 3 times a single wage. This point aside, the chart still shows that - despite the economic collapse in 2008, current house prices are nearly 4.5 times an average salary. So, does this mean that, if mortgage lenders offered mortgages at 5 times a person's salary, everybody would be able to afford to buy a house?

The simple answer is no, because the ratio given above is based on average salary and, in April 2009, this was £35,638, rising to £35,830 in April 2010. HM Revenue & Customs helpfully publish tables showing who pays what taxes. One of these shows the number of people paying tax at various levels, in the tax year 2009-10, which is summarised in the table to the left.

This shows that up to 27,846,000 people earned below £30,000 so, even if they could get a mortgage at five times their salary, they could not afford an average house. It is also worth remembering that, when people talk about affordable housing, they often refer to certain 'essential workers' who need to be able to live all over the country. These include:
Given that, in August 2012, the Lloyds Banking Group reckoned an average house cost £160,256, that means these two groups would require a mortgage that was a staggering 7.5 times their salary! This is, clearly, not affordable.

But what if these individuals went for something smaller?Well, the long-term ratio for house prices to earnings was 4 so, for a moment, let's assume that most mortgage lenders will offer an individual a mortgage at four times their salary. That means that, if our essential workers are to be able to afford to buy a property, then they need to look for homes that cost less than £82,000 - only just over half the average house price. A quick search on Google shows that there are properties available in this price range, but in a limited range of locations and generally only as part of a part-buy/part-rent scheme.

But, even at this level of housing, 15,596,000 people still wouldn't be able to afford to buy their own home. So what about the lowest paid people? DirectGov gives the current minimum wage for an adult as £6.19. Assuming a person works 48 hours per week (the current maximum under the Working Time Directive) this works out at an annual salary of £15,450. Maintaining our assumption that everybody can obtain a mortgage at four times their salary, that means these hard-working individual are looking for properties that cost less than £62,000. Google again shows that such properties are available, but with even less choice of location than the teachers and nurses, and all in part-time/part-buy schemes.

However, looking at the minimum wage does enable consideration of a final problem, and that is to do with the increase in house prices. As stated at the outset, increasing house prices do not necessarily mean that houses are not affordable. But, by dividing average houses prices by 10,000, they can be compared with the hourly rate for the minimum wage since 1983:
This indicates a major problem with the various promises of 'affordable housing'. Even if the current problems are resolved, by ensuring everybody can obtain a mortgage equal to four times their annual salary, and properties are available for as little as £62,000, it will only mean that houses are affordable while house prices rise by no more than inflation. At the moment this is the case - according to the Office for National Statistics house prices rose by 2.3% in the year to June 2012 which is roughly the same as average wage rises and a little less than inflation which, in August 2012, was 2.5%. However, in the UK, it has been usual to regard buying a house as an investment - and the rise in average prices in the late 1990s and early 2000s shows why people have taken this attitude. So, we generally expect house prices to rise by more than inflation.... and the minute that happens, affordable house start to be priced out of reach of the lowest paid people.

If we really want affordable housing, we have to accept that the price of houses rises only at the rate of wages, and that the massive increases of the decade before the economic crises were unrealistic, unsustainable and - most importantly - undesirable.

More on Daylight Saving

Since my original blog about how there is no such thing as daylight saving, a friend had kindly highlighted this short video on the same topic. Written from a North American point of view, it makes many points that are valid here in the UK - such as the confusion caused by different countries moving their clocks at different times in the year.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Which Bus Do I Want?

One of the things I found strange when I moved to Ipswich was the number of bus companies.

Any web search will reveal Ipswich Buses, one of the few bus companies in the country in which the local council still have a stake! A quick trip to the office at Tower Ramparts will even furbish you with paper copies of the route map, various timetables and multi-ride tickets.

However, depending on your route across Ipswich, you'll also spot the bus garage at the Cattle Market. Here one finds the office for First buses and, once again, it's possible to collect maps and timetables, and to buy tickets.

But it doesn't take long before one notices that each office supplies only information about their 'own' buses. So, if you want to catch an Ipswich Bus into the town centre and then catch a First bus to the coast, you will need to visit both offices (or both websites) to collect all the relevant information.

While waiting for a bus at the Cattle Market, it quickly becomes apparent that even this isn't the end of the story. There is now a direct link to the airport, supplied by Airport by Coach. Plus there is the Park and Ride service, Carters Coach Services, Beestons, Simonds and Galloway. All with their own offices, websites, timetables and ticketing systems. The fact that Far East Travel ceased trading in March 2012 has reduced the problem slightly! (A Soames & Sons may also have joined them, or they may just not have a website.)

Suffolk County Council, with their Suffolk On Board website has tried to address the problem of finding out about the local buses, but their maps are colourful but not very useful and, without access to a PC, the information is not easily obtained. I did, once, pick up a copy of their route map when I was at the Ipswich Music Day, but they didn't have any maps available at last year's Music Day.

If you want information about how to get from Point A to Point B then you have to resort to the traveline website, and it's unclear which buses this covers.

Bus deregulation was brought in, by the Tories, in 1985. In the intervening years, any number of people have written about how it doesn't work (as any search engine will quickly reveal). Until I moved out of London, and away from regulated buses, I hadn't realised just how difficult it could be to even find out which bus goes to the place you wish to visit. If the Government is serious about getting people out of their cars then, in my view, they have to address the lack of integrated information about local bus services. If it's easier to put a destination into a sat-nav and jump into a car, who is going to bother trying to catch a bus?