Monthly Archives: February 2011

Obama, US citizenship and the Presidency

The question mark over Barack Obama’s birthplace and his legitimacy as President continues to hang above his head. A recent poll found that “ Fifty one per cent of Republican primary voters said they endorsed the controversial “birther” theory that Mr Obama was not born in Hawaii, despite birth notices in two Honolulu newspapers in August 1961 and the fact that the state’s authorities have published his birth certificate online. A further 21 per cent said they were “not sure”.  Daily Telegraph  Alex Spillius, Washington 16 Feb 2011

The robust persistence of  such a rumour about a sitting US President  is  remarkable.  To most people it would seem a small thing for Obama to provide conclusive evidence of his place of birth. All he would need to do is release his own  copy of the original birth record or get the Hawaii authorities to do so. Instead he has prevaricated endlessly and failed to perform  this simple act

There are two striking things about  the many  attempted challenges to Obama’s legitimacy ( :  the failure of Obama to provide conclusive evidence to refute the claims and the  questions which just begged to be  asked but went unvoiced.   My purpose here will concentrate on those two facts. I shall not get involved in questions such as the putative Kenyan birth certificate and alleged    photoshop watermarks on the released “certificate of live birth” .  As for the question of what constitutes a “ natural born citizen” of the United States, I will touch on that only in so far as it rests  on unquestioned  facts such as place of birth and  the disqualification from  the presidency of anyone not born in the USA.

What legally qualifies someone to run for presidency?

This is defines  a citizen of the USA:

“All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside”. Amendment XIV(Ratified July 9, 1868  Section 1)

This creates eligibility for the Presidency:

“No person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President; neither shall any Person be eligible to that Office who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty-five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States.” (US Constitution Article 2 section 1)

If  Obama  was born abroad he would prima facie  be disqualified from the office of President  simply by those two simple constitutional statements.  There is the added complication of a  father who was not a citizen of the USA.  This would offer him  dual nationality even if he was born in the USA.

The information Obama has provided

What has  Obama has  done  since the story became a public embarrassment for him during the 2008 primaries? Feed the rumour mill by doing  the thing most likely to increase suspicion: providing  putative evidence which is by its nature inconclusive .

Obama responded to the claims about foreign birth on 12 June 2008  by posting a  “certificate of live birth”  issued by Hawaii on a website entitled “Fight the Smears”


This is the certificate which is informally known as a short certificate. The problem is it is neither an  original document  (it was laser printed in June 2007)  nor  the full birth certificate compiled at the time of the birth.   As such it proves nothing,  for it cannot be subjected to forensic tests such as age of paper, nature of ink used and print type to ascertain whether it was created circa 1961.  It is worth asking why Obama  did not produce his original certificate. It may have been lost , but he does not appear to have claimed this.  But even if the original had been lost,  it is more than a little strange that Obama  did not have a copy dating from before  2007  because he would have needed it for such purposes as obtaining a passport.

The longer Hawaiian certificate of life birth used at the time of Obama’s birth looks like this:

 File:1961 Hawaii Certificate Of Live Birth.jpg

The failure to  produce an original document, whether that be a “Certification of Live Birth”  or  the longer  “Certificate of Live Birth” inevitably  feeds the suspicion that any document  he produced   either would not stand up to thorough forensic examination or there is information on  the original certificate which shows  Obama was born on foreign territory or has some other source of embarrassment . 

Much has been made of  the Barack Obama birth announcement, published in The Honolulu Advertiser on Aug. 13, 1961:

An identical notice appeared in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin.

This again proves nothing because it does not give the place of birth.  The fact that the it gives an Hawaii address is meaningless as a determinant  where Obama was born,  because it would be natural for the birth of a  child born outside the USA to parents resident in the USA  to be announced in their local newspaper. This could have been done by either Obama’s  parents or his  mother’s parents who were resident in Honolulu. .

It has been suggested that the notices were sent by   the local health authorities to the Hawaii Newspaper Agency  which then distributed them to the press. The evidence for this is less than conclusive:

‘Advertiser columnist and former Star-Bulletin managing editor Dave Shapiro was not at either paper in 1961, but he remembers how the birth notices process worked years later when both papers were jointly operated by the Hawaii Newspaper Agency — which no longer exists.

“Those were listings that came over from the state Department of Health,” he said. “They would send the same thing to both papers.”’

Three  things stand out from  this report. First, no one around at the time of the notices being published, either from the papers, the news agency or the Department of Health appears to have verified Shapiro’s statement.  Second,  presumably there would be nothing to stop the parents or other relatives of a child providing the information directly to the newspapers or the news agency.  Third, assuming that Obama was born abroad and then brought back to Hawaii not long after the birth, presumably there would be some  medical supervision  of the child in his first months of life and it is plausible that in such circumstances details of the birth could have been passed to the Department of Health who then  passed them on to the news agency.

It might be  objected that it would be improbable  that  his mother would have chosen Kenya rather than the USA to have her child in simply because the medical care available there in 1961 would have been much inferior to that in the USA.  However, there is his mother’s penchant for international  trekking to take into account and a most powerful reason on his father’s side: that Obama senior wanted his child to be born in his country.

A proper forensic examination

A through  forensic examination would include testing whether the any official stamp was authentic; whether  the paper, print type (the forms were completed by tying judged by the long version example shown above) , the  ink used for the typed entries and  the ink used for the hand written entries such as signatures were (1) available in 1961 and  (2) consistent with that used on other certificates of the same period.  The handwritten entries should also be compared with those on other certificates to see if they can be  identified as the writing of  whoever  filled in certificates at that time.  It is also possible that the paper would have been watermarked for security reasons and that should be checked.  If  no watermark exists when it should exist  or there is a  watermark  but it is not identical with that of verified authentic watermarks, it would be most difficult to claim that any document offered as Obama’s genuine record of birth was authentic.

A  proper  investigation would require more than a thorough forensic examination of  both the original “certification of live birth “ and the  “certificate of live birth”  documents. It would also encompass  Obama swearing on oath that he was born in Hawaii; getting his surviving close family who were around when he was born  to swear on oath that was where he was born; tracking down and questioning under oath  medical staff who were at the hospital when he was delivered and the medical staff who attended his mother and Obama in the months immediately following his birth; tracking down those who knew the family then and questioning them under oath; attempting to get the Kenyan authorities to cooperate, searching for people in Kenya who knew Obama’s father and questioning them .

The conspiracy objection

Is it really so fantastic to imagine that the US state apparatus might have conspired to suppress the truth by forging documents and making sure they kept quiet  anybody  who might know  something which could have scuppered Obama’s political ambitions at either the presidential  candidacy stage or after his election?  We know for a fact that the US state sanctions or has sanctioned in the past  torture (for example waterboarding), assassinations  (  and barefaced lying when it suits their purposes.  There are also the suspicious deaths  of many people such as Vince Foster who carried a threat to those within the state apparatus. Would such people baulk at a little light forgery and intimidation?

As for the supposed improbability of large numbers of  people in the know keeping their mouths shut,  we have a first rate example of such  behaviour in Britain with the entire British media’s refusal to run the story of the attempted suicide of Kathryn Blair  in the Spring of 2004. (

More broadly, human beings generally have a fear of those with power. A  plausible explanation for why  judges around the USA have refused to allow challenges to Obama’s presidential legitimacy is fear. They may well  fear that if they allowed a case to be heard,  they could be at best the subject of a media vilification campaign and at worst find their judicial careers severely hindered. There is also the complication that Obama is black. This  means that the full weight of political correctness has worked against anyone in position of authority or influence taking the claims seriously, at least in public, for what politician, public official or media owner  would want to be seen as the person who stopped America getting its first black president or bringing  its first black president down?

The legal challenges have predominantly  failed because of a refusal to grant plaintiffs “standing. ” Standing is a legal doctrine which says that someone must show they had suffered a material loss or other damage  before  a court allows a suit to be heard. Here is a judge dealing with one of the challenges to Obama: ‘Judge R. Barclay Surrick of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania in dismissing one suit.  He noted that one of the principal aims of the doctrine is to prevent courts from deciding questions “where the harm is too vague.” This was especially true for a presidential election, where a disgruntled voter who suffered no individual harm “would have us derail the democratic process by invalidating a candidate for whom millions of people voted and who underwent excessive vetting during what was one of the most hotly contested presidential primary in living memory.” ‘ (

What, one might ask, could be a greater harm to a US citizen than a most serious breach of the Constitution?   The uniform determination of the US judiciary to disallow legal challenges  stinks  more than a little.

There has also been obstruction in the supposed state of Obama’s birth.   The state Health Director Chiyome Fukino issued a  statement on 31 October 2008 which  explained why  requests for Obama’s  original certificate had been refused: :  “There have been numerous requests for Sen. Barack Hussein Obama’s official birth certificate.  State law (Hawaii Revised Statutes §338-18) prohibits the release of a certified birth certificate to persons who do not have a tangible interest in the vital record.”

What could  be a more tangible interest for a US citizen than establishing whether a man running for President is qualified to do so?  So desperate did the State’s politicians become that in May 2010 Hawaii enacted a law  which allowed “duplicative or substantially similar”  information requests  to be ignored.

Why has Obama not done everything he could to quash  the rumour?

It makes no sense for him to let this sore suppurate if the claim is total nonsense.  Moreover, the fact that he has not completely ignored the issue means he accepts there is a question needing an answer.  To argue that Obama  has presented evidence which proves the matter beyond reasonable doubt is simply false.  To say that the release of  more information would   lead to an unending demand for further evidence and be an  unwanted distraction to his presidency  is clearly absurd, because his failure to provide anything but very questionable evidence  means the story will never die while he is in office and may well gain more and more headway.   Worse, the failure to provide conclusive evidence  in itself suggest that none exists.  I will leave the last word to the social commentator Camille Paglia :

“I had thought for many months that the flap over Obama’s birth certificate was a tempest in a teapot. But simple questions about the certificate were never resolved to my satisfaction. Thanks to their own blathering, fanatical overkill, of course, the right-wing challenges to the birth certificate never gained traction. But Obama could have ended the entire matter months ago by publicly requesting Hawaii to issue a fresh, long-form, stamped certificate and inviting a few high-profile reporters in to examine the document and photograph it. (The campaign did make the “short-form” certificate available to, a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.”

Selling Britain by the pound: the immorality of privatisation

Does a British government have the moral and legal right to sell off industries and property owned by the state? In Britain the answer m is that it can legally do so. Barring restrictions agreed to in treaties, most particularly the Treaty of Rome and its successor treaties, a British government may legally do what it wishes. It may also repudiate existing treaty obligations. Parliament may in principle pass any law it wishes. That demonstrates the danger of having a political system without any  constitutional bars to government action.

But if privatisation is legal, it does not follow that it is morally justified. To begin with to sell that to which no legal title exists  would be illegal in any circumstance other than the special circumstance of Parliament passing a law to make it legal. That governments have no natural; legal ownership of that which is privatized can be seen from the fact that these are enterprises and property which were either developed from scratch by government or were taken over by the state, often from municipal undertakings which were public developments in themselves. In each case taxpayers’ money was used to either start or acquire them and in every case they were sustained and developed with taxpayers’ money.

For Britons who bought shares privatisation was a form of taxation. They paid money for that which the state already held on their behalf.  It was the greatest confidence trick in history,  selling people what they already owned. Non-British taxpayers purchased that which was not morally the State’s to sell. But the deceit went beyond this. By selling that which was held in common for the British, they robbed those Britons who did not purchase shares and the future generations who would have no stake in that which was sold before they were born.  

In many instances, especially after the first flush of Thatcher’s privatization bonanza, there has not been a public flotation , so that the public had not even the say of shareholders in how what was once held in common was managed.  The British government moved from being confidence tricksters to fences, selling what they did not own for what they could get, which, as is the way when thieves sell to fences, was always  far below the real value of that which was sold.  

Privatisation could perhaps have been morally justified if every British citizen had been issued free shares in each privatized industry, which they could then have held or sold as they chose. The Government would not then have had the proceeds, of course, but it should be remembered that the prime reason given by Margaret Thatcher for privatisation was that it would modernise great British industries through the invigorating blast of free enterprise. Ostensibly at least the raising of money for the government was not the prime motivation.

The money received from privatisation has simply vanished into general government expenditure. Had the money been earmarked for particular projects dear to the public’s heart, such as new hospitals and schools or placed in a separate fund to help pay the state pension in the years when it is anticipated that those working will substantially decline in relation to those who are retired, at least the public would have something concrete and identifiable to set against the loss of public assets. As it is the public as a whole has nothing.

It is of course impossible to prove whether taxes would have been higher or that government expenditure would have been lower if there had been no privatisation proceeds, but it is a fair bet that extra money in government coffers has simply meant additional government expenditure without a proper regard to whether the expenditure was warranted. That is the common experience of governments and public money.

The money obtained through privatisation should not be viewed as pure gain in terms of government expenditure. Privatisation has caused a great deal of what private business euphemistically call  downsizing”. The resultant unemployment costs – unemployment pay and other benefits  – have to be set against the privatisation receipts. In addition, a large proportion of those who have gained alternative employment have found themselves earning a good deal less than they did previously. That equals less tax paid.

Privatisation has been a great cheat practised on the British people.

London Zoo and the global warming religion

This  precious piece of warmist propaganda is plastered all over London  Zoo. (I reproduce  the gem as it appears in the Zoo, the illiteracies and capitalisation being their own).


350 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere is the safe upper limit for almost all life

We are currently at 387 ppm and rising by 2ppm per year, higher than at any time in human history


The wild relatives of the amazing animals you see in the zoo today are already  at risk from:

Melting poles and glaciers

Rising sea levels

Spread of disease carrying mosquitoes to move, warmer places

Increased drought

Warming and acidifying oceans carbonising coral reefs and other species to extinction

In fact, all life, including human life is at peril

The World Association of Zoos and Aquaria supports the urgent call to stabilise atmospheric CO2 as far below 350 ppm as is possible


Visit and 350.0rg “

CO2  is currently “higher than at any time in human history, eh?  Well, maybe, but even that fact is far from certain.  Take this article in Nature in 2000:

‘Atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations over the past 60 million years

Paul N. Pearson1 & Martin R. Palmer2

1.Department of Earth Sciences, University of Bristol, Queens Road, Bristol BS8 1RJ, UK

2.T. H. Huxley School, Imperial College, RSM Building, Prince Consort Road, London SW7 2BP, UK

“Knowledge of the evolution of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations throughout the Earth’s history is important for a reconstruction of the links between climate and radiative forcing of the Earth’s surface temperatures. Although atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations in the early Cenozoic era (about 60 Myr ago) are widely believed to have been higher than at present, there is disagreement regarding the exact carbon dioxide levels, the timing of the decline and the mechanisms that are most important for the control of CO2 concentrations over geological timescales. Here we use the boron-isotope ratios of ancient planktonic foraminifer shells to estimate the pH of surface-layer sea water throughout the past 60 million years, which can be used to reconstruct atmospheric CO2 concentrations. We estimate CO2 concentrations of more than 2,000 p.p.m. for the late Palaeocene and earliest Eocene periods (from about 60 to 52 Myr ago), and find an erratic decline between 55 and 40 Myr ago that may have been caused by reduced CO2 outgassing from ocean ridges, volcanoes and metamorphic belts and increased carbon burial. Since the early Miocene (about 24 Myr ago), atmospheric CO2 concentrations appear to have remained below 500 p.p.m. and were more stable than before, although transient intervals of CO2 reduction may have occurred during periods of rapid cooling approximately 15 and 3 Myr ago.”’

That is saying CO2 levels are thought to have remained below 500 ppm for 24 million years or so. That means fully fledged  mammals have survived happily enough at higher concentrations than  350 ppm and in the not too distant geological past before that date,  proto mammals and of course organic life in general managed to get along with a massive 2,000 ppm of CO2.

The other thing to note is the failure to make any mention of the other main greenhouse gases water vapour (the most prevalent greenhouse gas)  and methane. This is a common  turning of a blind eye by the warmist religionists. In the case of water vapour,  they do this  primarily  because  little  can be done about reducing it,   and in as much as man is responsible for producing water vapour,  a great deal of this results from the creation of  paddyfields. As this is  something which is done overwhelmingly by developing nations ,   political correctness kicks in to produce silence amongst Western elites. It is also very inconvenient for the man-made warming argument  to have to admit that the most prevalent  greenhouse gas is effectively beyond human control.   As for methane, that also has a politically correct dimension because  paddyfields produce a large amount of the gas.

I particularly enjoyed  the plea to reduce CO2 in the atmosphere “as far below 350 ppm as is possible. “ Reduce it very  substantially and,  others things being equal,  we would be heading for an ice age or even an earth which became  a permanent snowball.  The plea  also ignores the fact that CO2 is plant food.  Lower CO2 levels means less vegetation which means fewer  animals. Atmospheric greenhouse gases  including CO2 are necessary to maintain the planet in a state in which humans can live.

What this crass piece of warmist propaganda shows is how closed are the minds of the warmists and how  determined they are to proselytise their creed without any regard for logic or  scientific  research   which undermines their case . (It is important to understand that  the place is not just a Zoo,  but also one of Britain’s leading research institutions in the field of the life sciences, this being a consequence of its foundation by the Royal Zoological Society. Hence, they have no excuse for not understanding or being aware of the science).

Could Britain be self-sufficient in food?

As the price of food rapidly rises on the world market the question of food security is once again on the agenda  of even the most committed globalist elite,  because in their heart of hearts all elites care about is sustaining their power and privilege and ideology counts for nothing when their position is threatened. As there is  nothing more likely to cause serious public disorder than the threat of hunger, the recent Labour Government commissioned  the  Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) to commission a report which examined the question in depth.  This was published in 2008

Being a product of NuLabour,  the report predictably concluded that Britain should not try to be self-sufficient but throw in her lot wholeheartedly with the EU and be terribly concerned about the Third World whilst worshipping at the altar of the market and green politics, for example:

“ UK production is of course crucial to our food supply, but it is not on its own sufficient for UK food security.  We should encourage a sufficient volume of domestic  production for the food supply chain as a whole, and that means continuing to encourage a market-driven, efficient and environmentally sustainable farming sector producing what consumers want”.  DEFRA Para 4.22)

Nonetheless, the report  produced a good deal of interesting analysis which suggested Britain might be able to  pinch feed itself at a pinch: “Crude calculations suggest that UK agricultural land could provide more than enough  food from arable production in terms of our daily calorific requirements, in theory making the UK self-sufficient”. (DEFRA report para 4.14).  

This is important because  food security  is along with energy security the most certain guarantee of a country’s sovereignty.  Moreover, energy security is bound up with food security, viz: “As a measure of domestic food security, self-sufficiency does not cover the processing and distribution of food, it does not allow for the imported energy on which domestic agriculture is directly and indirectly reliant, and it does not take account of the resilience of the supply chain.”  (DEFRA report Para  4.15)

How much food does the UK  currently produce?  The DEFRA report says “Currently the UK is 60% self-sufficient in all foods and over 74% self-sufficient in foods that can be produced in this country”.  (Para 4.12). This “self-sufficiency ranges from around 10% for fresh fruit to around 100% for cereals.  (Para 4.15).

60% is high in the modern period. Britain was last self-sufficient in food  in the first half of the 19th century.  With the Empire and a commitment to free trade, Britain’s self sufficiency  had dropped to 40% by 1914 and dropped to nearer 30% in the 1930s (DEFRA  Para 4.12 figure 1).    

Nonetheless,  by  the 1980s Britain produced nearer 70% of her food, partly as a result  of the protectionist measures  such as  the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, although it is worth noting that the EU restricts as well as encourages. For example, Britain could be more than self-sufficient in dairy products , but is restricted by the EU to producing even enough to meet her own needs viz.: “a phased liberalisation of EU milk production – due to come into full force in 2015 – should help the UK’s dairy farmers. Germany, for example, is allowed under the EU quota system to produce some 25bn litres of milk a year – twice what the UK is currently producing” .  ( If  Britain left the EU she could put in place her own protectionist policies and produce as much as she wanted of a product for the home market.

Despite the substantial increase (several million) in the UK population in the past  twenty years,  it is  reasonable to assume that a significant increase in UK food production could occur  with the right protectionist measures  and the ever increasing yields of crops and products from animals due to improvements in plant varieties and husbandry  plus the potential of genetically modified (GM) foods.

There could also be a change in land use which would increase food production overall.   Land which is now marginal could be brought back into use and there could be a shift to more arable farming.  Much of the food now heavily imported, most notably fruit, could be produced at home  if was worth the trouble of producing,. Food would become more seasonal – no bad thing – and some foods which cannot be grown here  – citrus fruits, bananas  and son – might become rare, but these could be compensated for by such measures as the  re-introduction of orchards  for the production of the vast  variety of apples, plums and pairs which will grow here .

Then there are the UK food exports to toss into the equation.   How much food does  the UK export?   According to DEFRA  “in 2006 the value of food, feed and drink exports was £10.5 billion.” (DEFRA report Para 4.7).  If needed, much perhaps all, of this could be diverted to the home market.

Those are the producer options for increasing food security.  There are also things which retailers and customers can do.  There needs to be little waste before it gets to the consumer in the UK because of our highly sophisticated transport and storage systems.   However,   there are reasons why food  is discarded before it reaches the consumer. Food is lost through the fashion for vegetables and fruit which is uniform  in size appearance. This means that substantial amounts are discarded  or used  for animal feed.   As this fashion for uniform fruits and vegetables  is largely driven by the four largest supermarket chains which control two thirds of the British market (DEFRA Para 4.2), it could be ended by government action if we recovered our sovereignty and left the EU.

When food  gets to the shops, it will be discarded by the retailer in if runs  beyond the sell-by date.   As every student knows,  food can be safely eaten when it is beyond the sell-by date.  Discarding also takes place commonly  when the “best before” date is exceeded. There is even less reason to throw away the food than when the sell-by date is exceeded.    “Sell-by” and  “best before” dates  also cause consumers to throw away food unnecessarily.   If either or both dates were scrapped it would probably  reduce waste significantly.  Those who throw their hands up in horror such ask themselves how it was that the British population was not struck down in vast numbers in the days before  sell-by and best before labelling.

The amount which is thrown away  in Britain is vast: ‘“A staggering £10 billion worth of food is thrown away in Britain each year, a third of what we buy, according to a report published on Thursday.

“More than half of the 6.7 million tons of food that is thrown away each year – enough to fill Wembley Stadium eight times – is untouched and could have been eaten, according to the Government-funded Waste and Resources Action Programme.

“Researchers found that more than £1 billion worth of wasted food was still “in date.” ‘

There is considerable scope for reducing waste which is equivalent to increasing production.  If food became scarcer or more expensive,   waste at all points in the production – delivery-consumption chain  would  diminish rapidly.

Finally, there is the question of whether  Britons eat more than is good for them. While not subscribing to the “obesity epidemic” panic, it is undoubtedly true that we are on average substantially fatter than we used to be. A glance at photographs and film of 50  or even 25 years  ago readily shows the difference. Probably  as a consequence of less manual labour at work and in the home and changes in diet,  Britons are not only generally taller but better padded now than they were .   However, whatever its reason, there is clearly scope for a reduction in food intake without causing any great harm. It is worth noting that the general health of the population improved during the years of rationing from 1939 onwards. 

Where does all this leave us?  With rationing and the stopping of food exports  we could probably feed the population immediately.   If we already produce 60% of the food we eat and perhaps raise that to 70% with the exports ,  there would be sufficient to keep people from starvation or serious malnutrition.   In the longer term, it would take  a few years to adjust  to producing more (and  Britain would  also have to secure her energy  and fertiliser  supplies),  but once the period of adjustment was over  it looks as though we  could do a little bit better  than “get by at a pinch”. 

Will such an adjustment  it happen? All it requires is the will amongst  our politicians to see that food self-sufficiency is as vital as military forces to the safety of a nation. It is not something which should be left to international market forces.

How should we decide what public servants are paid?

Over the past twenty years a new problem has grown around  public service pay at both national and regional level. The introduction of so-called business-methods into public service has resulted in the employment of people who are not career public servants in senior public service jobs.  These people have been commonly employed on fixed term contracts with considerably higher remuneration than career public servants have enjoyed.  That in turn has caused career public servants to seek similar pay and fixed term contracts instead of being employed on a normal contract of employment which meant that someone was employed until such time as they reached retirement age, proved incompetent or their job vanished. This inflation of pay at the top has caused the pay of public servants below the top level, especially those immediately below, to be pulled up in order to maintain differentials.  

The other difficulty is that fixed term contracts have often resulted in massive pay-offs to get rid of people who either fall out with the politicians they report to or who are simply incompetent. 

That these developments have  run completely out of control can be seen from the following report: “ Phil Dolan, 54, received £569,000 of taxpayers’ money in salary, pension and redundancy payments after leaving his post as chief executive of South Somerset district council. He is now acting as a consultant for other local authorities.

 Two other executives at the tiny council also received more than £300,000 each in salary, pension and severance payments last year.

 It means every resident of the district paid the equivalent of £7 in council tax last year just to fund the three men’s pay packages. Taken together, the payments represent the most dramatic example of local government largesse yet to be exposed. (Daily Telegraph 18 2 2011)

If public pay is to be brought under control and made fair and reasonable in the eyes of the general public, fixed term contracts need to be outlawed in public service and senior public service pay brought back to the levels of twenty years ago.  Fixed term contracts do not, as their supporters claim save money by making it easier to get rid of people. If public servants were on ordinary contracts of employment, un less they successfully alleged racial or sexual discrimination before an Employment Tribunal, all they would be eligible for if they were sacked unreasonably would be ££68,400.  (In theory, a sacked person could take the matter to an ordinary court but  the cost of that together with the likelihood of costs being awarded against the plaintiff if they lost make this unlikely). The settlements received by senior public servants on fixed term contracts commonly dwarf the Employment Tribunal maximum. That being so, as a matter of simple arithmetic it would pay to move away from fixed term contracts.

 Senior public servants would doubtless resist cuts in pay by trotting out the argument that public servants running large departments or councils deserve remuneration equivalent to that of those running large public companies. It is a bogus argument. Those running private companies have to both raise the money to keep the enterprise going and decide how spend the money: senior public servants have an assured revenue stream and merely have the task of deciding how the money is spent.

That is senior public servants. What about public service pay in general? Consider this press report: “Tube drivers, who now earn £31,300 for a 36-hour week, along with six weeks’ holiday a year, a final-salary pension and free travel for their families….The Tube drivers’ salary is almost twice as much as a nurse or an ambulance worker gets for working longer hours on more complex jobs. It is half as much again as a bus driver, who works 50 hours a week, a firefighter, who works a 42-hour week, or a police officer, who works a 40-hour week – each of them doing very stressful work for the payment they get.” The Evening Standard commenting on a prospective tube strike 02.10.02

Driving an underground train on a partially automated system cannot realistically be considered as more skilled, dangerous and stressful than that of a firefighter. Most people would say the Tube driver had the easier job by far. But is the firefighter’s job more stressful than that of a bus driver who has day in day out to deal not merely with London traffic but in many cases has to take fares as well? And what of a nurse or ambulance crews? Is the emotional distress they suffer more of a burden than the fear a firefighter may feel when going into a fire? Going outside public service jobs, a trawlerman’s job is considerably more dangerous than that of a firefighter’s and the ordinary crew member will not earn as much as an Underground driver. In short, comparability is a minefield.

All our experience shows that “fair” job evaluation never works because no one engaged in the employment evaluated can ever objectively agree on their place in the job hierarchy. Hence, even where deals are struck, dissatisfaction soon breaks out again about “comparability”. As for the public, the pay and conditions arrangements of public service workers are generally so opaque that most people can make neither head nor tail of them. The result is an unstable situation which satisfies no one for long and leads to the general public having an unrealistic conception of what public employees earn, both by underestimating and overestimating pay.

Even in a society where there is a strong natural commitment to public provision, as was the case in the quarter century after WW2, the public servant has a vested interest in working to retain public  confidence. Unless the taxpayers generally continue to think that the money being spent is worthwhile, there will come a time when a government will be elected, as happened in 1979, which will substantially reduce government expenditure and the opportunities for public service. Worse, circumstances can arise as they have done now, where not only the government but also the main opposition party are hostile to direct public provision. Therefore, it is especially important at the present time for public servants to persuade the public that they are both necessary and giving value for money. The best way of doing this is to arrive at a pay structure which is both simple for the public to understand and constructed in such a way to ensure that pay and conditions are adjusted automatically by reference to an objective standard to keep them in line with wages and conditions in private business.

What is needed are criteria based on broad similarities, which the general public can understand and support. Most jobs are much the same in terms of the general demands they make on people – stress, responsibility, intellectual effort and special knowledge or skill. Moreover, those jobs which demand more than the norm also fall into readily identifiable categories. (Anyone who doubts this should try an experiment. Produce a list of twelve disparate jobs of the same general status – all non-management or all management and so on – and which have no emotional plus or minus against them in the public mind – exclude nurses, estate agents etc. Then get people to assess their worth in terms of wages. Most people will judge the value of the jobs to be similar).

Public service jobs are even more readily categorised than the totality of occupations in a society because the range of work in public service is much more limited. In a way the civil service already recognises this because the standard civil service grades cover an  immense variety of job titles. The civil service division of grades into administrative/executive/clerical provide a starting point for the broad criteria mentioned above. These could then be augmented with categories based on danger, stress, responsibility etc. If recruitment becomes a problem in a particular area, the problem can be solved by raising pay through re-grading.

The second problem with public pay is keeping it up to a realistic level. Previous attempts a pay formulae have not been linked to the average male wage and that has been the primary cause of their failure. It has meant that periodically public sector workers have fallen behind private sector workers as governments run into financial trouble.

What is required for all public service jobs is a formula which uses the average male worker’s earnings as a baseline, with the various public service grades being a percentage of the average male worker’s earnings – the percentage could be less or more than 100% depending on the grade of the job. Such a system would mean regular upgrading of pay and avoid the demands for very large percentage increases when pay falls behind.

Should pension entitlements, holiday entitlements and security of employment be taken into account when calculating public sector pay? Only to the extent that they differ from the arrangements of large private corporations. Historically large private companies have offered non-salary benefits very similar to that enjoyed by public servants. That is changing, in particular final salary pensions are rapidly becoming extinct in private business, and any grading of public service jobs should reflect any difference which arises between public and private in the future. However, care must be taken to avoid a situation where public servants cease seeing public service as a secure career. Most of what Government does benefits from having career employees because continuity is a great deal in administrative work, which forms the great bulk of public service employment.

The third major problem is national pay. This is perhaps the most sacred of cows of public service workers and unions, but there is no logic or fairness in such arrangements. If everyone in the NHS receives the same pay for the same job regardless of where they are living, there is in reality no national pay because of the considerable regional differences in cost of living. There are parts of the UK where, for example, teachers earn below substantially below the local average and others where they earn well above the local average. Hence, we have regional pay but quite perniciously the lowest pay is paid inthe highest cost areas. The consequence is that there are often staff shortages in the higher cost of living areas and the quality of staff employed in such areas may be below the standard required simply because no one else can be recruited at the pay levels. The answer is to introduce regional RPIs (Retail Price Indices) – which would include housing costs – and vary wages according to those.

Regional RPIs would solve much of the present difficulty for public service workers in high cost areas. It would not be politically possible to reduce the pay of existing employees, but it could be held static in the lowest cost areas and differential increases given in other areas until regional pay was established. For example, suppose area A is the cheapest area and area Z is the most expensive. Area A gets no increase until its pay level reaches that which matches its Regional RPI, while Area Z immediately gets an increase which raises its pay level to that required by its Regional RPI. Ditto for all areas between A and Z. If their pay is beyond that required by their regional RPI, it remains pegged until pay and cost of living equalise: if below their Regional RPI, they get a rise to match it. As time goes on, the higher pay of the higher cost areas will be balanced by the lower pay of the lower cost areas. There would be no massive extra ongoing expenditure as eventually the lower and higher pay levels would broadly cancel each other out. However, there would be an initial cost because no one will have their pay immediately reduced while some will have it increased substantially.

Much of the problem of regional cost variations could be obviated if the cost of housing was substantially reduced. Government can take the lead by making more housing available in the areas in which it is scarce – see section for detailed suggestions. In particular, a ready supply of housing both to let and buy at reasonable prices would largely overcome the problem of the young who have yet to buy. A middle-aged person who brought their home 20 years before requires far less to live comfortably than someone trying to buy their first property. The latter have near insuperable problems in many places. For example, in inner London, an income of £50,000 would not be enough to buy the most basic family home because a three bedroom property  would be in excess of £300,000 in even the cheapest areas.

The cost of any re-grading could also be offset by reducing the numbers of public servants in some areas. This would naturally meet with resistance from public servants, but if it is done without compulsory redundancies – and it could be – the objection to it is not strong. Staff can be redeployed to other posts and new recruitment to the remaining departments reduced to accommodate them. Attention has to be paid to the age structure of a workforce – no large organisation wantsto find itself in the position of having a sizeable proportion of its staff retiring at the same time – but with an employer as large and diverse as the Government, this should not be an insuperable problem.

Why not simply have wages set by what the market will bear in any particular place? If there is a shortage of nurses in London why not pay them £30,000 if that is what it takes, but only £10,000 if that is a competitive wage in, say, Cornwall? That begs the question of the quality of the recruits you attract and their long term retention. You may get enough recruits at the low rate but they may be of poor quality. There is also the question of motivation once employed. Poor motivation equals less efficient working. Pay should be high enough to avoid those two evils. If higher wages produce greater motivation and ability in the staff employed, the number of staff could be reduced.

The great advantage of adopting a system of broad definitions – tying pay to the average full time wage and Regional RPIs – is that it would be both stable and largely self adjusting. Problems could arise where recruitment becomes an issue. Then, as mentioned above, re-grading might have to occur to raise pay in a particular area of work or region.

All the Public Service Unions and many public servants will instinctively reject what I have suggested because such things as national pay scales and the preservation of jobs are part of the emotional scenery in public service. But public servants do not have a right to determine how many people will be employed by the Government and they should always remember that a public servant must have a necessary and useful function to maintain public support.

What public servants do have is a right to a decent living wage for what they do and to reasonable working conditions which includes the assured opportunity for a career and staffing adequate to carry out the tasks Government sets them. If they start from those two premises they have a much greater chance of achieving their ends than they have in merely maintaining the status quo.

 Above all, it should never be forgotten by the public servant that the taxpayer is the paymaster for all government spending. A statement of the blindingly obvious perhaps, but one which tends to be glossed over by governments who speak as though they are spending their own money  when they talk of “an extra £3 billion for the NHS” or “£200 million to  take crime off the streets”. Public money is not unlimited nor is the level of public spending without consequences for the general economic health of the country.

Most public servants know that there are pluses and minuses in public service and that moving to private employment has its disadvantages as well as being very difficult in areas where private business is not thick on the ground. There is also the example of public sector employees who have had their jobs privatised. They have frequently found that their new conditions of work are inferior to those they enjoyed when in public service. Public servants also know in their heart of hearts that security of employment is still considerably greater in public service than in private business. Consequently, the government has a strong card to play if they choose to play it, namely, continued security of employment in return for the radical changes described above.

Inflation is theft on the grandest of scales

As the Retail Price Index remains over 5% and the Consumer Price Index reaches 4%, it is reasonable to ask why the Band of England’s Monetary Policy  Committee  (MPC) is not raising interest rates.

The MPC’s  sole remit is to keep inflation at around 2 per cent. This remit they have ignored since Lehman Bros failed in 2008. It is clear they are following not their ostensible remit but government policy, which increasing looks like inflating public and private debt out of existence. 

Anyone who still believes the government guff about the MPC being independent of government  needs to be sectioned for their own good.   The committee is recruited as follows:

‘Monetary Policy Committee  

Interest rates are set by the Bank’s Monetary Policy Committee. The MPC sets an interest rate it judges will enable the inflation target to be met. The Bank’s Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) is made up of nine members – the Governor, the two Deputy Governors, the Bank’s Chief Economist, the Executive Director for Markets and four external members appointed directly by the Chancellor. The appointment of external members is designed to ensure that the MPC benefits from thinking and expertise in addition to that gained inside the Bank of England…..

Each member of the MPC has expertise in the field of economics and monetary policy. Members do not represent individual groups or areas. They are independent. Each member of the Committee has a vote to set interest rates at the level they believe is consistent with meeting the inflation target. The MPC’s decision is made on the basis of one-person, one vote. It is not based on a consensus of opinion. It reflects the votes of each individual member of the Committee.

A representative from the Treasury also sits with the Committee at its meetings. The Treasury representative can discuss policy issues but is not allowed to vote. The purpose is to ensure that the MPC is fully briefed on fiscal policy developments and other aspects of the Government’s economic policies, and that the Chancellor is kept fully informed about monetary policy.’

The heavy hand of the chancellor can be seen. He appoints  four out of the nine members, and can easily influence the selection of the others with a nod and a wink.  Powerful  men do not have to directly command for things to happen. They merely express a wish and leave the underlings to make it happen. The most famous instance in English history is Henry II’s  “Who will rid me of this turbulent priest”  which sealed the fate of Thomas A’Beckett.

The Henry II ploy also operates when senior politicians express a wish for interest rates to be left unaltered or raised or lowered.  This Vince Cable the Business Secretary was at it yesterday when he ‘used an interview with Bloomberg Television to suggest the Bank of England retain its loose monetary policy.

“As an outsider looking in, I take the view of the doves,” he said. “Although you have inflation, it’s almost entirely imported. There’s not very much evidence of British inflation taking place. It’s virtually deflation.”

Mr Cable said that with the Coalition’s fiscal squeeze in full throw, tightening monetary policy was “potentially very difficult”.

Mr Cable’s views follow comments from David Cameron last month when the prime minister described inflation as “worrying”. While Mr Cameron was careful to point out that he supported the independence of the Bank of England, he faced criticism from some quarters for involving himself in the debate.’

It is dishonest to say that because British inflation is being caused by the cost of imported goods and materials there is no point in clamping down on it.  To do so would reduce the general  inflation level because the money supply will tighten.  Of course that would potentially reduce growth, but that  is the choice before the government: inflation or slower growth.   Ironically, at present it looks as though they are managing to achieve both as stagflation takes hold.

Deliberately inducing or tolerating inflation to devalue debt, especially public debt, is a well practised  strategy by irresponsible governments. It eventually comes back to bite the countries who practise it because it destroys confidence at home and abroad amongst those who would  invest  or loan money to the governments or people of such a  country.   Inflation is theft on the grandest of scales.

Politically incorrect film reviews – Four Lions

UKCert (UK): 15

Runtime: 101 mins

Directors: Chris Morris

Cast: Adeel Akhtar, Arsher Ali, Kayvan Novak, Nigel Lindsay, Preeya Kalidas, Riz Ahmed

Bafta nominated (2011) for best British film

At the heart of this film lies a terrible cowardice. Four Lions has been promoted as a brave satire on Islamic fundamentalism, but it is the liberal equivalent of a schoolboy testing out a teacher to see how far he can go. Morris has a very good sense of what will be tolerated in these pc times.  

The story is inspired by the London bombings of July 2005, the 7/7 explosions. But instead of exploding bombs on the underground and buses, these terrorists intend to go ballistic during the London Marathon. The film follows their preparations to become suicide bombers and their actual attempt.

The cowardice is seen in the ethnic make up of the wannabe bombers – the Four Lions of the title – and the way they are depicted. One of the bombers Barry ( Nigel Lindsay) is white and English and the others are Asian  – Omar (Riz Ahmed), Waj (Kayvan Novak), Hassan (Arsher Ali). A fourth Asian member of the group Faisal (Adeel Akhtar) blows himself up accidentally before the attack on London. Blacks are conspicuous only by their absence, an omission which I suspect is indicative of an unconscious association of Islam with Asians, especially those of sub-continental origin, in the white liberal mind.

Compare that fictional group with the reality of Islamic terrorism in the UK. No native white Muslim has been convicted of actually trying to bomb any target within or outside Britain’s border or perpetrated a successful attack. Those who have died in a successful suicide attack or been apprehended during an attempt have been either Asian or black – one of the 7/7 bombers – Jermaine Johnson was black , as was the “shoe bomber” Robert Reid who failed to explode a bomb on a plane bound for the USA.

The purpose of making one of the bombers white and English is clear: to defuse the us- and-them nature of Islamic terrorism, the message of the character being that Islamic terrorism is not a matter of race or ethnicity,  but of belief and that such terrorists can be drawn from any part of the population, including those who are unequivocally indigenous. However, this effect is somewhat lessened by the failure to include a black amongst the bombers,

Having slanted the story through the ethnicity of the characters, Morris then reduces the seriousness of the subject matter to a Keystone Cops burlesque by making the bombers appear terminally stupid and grotesquely incompetent.

The white convert Barry is essentially a football hooligan who has found a new interest (Islam) and transferred his desire for mayhem to that. He is constantly belligerent in the most asinine way suggesting amongst other things that the group bomb the local mosque to politicize “their Islamic brothers”.

Of the Asian characters , Waj is the type who in real life would be described as having learning difficulties and the others are just routinely thick or  naïve. The nearest any of them come to normality is the group leader Omar who has a wife and child.  

Their incompetence is relentless. They all seem incapable of simply living independent lives, let alone organizing a co-ordinated suicide bomb attack. Whether they are at a training camp in Pakistan , testing out bombs in Br itain or engaged in the attack on the London Marathon they make slapstick errors. They move explosives and Faisal trips over and accidentally sets off a bomb which kills him. Omar and Waj go to terrorist training camp in Pakistan and fire a rocket at what they presume is the enemy. The “enemy” turns out to be some of their fellow Islamic terrorists whose numbers are considerably trimmed by the resulting explosion, which also brings enemy drones in to attack the camp.

When they finally go to London to explode their bombs, they manage to do so but in the most farcical fashion. Hassan loses his nerve and goes to hand himself into the police only to be blown up remotely by Barry using a phone.  Barry then fights with Omar  to prevent him contacting Waj  because Omar is going to tell Waj not to kill himself. To prevent this   Barry swallows Omar’s SIM card. This makes  Barry begin to choke. A  passer-by seeing him choking begins the Heimlich maneuver on Barry and whilst doing this sets off  Barry’s bomb.  And so it goes on . Omar gets hold of another phone and attempts to talk Waj into giving himself up , but the line is lost as the police charge the kebab shop Waj has retreated to where he takes hostages. Waj panics and detonates his bomb . Finally, Omar in despair, goes into a chemist shop and explodes his bomb.  

This representation of the bombers as fools and incompetents is dangerous. It implies that such people are so idiotic that the threat they represent is, in the larger scheme of things, negligible. Not only that, but the film says look, only really stupid and inadequate people with an incompetence bordering on cretinism would engage in this type of activity.

The problem with this message is that the 7/7 bombers did manage to carry out a coordinated attack on London,. They had the wit to construct effective bombs (even the bombers in the film were given that ability which rather clashed with their general incompetence ) and the organizational abilities and discipline to carry out the bombing. Four Lions is attempting to do with Islamic terrorists what  was done with Hitler, represent the object of danger as a figure of fun.  That is a dangerous thing to do because it sanitises the enemy.

If Morris had wanted to make a truly courageous and honest film about Muslim terrorists in Britain, he would have left the indigenous population out of it, had a mixed group of Asians and blacks as the bombers,  shown the terrorists as something more able than blundering blockheads and, most importantly,  included in the screenplay the type of fanatical hatred of this country and its people which can be found on so many Islamic websites and not only on those sites commonly viewed as extremist.

Public service and private enterprise : what do we mean by efficiency?

 Private business ultimately judges that by profit. But is profit a good indicator of efficiency generally? More particularly, does it have any place in public service?

Many a company does well for a period because it strikes lucky with a product and then plummets when the good luck runs out. Or a company may have a good profits run simply because there is a general boom in the economy and it is easy to make profits.

Then there are businesses where it is virtually impossible not to make large and regular profits, for example, the clearing banks, because the goods or services they are supplying are too essential for people not to purchase them and the number of competing companies is small, either because a few companies have been able to destroy the competition or because the cost of getting in the business is too great for new competitors to emerge. The problem of greatly reduced competition through expansion of an existing company rather than takeover of other companies is a growing one, a problem exemplified by the relentless march of Tesco in Britain – in practice British anti-monopoly law only deals with takeovers – the only thing which  halts Tesco is planning permission. Once a company has a really large share of a market efficiency becomes less of a pressing problem because customers in an area dominated by the likes of Tesco often have little choice but to use the dominant company because it has destroyed local competitors.

It can also be very difficult to find out from the published accounts the true state of a company, vide Enron and WorldCom. Even where outright fraud is not practised there is still a great deal of scope for accountants to engage in “creative accounting” and massage accounts to inflate the profit in a given year. As directors are commonly paid a large part of their remuneration in the form of shares which they can purchase at a later date at a discounted price (share options), companies have every incentive to inflate the share price in the year when the share option can be exercised.

But even if it is allowed that profit is a good yardstick of efficiency for most enterprises, a highly debatable proposition, it does not follow that it is a good yardstick for all enterprises. The provision of universal public services is by its nature not susceptible to the notion of profit because the unprofitable work must be undertaken as well as the profitable, for example the Post Office delivers letters to hideously costly rural addresses as well as to highly profitable city haunts for the same price (that service incidentally subsidises all private business in the UK because they can deliver anywhere for the same price).

If profit is not the yardstick what should be? I suggest that the real tests for public service competence should be (1) is the service being delivered to all who need it? and (2) is the cost reasonable in comparison with equivalent operations in other countries? By these tests, the NHS, for example, still compares well with the health care in other advanced countries, providing both a universal service for the vast majority of treatments and operations and doing so at a significantly cheaper cost than most, despite the great amounts of extra money pumped into it since May 1997.

What is rarely if ever taken into account when complaints about the inefficiency of public bodies are considered is how efficient private enterprise will be or is when it is offered the opportunity to provide a public service. Take the Post Office as an example. For a century and a half it has turned a profit and ensured a level of universal service well nigh unique in the world. It has done this because it is a state monopoly.

No private company would ever provide a universal one-price service without massive public subsidy and the halfway house of part private part public merely weakens the public provider. The government first loosened the rules governing private delivery of parcel, then bulk letter mail went to full competition and in 2006 private companies moved into the delivery of letters over a certain weight. That competition alone will cripple the universal post. The Post Office has already been forced to drop the second delivery as a general service and will now provide it only for a fee, whilst the last time for collection has become earlier and earlier in the day and the single free delivery later and later.

As a second example take the BBC. Suppose the licence fee was abolished  or reduced and the BBC had to introduce private finance on a large or an entire scale. The inevitable result of that would be the BBC increasingly turning from its public service role, not immediately but in time, towards commercial programming. The dismal example of how commercial terrestrial television “meets” the public service obligations written into their prospectuses when they bid for licences shows you what the BBC would rapidly become (the obligations/promises made when gaining licences are substantially ignored once the licences are granted).

There is nothing wrong with employing private businesses to perform specific functions such as road building because that does not produce a conflict between public service and profit. A road is simply a road, which will be used regardless of who built it. Once it is built, there is no ongoing direct service to the public beyond whatever maintenance is required and the maintenance of roads is completely different from the maintenance of railways, because the use of roads is free in all but a few instances and the safety issue is nothing like so important for a car can be driven on a potholed road while a train cannot be run on a faulty piece of track. Where conflict arises between the provision of a general service and the profit motive is in cases such as the NHS where the delivery of the service is directly to the public.

Private business is poor at providing services where there is no direct link between the provision of the service and the payment for it. If a service is provided to a person and they pay the provider, private enterprise will generally do a decent job if the customer has a reasonable choice of provider. Where a private business provides a service on the basis of a contract signed with a contractor, ie, it is a sub-contractor, the relationship between the customer and the provider becomes nebulous. It is true that the sub-contractor may have a contract cancelled or not have a contract renewed if too many complaints are received by the contractor, but often enough the contractor will wear any number of complaints provided profits remain healthy.

Corporate efficiency: public service versus private enterprise

Having worked both as a civil servant and for private companies, large and small, I always raise a wry smile when the advocates of private enterprise claim, with a look of religious certainty in their eyes and the ringing voice of the true believer, that private enterprise is by definition much more efficient than public endeavour. In fact, private enterprise can be every bit as wasteful and often far more reckless than public service.

Take a couple of blatant examples of crass incompetence by private enterprise from the past fifteen  years. The directors of a major defence and electronics company Marconi managed in a few short years to reduce the company from one with several billion pounds in cash reserves and a stock-exchange value of some £30 billion to a company with billions of pounds worth of debt and shares which were effectively worthless after the creditor banks took ownership of what remained of the company.

How did Marconi management accomplish this stupendous feat? They  decided that their highly successful core business of defence equipment was just too boring and “not now” for words and sold off most of this highly profitable business. They then ploughed into telecommunications, a business in which they had little experience, which was “utterly now” and “obviously” on the brink of a mobile phones bonanza. There they caught not so much a very bad cold but commercial double pneumonia.

The second example is the assurance company Equitable Life. In the 1980s and early 1990s this firm offered financial products with an attractive guaranteed return. Unsurprisingly, they proved very popular.

Come the time to meet these obligations Equitable found they could not do so. They tried to renege on the guaranteed return promise but, after several years of legal battles, the House of Lords decided against them. At that point they were arguably insolvent. Instead of going into administration, they began a series of actions which made a mockery of that for which they supposedly stood – assurance.

For fear of trading fraudulently or even whilst insolent – any new business might well have been considered fraudulent because of the possibility of a failure to meet existing obligations – they closed their books to new business. Then by stages – the torment for the policy holders was extended – they reduced payouts to those who had not had the guaranteed return and by stages considerably raised the penalty for clients taking their money out of the Equitable. Their customers were left with the ghastly choice of losing a large slice of what was already a reduced pot of money or taking a much lower income.

Most choose the latter course. Equitable said in so many words take what we offer or be fined (or even worse, drive us into liquidation and lose most or even all of what is left). Those unlucky enough to be coming up to retirement during this time were left with pensions and lump sum payments much less than they reasonably anticipated when they  took out the policy and substantially below the level which could be blamed on the general stock market fall. All of this was of course quite legal, but the shareholders who did not have the guaranteed return could have had no inkling of what might happen to their policies when they took them out. The saga is still rumbling on in 2011  as Equitable shareholders who lost out are still trying to get compensation from the taxpayer on the grounds that the government failed to regulate the company.

I do not claim that public service is wondrously efficient and economical. Rather, I say that private business, at least at the larger end, is much the same. In fact, any big organisation displays the same characteristics of bureaucracy, a lack of imagination, organisational inertia and less than optimum manning. Marks and Spencer, until the late 1990s one of the reputedly best run of British firms, suddenly fell prey to just these traits and has only just got back on the rails.

But large organisations also have their advantages. They are capable of providing a wide range of services. They can provide those services over a large area. They have a degree of “slack” which allows emergencies to be dealt with and bottlenecks due to variable demand to be managed when they arise. Such “slack” is very important in industries such as gas and electricity and services such as the railways. The slack in many of the privatised industries has either vanished altogether or been reduced to dangerous levels.

Public ownership = public confidence

There is a further consideration with public services – safety. It may be that the public will have greater confidence in, for example, a state run railway simply because it is state run. The public’s confidence might be completely unfounded but that would not matter: the confidence itself is a valuable thing.

The experience of all privatisation has been to make money by enforcing massive job cuts. Of course there was overmanning during the nationalised industry days. The trouble is that the cuts made since privatisation have often gone beyond improving efficiency. They went to the limits of safety, and probably past it, in pursuit of profit. Maintenance staff were reduced and consequently maintenance was reduced. The facts which have emerged since the Watford train crash in 2000 shows beyond doubt that many of the people involved in rail track maintenance are inexperienced at best and completely raw at worst.

When the state does not take direct responsibility for a service which has inherent safety consideration, the danger is that governments will respond to any safety fears by imposing ever more onerous obligations on the private suppliers of the service. The private companies are also susceptible to being overly cautious after an accident has happened or a possible danger becomes the subject of public  comment.

Train crashes in Britain have been thankfully rare under both nationalised and privatised regimes, but when they happened under the nationalised industry the government was able to keep the show on the road because the public had confidence that safety was not being compromised simply to save money. Since privatisation crashes have been met with absurd caution by both the bodies responsible for the infrastructure and the Government, with the national rail network being reduced to a farce after cracks in some rails were found after the Watford crash mentioned above. For the better part of a year, rail travel became a misery as hundreds of emergency speed restrictions were introduced and rails were tested for cracks and a massive programme of rail replacement was begun. The consequence was horrendous delays and vast numbers of cancelled trains. The effects are arguably still being felt in 2006.

Perhaps the classic industry to which the safety consideration applies is the production of nuclear energy. Despite this the Blair Government  is saying that if a new generation of nuclear power stations is built it must be with private money and run by private companies. A clear case of ideology – private is best – driving common sense out of the window.

Foreign ownership further complicates matters. When a massive explosion devastated a fuel storage and refinery complex in Hemel Hempstead in 2006 and further parts of the complex were thought to be in danger of exploding, it was impossible to get the necessary information quickly because the company which owned the complex was French and no one with  sufficient authority could be immediately  contacted.

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