Friday 19 December 2008

No need for long hours

I welcome the vote in the European Parliament to end the UK opt-out from the working time directive. This has been an anomaly for too long, and it is to the shame of Labour that they have not only not abolished the opt-out themselves, but actively opposed its abolition. Many of the arguments put forward by those who wish to retain the opt-out are specious at best.

Some employers' organisations try to present this as preventing workers from 'choosing' to work longer hours, but the reality is that the employees often have little choice. I am aware of some organisations, for instance, where it is a condition of employment that staff sign a 'voluntary' waiver of their rights before they are employed.

The representative of the IoD even argued that we need longer hours to get us out of the recession. I'm not convinced - employing fewer people for longer hours seems to me a much less effective way of doing that than employing more people for shorter hours – and the latter is more likely to build social inclusion and share wealth as well.

Others have argued that it goes against the differing 'employment cultures' in the different European states. That seems to be code for the fact that the UK has a culture of long hours, and employers wish to retain that. One has to ask why. I've worked in organisations with that type of culture – and it often means that people are afraid not to be in work before the boss, and afraid to be seen to be going home before him. Do they achieve any more? Not in my experience - there comes a point where 'presenteeism' becomes ineffective and adds nothing to overall output. There is a huge difference between increasing output and increasing productivity. Working longer can increase output; but increasing productivity has more to do with working smarter.

Most worrying of all, however, is surely the idea that the UK's 'competitiveness' somehow depends on people working longer hours than our European neighbours. Why? And what on earth does it say about our systems and processes if other European countries can deliver more effectively that we can in shorter hours?

For too long, the culture of long hours has been used as an excuse by some employers for their own failures to invest in equipment, processes, and training - and it is the employees who have paid the cost. A common playing field across Europe should be something we welcome, not fear.

Thursday 18 December 2008

Don't tell the banks

It often seems that, as fast as I get my various spam filters set up to avoid the stuff, so the spammers find some way of getting around the controls, and their missives get through. I've never really understood why they think someone is more likely to buy replica watches or Viagra just because the title indicates that the e-mail content will be something completely different.

Anyway, one of the successful ones to get through today offers me a way of beating the credit crunch and getting a 215% return on my investment. It's obviously too good to be true, of course. But I do hope that they haven't succeeded in getting through the spam filters at any of the banks – based on recent performance, they might just fall for it.

Wednesday 17 December 2008

Bolting stable doors

The news that some of our most respectable banks have been completely taken in by what appears to be the most gigantic pyramid selling scam in history is pretty alarming, but is just another indication of the way that corporate and personal greed can blind people to reality.

Not everyone was taken in, of course. As the Sunday Times pointed out, a number of investors were savvy enough to ask how on earth someone could manage a return of 1% to 1.2%, month in month out, and never have a down month. One even said "We could never quite work out what it was that he did". But some major banks ploughed their - our - money in regardless, seeing only an incredibly high level of return and wanting a piece of the action. The net losses from this latest example of greed could be as high as £33billion.

I have to say that I have little confidence that this is the last bubble which will emerge from the wreckage of the world's financial systems. The way that people were taken in over the securitisation of dodgy sub-prime debts was bad enough; but if they have also fallen for a pyramid selling scheme on this scale, it seems highly probable that other problems will emerge as accountants (and hopefully the police) pore over the debris.

That gives me an issue with the government's latest scheme to pump more into the banking system by purchasing 'assets' from the banks. I don't know – and nor am I convinced that anyone else does – whether these 'assets' are actually worth anything, let alone the large sums which we as taxpayers will be paying for them. The only thing of which I am certain is that the amount of 'assets' being traded on the markets is significantly higher than the amount of real, tangible value underpinning them – according to some estimates, possibly by a factor of as much as 10:1.

At the bottom of all this mess are two main factors, it seems to me. The first of those is greed – the pursuit of unrealistic returns which out-perform the market, and which are believable only by suspending critical judgement. And the second is that the financial instruments being traded on the world's financial markets have become too complex for most of the people trading in them – never mind the layman – to understand. Derivatives of derivatives; betting on the outcome of other people's bets – this type of market making serves the interests of only the few, and for them to gain, the rest of us have to lose.

We need to take the time to clean out the stable, not just bail out the banks, and do it thoroughly if we are to have a basis for rebuilding confidence. That means a great deal more regulation over what banks and other institutions can or cannot do, and a determined effort to purge the markets of the gamblers and speculators who think only of themselves. And it means an end to some of the overly-complex financial instruments which are at the root of recent problems.

In that context, the call by David Cameron for an inquiry into the causes of the financial crisis sounded praiseworthy at first – until I read the small print. In fact, for all the brave rhetoric, his call for those who have brought about the downfall of the banking system to face the music seems to be limited to those who can be proven guilty of actual illegal actions, which means that the vast majority of those who have behaved in an utterly irresponsible fashion would completely escape his clampdown. Not really surprising, given that his party removed the regulations which would have prevented some of the daftest decisions being taken. (Gordon Brown, of course, even lectured the rest of the world on why they should do the same. For either to criticise the other over the causes of the crisis is less than honest.)

I am absolutely certain that Cameron's call for those who have behaved irresponsibly to be punished will not extend to the gamblers and speculators who fund his party, for instance. And even after all that has happened recently, his friends and backers, the short-sellers, are still at it – undermining the UK economy by short-selling sterling in order to make large sums of money for themselves.

Properly run financial markets are an essential element of the world's financial systems; but markets should be there, first and foremost, to serve our collective needs. A market which operates primarily to allow the greedy to make profits at the expense of others is not serving the interests of the majority. Given that we all depend on the markets to keep the economy moving, we have every right to insist that they be run in a way which is transparent and honest and which serves our needs.

Tuesday 16 December 2008

Paying for spin

As part of its coverage of AMs expenses, the Western Mail drew attention to the monies paid by two local Tory AMs to a company (Hart Media Services) owned by the Tory Parliamentary candidate and his wife for "press work". (I think they got their figures slightly wrong – I make the total paid £4810 rather than £4615.)

The company seems to have started working for one of the AMs in May 2007 (quite interesting in itself, given that the company appears not to have been established until 14th June!), and for the other from July 2007. In both cases, there seems to be a standard monthly payment being made on a regular basis.

Labour AM, Alun Davies, has rightly queried the propriety of the arrangement, arguing that this is a case of using taxpayers' money for the purposes of "funding a PR company, which has clear links to a Tory candidate to publicise the work of Conservative AM’s in West Wales".

However, anyone perusing the local media would know that almost every statement issued by the AM carries a quote from the parliamentary candidate, and almost every photo of the AM somehow manages to include the parliamentary candidate as well. If this is the 'press work' being paid for by the AM's allowance, then it is being used not just to promote the AMs, but also to promote the parliamentary candidate himself. I find it hard to believe that that is within the letter, let alone the spirit, of the rules.

Monday 15 December 2008

Roads for Wales

Back in the 1960s and 1970s, economic development in Wales was seen primarily as a question of attracting large inward investments. In that context, transport links - especially road links - were seen as an absolutely key element, by myself as well as many others. A good, dualled, road network across Wales from West to East as well as North to South was seen - almost universally, I think - as a good thing, even if there were some issues about affordability.

But times and attitudes have changed, and policy needs to adapt, although it seems that not everyone can see or understand that yet. Our future need is to move away from over-dependence on large inward investment schemes and rebuild a more localised economy with a range of smaller, indigenous enterprises serving more local areas, and that implies a very different approach to road planning.

It does not mean that we do not need good, efficient transport links, but it does mean a change of emphasis. In Pembrokeshire, for instance, I am convinced that the idea that economic salvation rides in on the back of a dual carriageway right across the county is an outdated and irrelevant concept. We certainly need a good network of major roads across the county, but we also need some significant improvements to the county's internal road network if we are to build a sustainable and localised economy.

In that context, I believe that Ieuan Wyn Jones took the right decision last week, in his announcement that the A40 improvements will proceed according to current plans which include key by-passes for Robeston Wathen and Llanddewi Velfrey. The proposed solution will be cheaper, and will be delivered sooner than the alternative dual carriageway proposal suggested by the Tories and the County Council, and will provide an adequate backbone for the network in the north of the county.

I'd like to see the Llanddewi Velfrey by-pass element delivered sooner than currently planned, of course; as well as improvements to the main road through the south of the county to Pembroke, but that's a debate about timetabling and relative priority rather than about the design solution.

Both the County Council and the local Tory AMs have done their best to obstruct progress by insisting on an unnecessary dual carriageway solution. Clinging to outdated concepts of economic development, they have attempted to present a dual carriageway as an essential element of the county's prosperity, conveniently forgetting to point out that, if they had their way, the result would be not only a massive increase in cost, but a consequential serious further delay in providing much needed relief to villages currently split in half by a major trunk road.

That would be bad enough if they had done their homework; but the county council attempted to use a little-known procedure of the National Assembly to press its case without properly preparing in advance. The result is that they had no solution to the question of the extra costs involved (and certainly weren't prepared to offer any money from their own coffers), they produced no evidence of any economic benefits which would stem from their proposal, and couldn't even justify their proposal on the basis of a need for extra capacity. The net result was that they simply wasted time and money in a useless piece of grandstanding.

The Tory AMs have described the decision by the Assembly Committee as a 'bitter blow'. Their claim that the attempt was thrown out by the Assembly Government is however a complete misrepresentation of the situation. Pembrokeshire's petition was heard by an all-party committee, which agreed its decision unanimously. Even their Tory colleague member was completely unconvinced by the arguments presented.

The Tories have also been on a little jaunt to Ireland to help them prepare a 'business case' for dualling, apparently. Of course, a major part of the traffic on the A40 is Irish lorries coming off the ferry – and then driving all the way across Pembrokeshire (and Wales!) without stopping, and there is no doubt that a dual carriageway would benefit the Irish businesses involved. I'm sure that those businesses would be delighted to see the Assembly Government spending its scarce resources on building a super highway so that they can get their lorries through the county even faster – but how does that benefit Wales, let alone Pembrokeshire?

A sensible, planned transport strategy would be aiming to get that traffic off the roads completely, and onto the railways, and that's an area where I'd certainly like to see a more pro-active approach from the Assembly Government. Scarce Welsh financial resources should be used to build a transport infrastructure which is low carbon in its construction and operation. Last week's announcement by Ieuan Wyn Jones is a good start in that direction.

Friday 5 December 2008

Hidden agendas

"The Field" is not a magazine which features on my regular reading list, but my attention was drawn to an article in the November issue, written by the Chief Executive of the Countryside Alliance. He is also known to us locally, of course, as the Conservative candidate for the parliamentary election.

The article quotes extensively the founder and director of a rather shadowy organisation called Vote-OK. Vote-OK proudly boast that they helped to unseat a number of Labour MPs in the 2005 election, and are aiming to do even better in the next election, because they have had time to "bed down in the target constituencies". The impression given by the article is of an objective interview; but it seems that there may be a much closer relationship between the two people involved.

Vote-OK have a web-site, which spells out what they are about, with rather more honesty than when they're out on the ground campaigning. They are a single-issue group, properly and legally registered as a third party organisation with the Electoral Commission, which seeks the repeal of the Hunting Act by removing anti-hunting MPs (Labour) and replacing them with pro-hunting MPs (Tory). They concentrate their efforts on marginal constituencies, and organise thousands of volunteers from local hunts to turn out to support the Tory candidates.

Specifically, they claim to have unseated 29 MPs in the last election, and to be targeting another 139 for the next election. Although their FAQ's section declines to identify which MPs and constituencies they are targeting, I think we can probably take it as read that Nick Ainger and Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire will be receiving the 'benefit' of their attention.

And that means that people locally should know a bit more about them. There are two aspects in particular which might cause people to ask some searching questions.

Take, for example, the comments about them in a report by the Electoral Commission on the 2005 General Election. The report described them thus, "Vote OK was an innovative and unusual ‘single-issue’ campaigning group in that it did not campaign at all on the issue in question", and "Vote OK did not campaign on the issue of hunting". Yes, that's right. They campaign in a range of constituencies in pursuit of a single policy objective which they endeavour never to actually mention!

Indeed, according to this report from the Mirror on a more recent election campaign, their volunteers are actually under clear instructions not to talk about hunting at all, and to give the impression that they are Tory Party workers.

Secondly, what exactly is their relationship with the Countryside Alliance? They claim, again in their FAQ page, to be entirely independent of the Alliance, but they were actually founded by three former members of staff of the Countryside Alliance, and the Electoral Commission report refers to them as having "emerged out of the Countryside Alliance". The 'emergence' of this new group appears to be a means by which an apparently all-party group has spawned a political wing which specifically aids the Tory Party.

More evidence for the relationship between Vote-OK and the Countryside Alliance comes from 2005, when the Guardian published a leaked transcript of a conversation between the Chief Executive of the Alliance (and now Tory candidate for this constituency), and the people involved in setting up the new group. The transcript indicates that the said Chief Executive took a big part in setting up Vote-OK, and in advising them on how to get rid of Labour MPs.

Amongst other things, he advised them against physical assaults on Labour MPs, with the words "Alun Michael [the rural affairs minister] with blood running from his nose lying in a ditch because somebody decked him might give the person who did it a warm feeling for a short time. It might also do untold harm." Warm feeling? Only 'might' do untold harm?

Perhaps most telling of all, in terms of clarity about their objectives, methods, and hidden agenda, is this extract from the Guardian's report:

Mr Hart then went on to spell out the strategy. "It would be much cleverer if we never mentioned hunting at all ... We've got to go into these constituencies campaigning on health, education, crime."

In short, it's a clear declaration that these one issue campaigners should avoid all mention of their core issue, but instead pretend to be interested in more general questions. And it provides further evidence for the view held by many local Conservatives that their party has been infiltrated and taken over by single-issue campaigners. Entryism used to be a problem for the Labour Party; but it seems that it's the Tories who are the victims these days.

It means that we have a Conservative Party largely financed from the profits of the sort of activity which has brought the world's banking systems to the verge of collapse, and a candidate who seems to consider that issues relating to health, education, and crime are relevant primarily as a ruse for hiding the real agenda. The hidden agenda behind all of this is the repeal of the Hunting Act, but those involved are doing their utmost to avoid discussing this objective with those whose votes they seek.

Now, as I said earlier, none of this is actually illegal under current rules. Some might think that it should be illegal for an organisation to campaign semi-secretly in an election whilst doing what they can to conceal what they are doing and why; but as things stand, it seems that it is not. However, for me, being entirely legal is not at all the same thing as being entirely honest with the voters.

Tuesday 2 December 2008

Stating the obvious

I was disappointed by the report a few days ago about the Assembly Committee which had been deliberating the question of small rural schools. The conclusion that 'small schools should not be kept open at the expense of a child's education' is unquestionably a case of stating the obvious, and didn't need a six month enquiry to reach.

Some politicians have a technique of asking questions in a way which leads you to the conclusion that they want, and the statement by the committee's chair, Alun Davies AM, is a classic in that context. "Should we provide children with a second-rate education so a community group can have a hall in which to meet?", he asked. Well, no, of course not – but that isn't what anyone is asking for. When communities lose their school, it isn't the buildings that are the most important factor – it's the social and community activity which revolves around the school.

I've had some experience as a parent of children in both a medium-sized urban school and a small rural school, and the educational experience of children in the two settings is clearly very different.

Larger schools provide more competition between children of the same age, and for some children, the lack of that element in a small school can be a real problem. But smaller schools can provide a real family atmosphere in which there is individual attention for children, and in which the children look out for each other across the age ranges.

Larger schools can and do select the ablest pupils to take part in concerts, sports and shows – small schools typically find a role for every child in every event.

Small schools tend to get more support from parents, grandparents and friends at their events. There is a much more real sense of 'ownership' by the community. A turnout of 20% at the annual meeting with governors would be considered good by many larger schools; less than 80% at many small schools would be seen as very poor.

There is no necessary reason why the educational experience provided in a small school should be any better, or any worse, than that provided in a larger school; but it will be very different. The quality of leadership is probably the most important factor governing success or failure, not the size.

That brings us back to the one factor which is indisputably different between small and large schools – the cost per head. From this report, as from so many other new stories in recent years, it is hard to escape the fact that, whatever politicians say about the quality of the educational experience, the real driver behind the move to fewer, larger schools is financial. And no-one should be surprised that, when they realise this, communities feel that the community benefits of retaining the schools make it a price worth paying.

Monday 1 December 2008

Still taking the money

It seems that David Cameron decided at the last minute not to attend a lavish birthday party given by a hedge fund millionaire and Tory donor on Friday night. He had been expected, but pulled out, apparently because he thought that such a party might not be in keeping with the new mood of political austerity.

He's still taking their money, though.

Democracy in action?

I have a fairly open mind at this stage about the suggestion of replacing the current police authority set-up with directly-elected authorities. In principle, electing people to the authorities seems to me to be preferable to appointing them behind closed doors, even if many of the people appointed have themselves already been through an election to become local councillors. To be worthwhile, however, the police authorities would need to have a real degree of control over policing, and not just be rubber-stamps for whatever the Home Office decides.

I'm not convinced that the reasons given by opponents of the idea at the weekend stand up terribly well, though.

I'm reluctant to disagree with a councillor from my own party, but I simply can't go along with Lindsay's argument that we shouldn't make this change because there is a danger that extremists could end up serving on police authorities. It's true, of course, and most of us would not welcome such an outcome – but it sounds a little bit like arguing that we shouldn't hold elections because the turnout might be low and the wrong people might win them.

It was the comments of the WLGA leader, John Davies, which seemed to me to be particularly lacking in validity. He expressed concern that the police authorities and local authorities might end up working to different political agendas – conveniently ignoring the fact that Dyfed-Powys (his and my home force) covers the area of four different counties, so there is no way that they can currently be guaranteed to be following the same agenda anyway.

He also argues that this would add another level of "unnecessary and extremely costly" bureaucracy. I'm really not sure how replacing nominees with elected members either adds another level or needs to cost any more.

I suspect that Cllr Davies is actually more concerned about losing part of his personal power, however. In Pembrokeshire, the county council's 'Independent' members of the police authority are not elected by the council, but are in the gift of the Leader of the council – who has a total of 34 paid posts to which he can appoint his councillors. The Leader is none other than the very same Cllr John Davies. And I'm sure that he weighed things up very carefully before appointing himself as one of the county council's representatives on the Police Authority.