Monthly Archives: June 2013

How much public money is being stolen and wasted because of the privatisation of public services?

Robert Henderson

In June this year I attended a talk given by Michael Heseltine. It was embarrassingly limp re-hashed Heseltinian fare from the 1980s,with Heseltine airily advocating localism in place of centralised government with precious little idea of how  to engineer his envisaged  utopia of local politicians free from the Westminster party embrace mixing with banks,  Chambers of Commerce and other trade bodies to bring about a Nirvana of self-help and self-determination. (http://englandcalling.wordpress.com/2013/06/18/michael-heseltine-rebalancing-the-british-economy/).  Thankfully,  the Coalition thought so little of Heseltine’s proposals in his Government commissioned report No Stone Unturned that only the derisory sum of £2 billion (Heseletine had asked for £49 billion) was allocated to his recommendations for devolved power and expenditure  to promote growth (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/spending-review/10144584/Spending-Review-2bn-to-boost-regional-growth.html). It would have been less insulting if the Coalition had allocated nothing.

When the opportunity came for questions I raised  the matter of  increasing corruption in the spending of public money.  This is a consequence of taxpayers’ money going to private contractors at an ever more alarming rate as the mania for putting out public services to private companies and not-for-profit organisations such as charities  continues  unabated,  despite the ample evidence that contracting-out is generally very poor value for the taxpayer.  My argument was simple: the greater the number of public contracts being put out to tender by commercial businesses and not-for-profit organisations, the greater the opportunities for corruption by either public employees and contractors colluding or contractors fixing things amongst themselves.  Human nature being what it is, greater opportunities for fraud inevitably means greater instances of  fraud.

Heseltine reacted with considerable vehemence to my suggestion that serious corruption might exist in public service saying that he “took great exception” to the idea.  His denial rang hollow because sadly there is a constant flow  of publicly reported frauds by those receiving public money.   Here are a few recent examples of  alleged frauds:

1. Pharmacists and drug companies colluding to overcharge the NHS for drugs http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/healthnews/10133557/Pharmaceutical-scandal-The-NHS-the-drug-firms-and-the-price-racket.html.    The amounts in this case are potentially very large: “The Daily Telegraph’s investigation has found that companies are privately offering discounts of up to 70 per cent on drug tariff items to high-street chemists, with the pharmacist keeping the difference. For example, the NHS would agree to pay £100 for a drug that would be supplied to a chemist for only £30.” (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/healthnews/10135897/Pharmaceutical-scandal-firms-boast-of-profits-on-drugs-that-cost-pennies.html).

2. Former government education adviser Tim Royle  arrested on suspicion of fraud when he was a headmaster ( http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/10130632/Former-government-education-adviser-arrested-on-suspicion-of-fraud.html).

Sometimes  misbehaviour  is judged to have fallen short of the criminal, but it still costs the taxpayer money.  A good example is that of  one-time award-winning  head teacher Jo Shuter  who  left herself open to suspicion and criticism by  inappropriate spending  and the employment of  relatives. She resigned but not before   being given a final warning  for “financial and human resource mismanagement”  (http://www.standard.co.uk/lifestyle/london-life/jo-shuter-there-was-a-blurring-of-my-personal-and-professional-worlds-it-was-incredibly-stupid-8664781.html)

I can give two examples of questionable public contracts involving a great deal of money  which I personally tried unsuccessfully to bring to public notice. Both involved Camden Council, the London borough in which I live. The first occurred in 2003 when the Council announced that they were to replace 14,000 kitchens and bathrooms in their council housing stock.  In response to a question I put to him at a public meeting  Neil Litherland, the then director  of Housing in Camden , quoted me £6,000 for each room (£12,000 for a kitchen and bathroom combined).  The bathroom and kitchen units Camden  proposed to fit were pretty basic. The total cost at that price was £168 million (at 2003 prices).  This struck me as outlandishly expensive, so   I went to a local high street fitted furniture retailer to get a  quote.

At the retailer  I  selected units of the same quality as those proposed by the Council and  was quoted £1,500 for each room, including the installation of the kitchen and bathroom units.   That was for a single retail sale. A contract for 14,000 properties should  result in a very substantial discount below a retail sale, but even at the retail price quoted the contract would have been a quarter of the Camden quoted figure.

When I made my complaint to Camden,  I doubled the £1,500 quoted by the retailer because Camden were doing other renovation work such as re-wiring and laying new vinyl on the floors in the kitchens and bathrooms as well as fitting the new kitchen units and bathroom suites.  The extra  £1,500 per room for this  renovation work was almost certainly far too much,  but even  at £3,000 per room  Camden  would have been halved their actual bill saving £84 million.

A  disinterested person reading that account might think the local politicians and the MP for area would have been biting my hand off to take up the case and stop the grossly overpriced contract going through. I could not find a single politician to take up the matter. Nor could I get even the local papers to investigate the matter.

The second case involved what is now known as the Francis Crick Institute. (http://ukcmri.wordpress.com/2012/11/11/links-to-all-ukcrmi-blog-posts/).  This is a gigantic medical  research laboratory currently being constructed on land behind the British Library. The site is  a road’s width from the Eurostar terminus.  There are excellent grounds for opposing the building of such a laboratory because it will be dealing with level 4 (the highest biohazard level) toxins.  This poses a risk of dangerous materials being released  (through a terrorist attack or carelessness)  into an area which is both heavily residential and arguably the busiest transport hub in London.  However, that is not the important thing in the context of corruption.

In an attempt to stop the building of the laboratory I used the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to gain details of the sale of the land on which the laboratory is being built. The land belonged to the taxpayer and was under the stewardship of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). The site   was put out to competitive tender and a good deal of interest was shown (27 bids, including the likes of Barratt Homes and   Oracle Group  – http://ukcmri.wordpress.com/2011/02/11/the-full-list-of-bidders/).  The decision was solely in the hands of the Secretary of State for the DCMS who was exercising a quasi-judicial role in the matter.  Despite this, documents I obtained using the FOIA unambiguously show Gordon Brown when PM illegally interfering with the bidding process  from before the closing date for bids and carrying on interfering until the sale was complete (http://ukcmri.wordpress.com/2011/02/21/gordon-browns-involvement-in-the-sale-of-the-land-to-ukcrmi/).   Here is an example extract from a Treasury document  dated 1 August 2007:

The PM is also most recently stated that he is very keen to make sure that Government departments are properly coordinated on this project [the laboratory] and that if there is a consensus that this is indeed an exciting project then we do what we can to make it happen. This is extremely helpful from a DIUS and MRC perspective, but, formally a NIMR relocation project in London has yet to receive Lyons approval from Treasury (for either the first planned NTH site or the possible BL site).

This was before the initial bidding process was closed.  The process was a sham, the other bidders having bid with no prospect of success. Brown should not have interfered at all,  even to say whether he thought X or Y was or was not  a promising project, but here he is  issuing a direct instruction to favour the laboratory consortium by getting all the government departments with some future or immediate interest in the laboratory to put their weight behind it. (When a Prime Minister says he is “very keen” on something that is an order to move heaven and earth to achieve it).

As with the Camden contract for kitchens and bathrooms I was unable to get any politician, local or national, to take up the matter. Every Camden councillor and the local Labour MP Frank Dobson  had the information but refused to act. Camden granted planning permission in principle, but this had to be agreed by Boris Johnson in his role of Mayor of London because the Institute building  is over the height which can  be sanctioned by a London council. Johnson  granted permission despite having the details of the corrupted bidding process (http://ukcmri.wordpress.com/2011/01/14/notification-of-planning-irregularities-to-boris-johnson/) and refused to comment on Brown’s illegal involvement in the decision.  Equally telling in this case was the failure of the national media to take up the story despite Gordon  Brown’s involvement.  The nearest I came to getting the story up and running in the media was a single  short piece in the London Evening Standard (http://www.standard.co.uk/news/no-10-interfered-to-push-through-600m-plan-for-virus-superlab-6557759.html).

The nature of public  fraud

Much, probably the large majority,  of the fraud consists of inflating contracts. This can be done with or without the collusion of public servants and politicians. Collusion between  contractors, public servants and politicians  speaks for itself.  Fraud without public servants or politicians being involved is more complicated. It requires a conspiracy by a number of contractors to fix a bidding process.  The larger the contract  or the more specialised the  work to be done, the more likely a bidding process can be fixed, because often there are only a handful of bidders  capable of taking the contract on. This leads to corrupt agreements between the companies to share out public contracts between themselves at inflated prices. This is done by the bidders  putting in bids to a supposedly competitive bidding process structured so that the company who is to take the contract puts in the lowest priced bid. However, this lowest bid is much higher than it  should be if it was pitched simply at a level to  guarantee a level of quality and provide a reasonable profit for the successful bidder.

The practice is probably very widespread. The Office of Fair Trading concluded an investigation in 2009 which showed widespread fixing of prices: “The OFT has imposed fines totalling £129.2 million on 103 construction firms in England which it has found had colluded with competitors on building contracts.” (see   http://www.oft.gov.uk/shared_oft/reports/Evaluating-OFTs-work/oft1240.pdf and http://www.oft.gov.uk/shared_oft/business_leaflets/general/table-of-infringements.pdf).

Where public servants and/or politicians agree to accept an overpriced contract they may be  bribed either directly or indirectly. A favourite indirect method  is not to pay the politician or public servant at  the time of the fraud but later with lucrative sinecures after they have left office .

The current rules regarding ministers and public servants taking posts in private industry are so lax as to be next to meaningless – they can take up posts after a year or two, regardless of how closely the private sector job is linked to their previous post.  A recent eye-catching example was that of Dave Hartnett who has just taken up a post with the accountants Deloittes. . The Telegraph Daily telegraph  recently reported “Until last year, Mr Hartnett headed operations at HM Revenue and Customs. His new role will involve him working one day a week at Deloitte, which acts as auditor for companies – including Starbucks – which have been accused of using legal loopholes to avoid paying tax.” (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/newsbysector/banksandfinance/10083254/Former-Revenue-boss-lands-tax-advice-job-at-Deloitte.html). I am not  suggesting there is corruption  in this case,  but is it really acceptable to have such a senior and important public servant turning from  gamekeeper  to poacher so rapidly?  Like Caesar’s wife, politicians and public servants should be above suspicion.

Waste through incompetence and lack of alternatives

Some of the fraud will be accomplished because the public servant or politicians involved in making contract decisions are simply not up to the job of judging what is a reasonable price for the work being put out to contract.  This is a common enough state of affairs because public servants often find themselves asked to negotiate contracts  even though they  have no experience of  doing so because work which has always been done by direct public labour is suddenly subcontracted to the private sector.   To cover their ignorance the public servant  will often judge bids not on their objective merits, but on who is the cheapest within the criteria set for a contract.  Whether the bid is a reasonable price  for the work done is ignored. This has a knock on effect, not least because  of the widespread lack of honest competition in bidding.  Those accepting bids will justify their acceptance by referring to other contracts for similar work.  Because of this inflated prices become the norm. The politicians who have to make the final decisions on the contracts are as ignorant as the  public servants who negotiate the contracts and simply take what is put before them in the vast majority of cases.

But even where politicians or public servants do realise a price is too high, they can be in a very difficult position which makes them  accept the price quoted.  The problem is that if they refuse all the bidders for a contract on the grounds of cost , then how is the work to be done?  They cannot go elsewhere often enough because there is no public organisation which could do the job rather than a private company or not-for-profit  institution. This is a particular danger with really large or specialised contracts which can only be undertaken by a few companies.  An inflated price may have to be paid by the taxpayer because there is no longer a  public sector alternative.

How much money is being lost?

Total UK Government expenditure for 2014 is £715.3 billion (http://www.ukpublicspending.co.uk/total_spending_2014UKbn). However, that does not include all of the Public Private Initiative (PFI)  liabilities because  Governments want to keep the full  PFI/PPP indebtedness off  the official national debt.  A report by the Office for Budget Responsibility in August 2011 notes that many PFI deals are not recognised in the National Accounts.:

“ As well as lacking transparency, this has fuelled a perception that PFI has been used as a way to hold down official estimates of public sector indebtedness for a given amount of overall capital spending, rather than to achieve value for money.[27]

The report details the scale of the problem noting that “at March 2010, PSND [Public Sector Net Debt] included about £5.1 billion (0.4 percent of GDP) in respect of PFI deals that were recorded as on balance sheet in the National Accounts.” However the OBR considered that “the total capital liability of on and off balance sheet PFI contracts was closer to £40 billion (2.9 per cent of GDP).”[28] They estimate therefore that if PFI contracts were all recognised as debt in the National Accounts this would increase the level of debt by around 2.5% of GDP.[29]” (http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201012/cmselect/cmtreasy/1146/114605.htm)

In 2012 The Guardian using ONS figures put total PFI liabilities at £301,343,154,097 (http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/datablog/2012/jul/05/pfi-contracts-list).

It is clear that  a substantial figure should be added to  the headline £715.3 billion to account for the full PFI liability for 2014.

In the nature of things it is impossible to say exactly how much of taxpayers’ money will have been spent on overpriced contracts. However, the examples which are public knowledge suggest that it must be very considerable, because so much of what used to be done in-house by the British state, at both national and local level, is now put out to contract.

Take the NHS as an example.  If you spend time as an in-patient in the present day NHS you are likely to find that the cleaning, laundry, catering and provision of multimedia installations are  contracted out. The NHS will also spend immense amounts on equipment which will be supplied by a private contractor. Staff will often be recruited by a private agency for a hospital.  If they need temporary doctors and nurses they will pay a private agency.   The hospital may well have a Starbucks or a Costa Coffee instead of an in-house café for visitors. There is fair chance  that  hospital car park will  be run by a private company. Most expensively, if the hospital is recently built it will almost certainly be the  subject  of a PFI contract which stretches way into the future (twenty years or more). This,  and apart from costing the hospital a good deal of money  to pay for the building,   will almost certainly entail a costly management contract to run and maintain the building. This means in practice no one will be in definite overall charge,  because if something goes wrong with the building the contractor has to be left to undertake the maintenance as they see fit

The NHS is one of the most comprehensive examples of contracting out. But most government departments and much of local government displays the same tendency.  Schools and universities are within the contracting out net.  Defence procurement is  depends  very largely on  private contractors, foreign and British.  Police forces around the country  have either privatised much of their administration or are thinking of doing so.  Even the translation service used by the courts has been put out to a private contractor (with disastrous consequences).  Local government services such as waste  collection and disposal and street cleaning are frequently in the hands of contractors. The most disturbing and absurd example I have come across is the privatising of the quasi-judicial  District Auditor post which oversees local government and deals with complaints about their financial probity(“ Following the outsourcing of the Commission’s in-house Audit Practice, all auditor appointments are of private firms “ http://www.audit-commission.gov.uk/audit-regime/appointing-auditors/).

If only ten per cent  official Government expenditure is creamed off by fraud, that would mean £71 billion  of taxpayers’ money will be lost this financial year.  That is more than half the current government deficit.  But the figure  could well be much more because of the omitted PFI costs and the incentive of contractors to be as greedy as they can get away with.  Putting on twenty or thirty per cent to charges for supplying goods and services to central and local government might seem reasonable if you are the supplier and have good reason to believe  prices are likely to be accepted even if they are high. If the Telegraph reports of the grossly inflated prices charged  through collusion by pharmacists and drug companies are to be believed, the sky is the limit in the right circumstances for ramping up prices.

 Why do politicians do nothing?

It is little wonder that politicians in Britain are so willing to tolerate corruption because so many of them are happy to have their snouts in the public trough themselves in illegitimate ways. The information published by the Daily Telegraph on MPs expenses in 2009 was sufficient to show that the majority of MPs were engaging in expense claims which should never have been counted as legitimate expenses by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) in normal circumstances . This was because they did not meet the HMRC test of being  expenses “ wholly, exclusively and necessarily “ incurred in the performance of a job.   Very few MPs faced criminal charges even though quite a few repaid money they had claimed. Nor does the public know how many of the MPs faced fresh assessments  by HMRC or the penalties if any HMRC imposed.

Two criminal offences are committed by those who evade tax by illegitimately describing expenditure they have incurred as tax deductible expenses. That  counts as a false declaration. They are effectively claiming money by false pretences. A second criminal offence arises if the bogus expense claim is made without an employer knowing that it is bogus (effectively theft from the employer) or a business which  is paying a sub-contractor expenses as part of the contractual arrangement  and the business does not know the claim is bogus (effectively theft from the employing business).

Depressingly, MPs appear to have learned little if anything from the Telegraph’s 2009 exposure of their shameful behaviour  because they are still thrashing their expenses (15 May 2013  http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/mps-expenses/10059243/Have-MPs-learnt-a-thing-since-2009-Their-greed-suggests-not.html).

There is also the widespread  practice of politicians being employed on lucrative contracts by organisations whose interests they have either surreptitiously  promoted as a backbencher or , in the case of ministers,  had an area of responsibility which coincided with that of the organisation giving them the job  (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1387791/Corruption-risk-ex-ministers-walking-straight-private-sector-jobs.html)

Finally there is  the scandal of still active politicians openly acting as paid lobbyists,   including providing ready access to Parliament  (http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2013/apr/10/lobbying-professionals-parliamentary-passes).

How things used to be

Until fairly recently the British Civil Service was remarkably free from corruption (local government is a different matter), a fact made all the more surprising because of the truly colossal amount of money Government  disposes of each year . There were two reasons for this. The first was the hard-won tradition of public service which in which the Civil Service is an apolitical institution and as such serves no political ideology or party but provides politicians of all stamps with disinterested advice and executes their policies. This tradition has been underpinned by the lifelong working careers which public servants, especially senior ones, have commonly had. Of course, that was merely the ideal and, as with any human institution, the reality fell some way short of the ideal. Nonetheless, such sentiments and conventions have in the past affected the behaviour of public servants for the better, especially in the area of honesty. Sadly, the public service ethos has been largely lost because of the constant upheaval in terms of employment, the loss of  career security  and thirty years of politicians and much of the mainstream media reciting the false mantra that private is good, public is bad.

The second reason for a lack of corruption was  the direct provision of most the services provided by central government. This meant that the number of large central government contracts offered to private business  was  small in relation to the money spent on the direct provision of public service in all its aspects. In such circumstances serious fraud becomes difficult going on impossible for most civil servants because they do not have access to large amounts of taxpayers’ money. (Where they do have access, for example in the Inland Revenue, in most instances there are strict accounting procedures which make the embezzlement of large amounts of cash extremely difficult). Moreover, where there are few government  contracts, most civil servants are not in a position where someone  would find it fruitful to bribe them because they have nothing to sell.  Unsurprisingly, where serious corruption amongst public servants employed by central government has occurred in the past, it has been overwhelmingly in those areas where large government contracts exist, most notably in Defence Procurement and building contracts. It is a reasonable assumption that the more public contracts offered to private companies, the greater the corruption will be simply because the opportunity for corruption increases.

It would be impossible to reinstate the public service ethos quickly, but taking work back into the  public  service fold  would have an effect on fraud and waste through incompetence.  It would  definitely reduce fraud and should allow costs to be controlled because it would be the public sector setting the prices for the work.

Here is a question for the supporters of privatisation in it various forms to puzzle over. Ever since Thatcher began the privatisation of public services governments have insisted that this was saving the public money.  Yet  government expenditure since 1980 has risen substantially  in real  terms.  In 1980 total public spending was £104 billion (http://www.ukpublicspending.co.uk/total_spending_1980UKbn). Using the Bank of England inflation calculator, £104 billion at 2012 values would be only £377 billion. (http://www.bankofengland.co.uk/education/Pages/inflation/calculator/flash/default.aspx).

The cruel truth is that the £715 billion of  government expenditure  in the present financial year is almost double what it would be if the UK had maintained public expenditure at 1980 levels in terms of the real value of the Pound.  If the true PFI/PPP figure for 2014 was included it might be double. The huge increase since 1980  is very interesting because in 1980 the UK  not only had a serious unemployment problem,  but owned vast swathes of British industry, everything from British Leyland and coal mining to the public utilities and , believe it or not younger readers, a national bus network which meant that to live in the country did not mean you had to run a car.  1980s  UK also had armed forces which were considerably larger  than they are now and the putting out to private contractors of public sector work in  national government and council services was rare except in areas such as road building and defence procurement.  For example, local councils only routinely  employed direct labour on items such as road maintenance and cleaning.    In addition much of  private business then was, we were constantly told,  supposedly hideously uncompetitive . Yet despite  these alleged  crippling disadvantages, the British government in 1980  was able to maintain a level of public services  better and more comprehensive than that we have today whilst spending, in real terms,  little more than half of what government spends today.

Why has British government spending rocketed?  It is reasonable to put forward as the primary culprit the mania for privatising everything  because of the near doubling of government expenditure since 1980, the high cost of privatised services  and the many individual examples of public contracts, especially the PFI contracts, which seem outlandishly expensive.

 

These things have not been understood by the privatisers:

1. The public service ethos did exist and was most valuable in maintaining standards, continuity and honesty within public provision.

2. Multiplying the opportunities for fraud results inevitably results in more fraud.

3.  That public services cannot be run on commercial lines  because public provision is normally universal provision.  Unlike a private company losing business, a public service provider such as the NHS cannot turn round and say we will not treat these patients because we need to cut costs.

4. For public services to run properly need to be focused not on the bottom line but the provision of the service.

5. Once a public service has been contracted out to a private provider,  the private provider has the government over a barrel because there is no alternative to a private provider once the public service option has been done away with.

6. That public employment gave those so employed secure lives and indirectly increased the sense of  security in those employed by outside of  public service  because  having a substantial proportion in secure jobs in itself made society more stable and certain.

7. That public money is a recycling of money and however it is recycled it has a value because its spending supports local economies.

8.   That public expenditure has increased steadily during the privatising of public service activities.

Robert Henderson 30 6 2013

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Technology out of control

Robert Henderson

I have previously examined  how robotics has the potential to make unviable both consumer based  economic systems based on the market and free trade between countries and the vast potential they have for creating economic and social  upheaval  in any industrialised society (https://livinginamadhouse.wordpress.com/2011/07/01/robotics-and-the-real-sorry-karl-you-got-it-wrong-final-crisis-of-capitalism/).  A short recap of these difficulties will set the scene for the less obvious threat posed by other emerging technologies.

When general purpose robots are available they will not only be able to do the jobs humans do now but any new jobs arising from the technology. This is a wholly new situation because all previous technological advance has created new jobs which can only be done by humans.

In such circumstances there will be a choice for any  society: ban robots in the society  and  goods produced by robots in foreign countries or suffer  a catastrophic and unmendable unemployment and the subsequent catastrophic loss of demand.

Alternatively, a society could be organised predominantly on a command economy basis with  the robots producing most of the goods and providing  most of the services with  human beings acting purely as consumers apart from those needed to do whatever jobs robots cannot do or  it is deemed dangerous for them to do. There could also be a peripheral human economy consisting of those producing art or artisan goods for a niche market.

General purpose robots are the most obvious and comprehensive threat to the  economic arrangements of the advanced world, but there are other emerging  technological advances which either already exist as practical tools for general use or will do so in the not too distant future.

3D Printers

A favourite SciFi  invention is the universal replicator, a machine which produces whatever a person wants. We are not there yet but the first significant steps have been made with the 3D printer.

3D printing has the potential to undermine any society based on mass production for high volume  consumption.  If everything can be reduced to an electronic blueprint, in principle anyone can  produce anything. This is  because  3D printers will not only print from ready-made programs. Any object can be scanned and then the scanned information in digital form may be used to print the object.  All that will be required is the requisite printing equipment with the physical materials to create the object required.

This will raise a number of problems for private business, both in terms of what they will be producing and supplying and because of the intellectual property implications.  Imagine a world in which, say, the individual human can produce 75% of the manufactured goods they require simply by printing them.   That is not so far-fetched as it might seem. Consider your own life. What would you think it obviously  impractical for a 3D printer to produce?  Almost certainly a house, quite probably a car.  Perhaps anything large and complicated.

Large is not an insuperable problem even for the present  because  parts  of any object could  be produced with a 3D Printer and then assembled, quite probably by a robot.  A Dutch company DUS Architects are already testing out the proposition that a house could be printed out (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/ultratravel/the-next-big-thing/10110195/The-worlds-first-3D-printed-house.html)

Complexity would not be an absolute  barrier  because a printer could print from the centre to the perimeter or an object.  Using that technique  a complete car could be printed out.  A house would be a stretch because of the problems of foundations,  but it might be possible to print a house in its entirety on foundations created by  humans or robots.  In principle anything could be produced whole provided it was not larger than the capacity of the printer used to print it.

3D printing  has the potential to create immense economic difficulties.  If it was used widely traditional manufacturers would at best find the demand for most of their goods either vanishing altogether or dropping very sharply.  Wholesalers would be rendered unnecessary in great swathes of industry because they only thing they would have to deliver would be a computer programme to the individual 3D printer. Retailers might still have a life as showrooms for the printed product, but it would be a much reduced service because people would probably be more and more content just to view a model on the Web or one printed out by a friend. Perhaps a holographic representation of the article to be printed  would be provided before printing.

Price would also be a consideration. There is good reason to believe that items printed would be cheaper than those made in factories because there would be no overheads beyond the machine’s purchase, its maintenance, the materials used for printing and the energy used. A parallel with 2D printing can be made. It is much cheaper to print text or images on your home printer than give the work to a commercial printer.  There is also the possibility that the materials for creating 3D printed artefacts could be reused, just like  plasticene, over and over again. If  an item was not liked or a  print went wrong there would be only the cost of the energy used to print to be borne.

But 3D printing could go way  beyond the manufactured goods we have now. If anything can be reduced to a computer programme and the correct ingredients by way of the ink substitute created to put into the 3D printer why could not anything physical not be created including food?  Organic material has already been used in 3D printing as we shall see. It might even  be possible in the more distant future to manipulate atoms to create whatever elements are required, just as the  sun causes different elements  to form.

The macro economic effects   of widespread 3D printing would be catastrophic because there would be, as with general purpose robots,  a huge loss of demand  due to a widespread  loss of employment as  industrial, wholesale and retail activity was severely reduced.  A company which makes and  supplies  computer programmes rather than making and supplying physical things is going to need a  tiny workforce  compared to a manufacturer with their  factory or the wholesaler or retailer with their warehouse.

In the beginning when 3D printers are  very expensive less than user-friendly,  there would  be businesses which would set up 3D printing shops  just as there are 2D print shops now.  But the likelihood is that as time goes on and 3D printers become cheap and user-friendly ,  businesses  doing the 3D printing for customers will become defunct or at least very much reduced. In any event such businesses  will  indubitably require far fewer staff than traditional manufactures.

What is it to be human?

3D printers represent an existential  threat as well as an economic one. The reproduction of human parts has already taken its first tentative steps using  3D printers – http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/9849212/New-3D-printing-technique-could-speed-up-progress-towards-creation-of-artificial-organs.html)

If it is possible to print a kidney why not a complete human being ?  Assume there is a situation where a complete body could be replicated. Think further and imagine that not only the physical construct of the body can  be replicated but also the  mental element of a person. This might be done by simply replicating a brain with the replication process exactly copying the brain in all its facets, including the brain’s  operational state,  at a point in time so that the resultant artefact would be an exact copy of the original just as a copied computer file is an exact copy of data at a point in time.  Even more removed from the original person would  be a means of reducing  the entire mental construct of a person to a digital representation which could be stored as a computer file and then downloaded into other machines, artificially created bodies  or even other human beings.

That might seem something which is way into the future, but consider the speed with which technology is already advancing, how we have moved from physically huge computers fifty years ago to tiny devices with many times the power of the most advanced  computer made in the 1960s. The temptation to offer a modern version of “It’ll never replace the horse” is strong but equally doomed to ridiculous failure.

Think on two questions:  (1) if  individual humans can be replicated  what is it to be human?   (2) Once everything  can be  reduced to digital data or indeed data in any form, where does reality begin and end? I would suggest only in the concept of things rather than the physical reality of them.

Self-Organising materials

Another future disrupter of  market economies is self-organising materials. Imagine a material which did not have a fixed state but could assume different states to perform different tasks. Such a material could perform as a  wondrously enhanced Swiss Army knife  without the need to have  any permanent specific tools, viz:

 A. System Functionality

We aim to create a system of sand grain sized modules that can form arbitrary structures on demand. Imagine a bag of these intelligent particles. If, for example, one needs a specific type or size of wrench, one communicates this to the bag. The modules contained within first crystallize into a regular structure and then self-disassemble in an organized fashion to form the requested object. One reaches in, grabs the tool, and uses it to accomplish a meaningful task. When one is done with the tool, it goes back into the bag where it disintegrates, and the particles can be reused to form the next tool. Such a system would be immensely useful for an astronaut on an inter-planetary mission or a scientist isolated at the South Pole. Even for the average mechanic or surgeon, the ability to form arbitrary, task-specific, tools would be immensely valuable in inspecting and working in tight spaces.(Self-Disassembling Robots Pebbles: New Results and Ideas for Self-Assembly of 3D Structures (http://groups.csail.mit.edu/drl/wiki/images/5/5d/RobotPebblesWorkshop-GilpinRus-ICRA10.pdf).

This system uses electromagnets and a subtractive system. It begins with a quantity of the grain sized modules and removes those which are not needed for a specific item, just as a sculptor starts with a block of marble and creates by removing material. Unlike a sculpture when the object is no longer required the totality of the grain size modules reforms until it required to form  an object again.

That is self-organising materials as tools, but any object could in principle be so created, even complicated machines. All that would be required is a form of self-organising  material  flexible enough to  translate any  digital map into a real object.

The effect of widespread use of self-organising materials  would mean that much of traditional manufacturing would become unnecessary. That would have serious effects on demand because employment would be substantially reduced.

Intellectual property

The wholesale removal of production and supply by innovations such as 3D printing and self-organising materials have  serious  implications for intellectual property.    If everything is reduced to a digital representation,  where will ownership of ideas and physical  creations lie?  At present it is possible to have patent(s)  in an object, but what if anything can be scanned and  a 3D print made from the scan? Who could claim that a patent had been infringed if the item complained about  was the results of a scan produced by the person making the 3D print?  That would not be the equivalent of someone taking an object or process and simply reproducing it by physically duplicating by an act of copying.   Rather, it would be akin to the situation where someone photographs a painting then mass reproduces the photograph.  There would be no obvious breach of patent  because the copies would be of the photograph taken of the painting not of the painting itself and the creation of a photograph is an act of artistic creation in itself .

In such circumstances patent rights would become effectively null and void.  If there was an attempt to reform patent law to include replication of an original patented design,  however reproduced, if it was identical or even merely  had a large degree of similarity with the scanned object,   it is unlikely that it would be enforceable. That is  because  all any person wishing to replicate an object would have to do to put themselves arguably beyond a patent would be to manipulate the data from the scanned object  to make it other than identical with the original object which was scanned and then argue the changes were sufficient to constitute something different in quality to the scanned original object.   That would be a never ending playground for the lawyers as people squabbled over what constituted a significance similarity.

There would also be an obvious reason why enforcement would fail: the sheer numbers of people copying things, with most of them doing it simply for themselves or at least on a very small scale. The patent holders would be faced with a similar problem to that faced by the creators of digital material such as films or music who still suffer massive breaches of copyright.  Patent holders  would  be overwhelmed by the numbers  of breaches.

There could also be problems over copyright. A person who scanned an object would be creating a digital data map of the object. That would be an original creation. Who would own the copyright of the data map? Presumably the person who scanned it, for the data map they have created is original.  If the data map was then sold to others there would  be a direct conflict between the rights of the patent holder of the scanned object and the rights of the copyright holder who created the data map. How could that be resolved? Frankly I doubt whether it could be in any coherent or effective legal manner. If copyright was legally denied to those who created a data map by scanning, such a law  would almost certainly have general implications for copying anything by any means, even including the copying of a painting by painting a copy.

Disruptive technological advances  do not have to dramatic or completely novel

General purpose robots and self-organising materials  are genuine  novelties in the sense of having no antecedents, but less novel  and exotic  technological advances  also contain threats of social and economic disruption.  Think of the effect that the automation of a single machine dedicated to one general type of  activity might have. An automated sewing machine  meets  that description and there are serious attempts being made to produce one:

Fully Automatic Sewing of Garments Using Micro-Manipulation

FBO – DARPA has provided $1.25 million for Softwear Automation to develop a complete work-cell called a Beta Unit for fully automated sewing. That includes a numerically controlled sewing machine that tracks fabric movement by observing passing threads and under servo control moves the fabric under the needle stitch by stitch. Complete production facilities that produce garments with zero direct labor is the ultimate goal.

The military’s annual clothing budget at $4 billion dollars and employs about 50,000 people.

The US annual import of sewn items is approximately $100 Billion per year.

The technology proposed appears to allow cutting and sewing at costs LESS THAN in China. There is only one basic innovation required; that the metric of motion should not be meters or inches but rather thread count in the fill and warp directions. (Wovens and leather like materials need a slightly different measure.) This leads to THREE fundamental technical issues that have largely been solved and discussed below as well as more routine engineering development.

“The automation process proposed by Dickerson works something like this. First, an “overhead, pick-and-place robot” grabs the necessary pieces of fabric and places them at the head of a sewing machine. The appliance itself would be equipped with “machine vision” capabilities, specific enough to spot and track individual fabric threads. That intel would “provide fabric location information” to actuators that operate the sewing machine’s needle and thread, and “budgers” — motorized balls, underneath the sewing machine that latch onto the fabric via vacuum seal — that move the material to and fro.”  http://nextbigfuture.com/2012/06/fully-automatic-sewing-of-garments.html

If such a machine is invented much of the emerging economies of the developing world would be lost  because of their  very heavy reliance on producing clothes. And that is just one machine. Other basic manufacturing processes currently relying on cheap labour in places such as China and  India  could be and almost certainly will be invented.

What should be done?

Governments should be considering  the implications of any disruptive new technology and planning to deal with the problems they create, for example, by deciding now whether to ban or restrict the use of general purpose robots or to rejig the way a society produces goods and provides services, rather than wait for the reality of the new  technology to be upon us.

Dispiritingly,  governments  are, with the notable exceptions of GM foods and alleged man-made climate change,  ignoring the potential  dangers technology can  present.  In most instances the potential dangers are not even part of the  mainstream political discourse, not least because  there are no powerful and well funded  interest groups lobbying  about technologies such as robotics.

The irony is that GM foods and man-made climate change either present no proven danger (GM foods) or have no proven foundation (man-made climate change),  while dangers posed by technologies such as  general purpose robots and  3D printing contain  very real and obvious dangers

Why do GM foods and man-made climate change appeal to many while  fears over technologies such as robotics and 3D printing lack a  public voice? Probably because digital technology has become so much a part of our lives.   Most people simply think of the idea of robots and 3D printing as simply a development of what they already use and increasingly interact with on a quasi-human level.  Green issues are set apart from such everyday experience.   There is also probably an element of people thinking they will be treated as SF addicts at best and  unbalanced at worst if they start  raising fears about robots, 3D printers  and suchlike. They should put aside their fears of being embarrassed and think about the practical  implications of such technologies.

Book review – The Liberal Delusion

John Marsh, Arena Books, £12.99
Robert Henderson
“Is Western society based on a mistake?” asks John Marsh in his introduction. The possible mistake he considers is whether liberals have a disastrously wrong concept of what human beings are and what determines their behaviour  which leads them to favour policies that are radically out of kilter with the way human beings are equipped by their biology to live.
It is not that liberals do not believe in human nature as is often claimed. It can seem that they do  because they insist that nurture not nature is the entire font of human behaviour and consequently it is just a matter of creating the right social conditions to produce the type of people and society the liberal has as their ideal. But liberals balance this rationale on a belief that humans are naturally good, an idea which itself assumes innate qualities. Hence, they believe in an innate human nature but not one which bears any resemblance to reality.
The belief that disagreeable aspects of human nature do not exist and that all human beings are innately good is a product of the Enlightenment, where it took its most extreme and ridiculous  form in the concept of the ‘noble savage’. Marsh will have none of it. He debunks the idea thoroughly. He sees human beings as not naturally wholly good or bad but the product of natural selection working on the basic behaviours of humans. In this opinion he leans heavily on the Canadian-born evolutionary biologist Steven Pinker who in his The Blank Slate dismisses the idea of the noble savage with a robust
A thoroughly noble anything is an unlikely product of natural selection, because noble guys tend to finish last. Nice guys get eaten
If there is no rational reason why anyone should  think that human beings are innately good , why do so many, especially of amongst the elite, fall for the idea? Marsh attributes the phenomenon to the idea being emotionally attractive. There is plentiful evidence for this. One of the pleasures of the book is its first rate line in quotes, many of which are staggering in their naivety. He cites the grand  panjandrum of atheism and a fervent believer  in innate human goodness Richard Dawkins as writing in The God Delusion
I dearly want to believe we don’t need policing – whether by God or each other – in order to stop us behaving in a selfish or criminal manner
So much for Dawkins’ scientific rationality.

A religious realist – Baltasar Gracian, author of the Art of Worldly Wisdom
Or take the case of A. S. Neill, founder of  the famous or infamous (depending on your politics) Summerhill School, which did not require anything in particular from its pupils:
I cannot believe that evil is inborn or that there is original sin…. We set out to make a school where children were free to be themselves. In order to do this we had to renounce all discipline, all direction, all suggestion, all moral training, all religious instruction…We had a complete belief in the child as a good, not an evil being. For over forty years this belief in the goodness of the child has not wavered
That is a quasi-religious statement no different from a Catholic saying they believe in the Trinity.
In the first half of the book Marsh questions and finds wanting in varying degrees just about everything the modern liberal holds dear: that human nature is good and rational and formed by nurture alone, that freedom is the primary end sought by humans, that morality is a set of shackles rather than a safety catch on human behaviour, that science is an unalloyed good, that religion is no more than harmful fairy stories; that a county’s history and customs are at best unimportant and at worst a malevolent means of maintaining an undesirable status quo, that economics should be determined by the market, that universalism and multiculturalism are unquestionably desirable, equality is always beneficial, and the idea that the individual has primacy over the group.
Some of these liberal ‘goods’ are contradictory, for example, the clash between equality and the individual. To enforce equality inevitably means impinging on the wishes of individuals. Doubtless a liberal would argue that the individual should only have their wishes met insofar as they do not impinge upon the wishes of others. In practice that means a great deal of coercion to prevent individuals satisfying their own wishes, and often such coercion occurs where individuals have perfectly reasonable and moral wishes which cannot be satisfied at the same time. For example, two sets of parents may want to send their children to the same school where there is only room for one child.
There are also heavy question marks over whether modern liberals actually believe in individual freedom. The idea that human beings should and can be manipulated into behaving in a certain way by producing social circumstances which engender the desired behaviour is determinist. Where is the freedom if human beings are seen merely as automata responding to the stimuli of their circumstances? Nor is the ‘freedom’ liberals are supposed to espouse a general freedom. The individual in modern Britain may be free to drink what they can afford to buy, or be as sexually promiscuous as they choose, but they are not allowed any freedom of speech which attacks the core values of political correctness. Who would have thought even twenty years ago that English men and women would be appearing in the dock for saying things which went against the politically correct ethos, but that is precisely what is happening with increasing frequency.
It is also arguable that the modern liberal is interested not in individuals but groups. It is true that human ‘rights’ are exalted by liberals, but these are not really individual rights but communal ones. For example, a law which grants free expression or insists on due process is an individual right because it applies in principle to all. Conversely, if (for instance) ‘hate speech’ is made illegal, this is a de facto communal right given to particular groups, because in practice certain groups enjoy much greater protection than others, for the police and prosecuting authorities are not even-handed in their application of the law.
The second part of the book is devoted to the morally disreputable means by which liberals have propagated their beliefs. Marsh is unforgiving about this aspect of liberalism. It involves persistent dishonesty when dealing with evidence which contradicts their world view. The dishonesty consists of both calling black white and conscientiously ignoring and suppressing that which contradicts the liberal world view. In the case of Britain he singles out the BBC as being hopelessly biased towards the liberal left world view, with a particularly strong line in Anglophobia, something he illustrates by citing the BBC’s After Rome, a programme which painted Dark Ages Islam as a vibrant civilisation and Dark Ages England as primitive and barbaric (p152).
The author laments the fact that liberals have generally been silent on the abuses of Communist regimes whilst engaged in a never ending raking over of Nazi malevolence. He cites as a rare and most honourable leftist exception Malcolm Muggeridge, who exposed the Stalin-inspired Ukrainian famine and searingly described the all too many useful idiots of the British liberal left at the time:
Travelling with radiant optimism through a famished countryside, wandering in happy bands about squalid overcrowded towns, listening with unshaken faith to the fatuous patter of carefully indoctrinated guides, repeating the bogus statistics and mindless slogans – all chanting the praises of Stalin and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat (p138)
There is a further problem which Marsh spends a good deal of time examining. It is not clear exactly what constitutes the modern liberal. Many of the most enthusiastic enforcers of what we now call  political correctness do not call themselves liberals, but are members of the hard left or  representatives of ethnic and racial minorities who see political correctness not as a moral corrective but as an instrument to promote their individual and ethnic group advantage, often with the greatest cruelty. Nor is this simply a modern phenomenon for it has been happening since the 18th century.
Marsh patiently records atrocities in gruesome detail generated by those following secular and rationalistic systems of thought deriving from the ideas of Enlightenment, from the grotesque slaughter of the French Revolution to the insanities of various communist and fascist regimes in the 20th century. This is a truly depressing catalogue not merely of murder on a colossal scale but murder committed with atrocious cruelty. His tale of atrocity begins with the suppression of the Vendée rebellion by Republicans during the French Revolution, where men were castrated before death and women killed by explosives detonated within their vaginas, to the madness of Mao’s “Cultural Revolution” which rode on slogans such as “smash the old culture“ and the terrible promise of the Red  Guards that “We will be brutal”.
Marsh’s judgement of liberalism both in its beliefs and the practical consequences of its implementation verges on the despairing:
To sum up: in the past there were positive aspects to liberalism, but at its core lies a deeply flawed attempt to impose a romantic, but unrealistic, view of human nature on society. Because it is fundamentally untrue, lies, bullying and coercion are needed to impose it, and opponents must be silenced. Because its view of mankind is idealistic, its devotees think it must be true, and are strongly committed to it. It is congenial to people who are well-meaning and who have a naïve rose-tinted view of the world, which avoids dwelling too much on the ugly side of life, like the single mum in a tower block in Tottenham, trying to keep her children safe and worrying about gangs and knife crime. It is in denial of the fact that many aspects of life are worse today than in the past. Liberals cling to their views, ignoring the evidence of science, psychology, anthropology, history and social workers. It is a blind faith in a Utopian project , which blithely dismisses reality and regards its opponents as prejudiced. There is nothing to discuss because we are right. Sadly, for its devotees, truth will out in the end. The experiment was foredoomed from the start (p171)
Damning as that judgement is, I think Marsh is being rather too generous to liberals (especially the modern ones) when he credits them with being generally well-meaning. They are ideologues. That makes them dangerous, because any ideology removes personal choice in moral decision making as the mind becomes concentrated on fitting the ideology to circumstance rather than addressing each circumstance pragmatically. As Marsh points out, it also gives the individuals captured by the ideology an excuse to behave immorally in the enforcement of the ideology on the principle that ends justify means. That is particularly so with ideologies which are what might be called millenarian in their psychology, with a promised land at the end of the ideological road. Political correctness is of this type.
Once someone has accepted the validity of ends justifying means and they know or even suspect  that the means will cause harm, that removes any claim to being well intentioned because their final end good intentions are swallowed by the immoral means. Nor can any ideologue, liberals included, rationally have any confidence that a great upheaval of a society will result in their desired ideological ends. What history tells us is that tyranny or chaos are invariably the results of such attempts.
There is also a tremendous arrogance in assuming that it is possible to define what is desirable human behaviour and what is a good society. Liberals may imagine that what they purport to be the ultimate human goods – non-discrimination, equality and the primacy of any individual are objectively what they claim – but in reality they are both no more than value judgements and highly questionable in terms of their outcomes. Modern liberals, or at least the true believers, are really just another set of self-serving egotists who think they know how others should live.
There is a looming leviathan throughout the book that is largely ignored, namely mass immigration and its consequences. Marsh to his credit does mention immigration as a problem, both in terms of weakening British identity and causing resentment amongst the native white population, but it does not feature in more than a peripheral way. Marsh never really asks the question “how much of the change in general British behaviour and the nature of British society in the past fifty years is due to mass immigration?” The answer is arguably a great deal, because multiculturalism and ‘anti-racism’ have been used as levers to promote the ‘anti-discrimination’ and ‘equality’ agendas across the board.
In the end Marsh stumbles in his task of debunking modern liberalism, because he is reluctant to face the full implications of what he is saying. In his introduction he writes,
So is this book a straight-forward attack on liberalism? No. It is not as simple as that. There are some areas in which I believe liberals are right. I acknowledge that some liberalism is necessary and beneficial. Few would want to go back to the restrictions of the Victorian era or live under a despot. There was also a need to free us from a negative attitude towards sex. Liberals are right to be concerned about inequality and to fight for social justice. There still remain great inequalities and their campaign for greater fairness deserves support. I welcome the undermining of the class system, the greater opportunities open to women and the improved treatment of racial and sexual minorities – the decriminalisation of homosexuality
He cannot quite bring himself to go all the way and see modern liberalism for what it is, a pernicious system increasingly aimed at suppressing the resentment and anger of the native British population as the consequences of mass immigration become ever more obvious and pressing. Clearly he agrees with much of the central politically correct agenda, but it is precisely that agenda which has created the present situation and it is difficult to see how such an ideology could ever have resulted in any other outcome once it became the guiding ideology of the elite – because the ends of political correctness run directly against human nature and can only be enforced.
Marsh’s sympathy with political correctness leads him wittingly or unwittingly to risk having his  argument distorted by concentrating not on the whole but a part of British society and treating that part as representative of Britain. Take the question of liberalism undermining the poor by making them dependent on the state and denying them moral guidance at home and in school. Marsh uses an interview with the youth worker Shaun Bailey (chapter 11) who works in a poor area of  London. The problem is that Bailey is black and this colours his interpretation of what is happening. He looks at the experience of blacks and treats that experience as representative of the poor generally, which it is not. For example, poor white Britons may have a greater incidence of one-parent homes and fathers deserting mothers now than previously, but the incidence of these behaviours amongst poor whites is much lower than it is amongst poor blacks, whether British born or  immigrants. Yet Bailey’s views are represented as being generally applicable to British society.
Despite these caveats, I strongly urge people to read the book. The Liberal Delusion is important because it succinctly performs the task of pointing out that the liberal emperor has no clothes or at least very tattered and insufficient ones. That is something which is sorely needed. The book’s value is enhanced by being  written in a lively and easily accessible style. Just read it with an understanding of the limitations imposed by Marsh’s residual, almost subliminal, hankering after the core values of political correctness.
First published in The Quarterly Review

http://www.quarterly-review.org/?p=1790

See also The Liberal Bigot

Cleansing the (Parliamentary) Augean stables

Robert Henderson

The seemingly  never-ending saga of British politicians behaving immorally (and sometimes criminally) in their financial dealings whilst serving in the Commons or Lords  has taken a new turn with Tory MP Patrick Mercer’s resignation after being exposed by a joint sting by the BBC and the Daily Telegraph ( http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/conservative/10092607/Exposed-deal-that-sank-cash-for-questions-MP-Mercer.html).

Mercer  believed he was being signed up by lobbyists to promote the interests of Fiji with a view to getting that country  readmitted  to the Commonwealth from which it had been suspended after  several military coups dismantled any pretence at democracy and the military (staffed by native Fijians) had acted against the Indian minority population of Fiji.

The agreement between Mercer and the bogus lobbyists included payments to Mercer (he received two payments of £2,000 which he did not enter on the Register of Members’ interests),  Mercer creating an All Party Parliament Group (APPG) for Fiji , Mercer arranging for a Commons pass for the lobbyists and Mercer making embarrassing remarks about how easy it would be  to recruit  members because many would see it as a chance to get a free trip to Fiji.  Mercer certainly had no difficulty  in recruiting both MPs and members of the Lords to the APPG, recruiting amongst others the all-purpose Labour MP Keith Vaz and the Labour peer Lord Mackenzie, a retired senior policeman, who works for a company Awards Intelligence which  claims to be able to “help dynamic organisations and individuals to find, enter and win business awards and personal honours such as an OBE, MBE, knighthood or apply to the House of Lords” (http://www.awardsintelligence.co.uk/about-ai.asp).  You couldn’t make it up.

MacKenzie , his fellow Labour peer Lord Cunningham (Jack Cunningham  of Blair’s Cabinet)  and the  Ulster Unionist Lord Laird have all been caught on video by one of the BBC, Daily Telegraph or Sunday Times journalist seemingly offering influence for money – Cunningham asked  of  £144,000 a year ( http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2334558/Lord-Laird-resigns-whip-Labour-peers-suspended-claims-broke-parliamentary-rules.html).  Mercer has resigned the Tory whip and will not stand at the next election. However, that means he will draw £130,000 plus expenses from the taxpayer.  Mackenzie and  Cunningham have been suspended by Labour  while Laird has resigned his party’s whip.  All three can still sit in the Lords and draw their £300 a day tax free expenses allowance.  It is conceivable that Mercer and the three peers could face criminal investigations but none has begun.

No surprise

None of this shameful behaviour should come as a surprise. In 2010 David Cameron said lobbying would be the next  scandal to hit Parliament. Moreover, the behaviour of many MPs and peers over their expenses had already primed the public to distrust the honesty of modern British politicians.  The question now is what can be done to mend matters?  I suggest this:

1. A ban on any form of material inducement to  an MP, whether r direct or indirect, during or after they have been active in politics.  This would end what  amounts to legalised bribery, namely, the granting of sinecures on company boards or other corporate bodies or the employment of MPs as consultants  as a reward for illicit favours done for the corporation involved whilst in political office, whether that be as a back or front bencher.

2. All Party Parliamentary Groups (APPGs ) can be set up by any MP able to get 19 members to sign up. They  often provide cover for what are really jollies at a third party’s expense, especially the ones which offer overseas trips.  The groups  fall into two categories : those dealing with a country (hence the many trips abroad) and those dealing with specific subjects – examples are Beer, Pub and Philately ( http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm/cmallparty/register/register.pdf). They have no official standing.

The supposedly “fact-finding”  trips take MPs  away from their parliamentary and/or  constituency  duties, In addition,  they must create a feeling of obligation in  MPs to show they have done something useful on a trip by producing suggestions based on what is done in another society, suggestions which are often wholly inappropriate for Britain or address a problem which does not exist.  MPs should have a holiday allowance of, say eight weeks,  and  any “fact finding trips”  should be undertaken during those eight weeks at the MP’s expense.  The government could continue to send  MPs or peers  on official overseas visits at the taxpayers’ expense.

3.  The granting of passes to Parliament for anyone other than those employed directly by an MP or peer should be forbidden.  Apart from the question of corruption, it renders absurd the security arrangements of Parliament.

4. There should be a bar on MPs  having second jobs even if they are being employed  in work such practising at the Bar or as a GP which does not obviously require them to promote the paymaster/employer’s interest  . There are two reasons for this: (1) the practice  inevitably leads to situations where MPs are compromised because of the competing  demands of their party policy, their own self-interest  or the wishes of an employer/paymaster  and (2) it reduces the amount of time and effort MPs can put into their Parliamentary and constituency work.

The argument that the jobs MPs take keep them in touch with the real world is a nonsense because most are  drawn from a very small range of work such as the law or take jobs as non-executive directors or consultants. The idea that this qualifies them to bring the  everyday experience of the ordinary citizen to their political work or provides a wide range of practical experience and expertise  is risible.   In any case the restriction on who could stand detailed above would ensure that everyone elected would have a decent experience of the world of normal work.

Breaches of these rules  should be made crimes carrying automatic prison sentences  for MPs, peers or any third party offering them material inducements. .

A change in mentality

Most fundamentally, there needs to be a sea-change in how would-be politicians view politics.  At present  an MPs can behave as that dreadful toady of aristocrats Edmund Burke advised MPs  to behave in the 18th century in a speech to the elector of Bristol (http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/v1ch13s7.html).  For Burke  an  MP was not bound by what his constituents thought but owed them “his unbiassed opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience” something which  he told the electors of Bristol “ he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the law and the constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

That self-serving view gives carte blanche to an MP to more or less behave as he chooses provided he does not commit a criminal act. It is profoundly undemocratic and was doubtless designed by Burke to curry favour with the rich and powerful.

Political office  should not be seen as a career choice, something which it has become  for far too many politicians, but a public service.  To this end no one should be allowed to stand for the House of Commons before the age of thirty-five and only then if the individual concerned has worked for at least ten years in a job absolutely unconnected to politics. This would remove from the Commons MPs who have gone straight from university to work for a political party and who arrive in the Commons with no experience of the real world of work.

Should be paid more?  It is essential that people do not view life as an MP as a means to enrich themselves or otherwise that will be all too often be the primary purpose driving MPs. The current pay of a backbench MP is £66,000. They also get generous pensions and  subsidised bars and restaurants plus various expenses which even if they are not meant to it is possible to make a fair profit on  even under the new expenses regime. That should be a sufficient reward with  the UK full time average wage being s less than £30,000. The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority produced its first report on MPs pay and expenses in January 2013 (http://tinyurl.com/MPSISPA) and serious consideration is being given to ideas such as making MPs pay a multiple of the average UK wage. I would favour such an approach because it provide a direct link between wages and  the performance of MPs as a collective body  and automatically change as the average wage changed.

Legal obligations on MPs to do the work  for which they are paid are sorely needed. Parliament only sits for around half the year (House of Commons 129 days in 2012 http://tinyurl.com/HoCDayssat2012 ) and many MPs arrive late on Monday and leave early on Friday.   There is no legal obligation on MPs to attend the Commons or attend to duties in their constituencies and an MP who treats the position cynically can draw their pay whilst doing absolutely nothing until they either strand down or are defeated at the ballot box.  There  needs to be a formal  job description for MPs  detailing what work they are required to do in their constituencies and Parliament and a  means to take disciplinary action if the job remains inadequately done, for example, giving electors in a constituency the right to recall an MP.

More generally, there is a Code of Conduct  which if it was enforced would end most of the abuses. Here  is the most relevant part of it:

 III.  Duties of Members

4.  By virtue of the oath, or affirmation, of allegiance taken by all Members when they are elected to the House, Members have a duty to be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty the Queen, her heirs and successors, according to law.

5.  Members have a duty to uphold the law, including the general law against discrimination.

6.  Members have a general duty to act in the interests of the nation as a whole; and a special duty to their constituents.

7.  Members should act on all occasions in accordance with the public trust placed in them. They should always behave with probity and integrity, including in their use of public resources.

IV.  General Principles of Conduct

8.  In carrying out their parliamentary and public duties, Members will be expected to observe the following general principles of conduct identified by the Committee on Standards in Public Life in its First Report as applying to holders of public office.[1] These principles will be taken into account when considering the investigation and determination of any allegations of breaches of the rules of conduct in Part V of the Code.

“Selflessness

Holders of public office should take decisions solely in terms of the public interest. They should not do so in order to gain financial or other material benefits for themselves, their family, or their friends.

Integrity

Holders of public office should not place themselves under any financial or other obligation to outside individuals or organisations that might influence them in the performance of their official duties.

Objectivity

In carrying out public business, including making public appointments, awarding contracts, or recommending individuals for rewards and benefits, holders of public office should make choices on merit.

Accountability

Holders of public office are accountable for their decisions and actions to the public and must submit themselves to whatever scrutiny is appropriate to their office.

Openness

Holders of public office should be as open as possible about all the decisions and actions that they take. They should give reasons for their decisions and restrict information only when the wider public interest clearly demands.

Honesty

Holders of public office have a duty to declare any private interests relating to their public duties and to take steps to resolve any conflicts arising in a way that protects the public interest.

Leadership

Holders of public office should promote and support these principles by leadership and example.”

V.  Rules of Conduct

9.  Members are expected to observe the following rules and associated Resolutions of the House.

10.  Members shall base their conduct on a consideration of the public interest, avoid conflict between personal interest and the public interest and resolve any conflict between the two, at once, and in favour of the public interest.

11.  No Member shall act as a paid advocate in any proceeding of the House.[2]

12.  The acceptance by a Member of a bribe to influence his or her conduct as a Member, including any fee, compensation or reward in connection with the promotion of, or opposition to, any Bill, Motion, or other matter submitted, or intended to be submitted to the House, or to any Committee of the House, is contrary to the law of Parliament.[3]

13.  Members shall fulfil conscientiously the requirements of the House in respect of the registration of interests in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. They shall always be open and frank in drawing attention to any relevant interest in any proceeding of the House or its Committees, and in any communications with Ministers, Members, public officials or public office holders.[4]

14.  Information which Members receive in confidence in the course of their parliamentary duties should be used only in connection with those duties. Such information must never be used for the purpose of financial gain.

15.  Members are personally responsible and accountable for ensuring that their use of any expenses, allowances, facilities and services provided from the public purse is in accordance with the rules laid down on these matters. Members shall ensure that their use of public resources is always in support of their parliamentary duties. It should not confer any undue personal or financial benefit on themselves or anyone else, or confer undue advantage on a political organisation.

16.  Members shall never undertake any action which would cause significant damage to the reputation and integrity of the House of Commons as a whole, or of its Members generally.

17.  The Commissioner may not investigate a specific matter under paragraph 16 which relates only to the conduct of a Member in their private and personal lives. http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201012/cmcode/1885/188501.htm

Although complaints are investigated by a non-politician,  the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, the Code is rarely enforced with any severity by either the  Committee on Standards and Privileges or the House itself and even where it is enforced severely there are no criminal penalties.  It is all too incestuous. Where appropriate, for example where members or peers have  received money or other material considerations from a third party,  criminal penalties should be attached to the Code and those cases  should be investigated by the police not politicians.  The power of recall by electors could also come into play. It is also  worth noting that the Commons  can expel its own members and the Lords suspend theirs  (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/10098194/How-Parliament-can-kick-out-crooked-MPs-and-peers-whenever-it-likes.html )

The balance of power in the Commons

The lack of opportunity to line their pockets should  attract a less self-serving kind of MP,  but there also needs to be a carrot as well as a stick. The carrot  should be a shift in the balance of  power between Parliament of the government. If backbenchers had far more chance to influence matters by introducing legislation and voting as their conscience dictates, there would be  more chance of people who were interested in implementing policy rather than getting rich or simply exercising their egos.

The government payroll vote begs to  be greatly  reduced. At present around 150 MPs on the government side are deemed to be part of the government. Even a Parliamentary Private Secretary (PPS) counts as part of the payroll vote. This greatly undermines the importance and influence of backbenchers especially where a government has a large majority. (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/feb/10/creeping-patronage-house-commons-mps-whips).  A Cabinet of 20 with 20 junior ministers is probably sufficient.

Two other things to strengthen Parliament are required. First, party whipping should be stopped. This would not mean governments losing control because most of the time backbenchers will naturally vote the party line.    Second, Parliamentary time should  be substantially  increased by having Parliament sitting for, say, nine months of the year rather than the present six months.  Apart from allowing much more time to scrutinise government legislation, this would allow time for backbenchers to place statutes on the books through their own efforts.

What will change?

David Cameron has promised a register of lobbyists and Nick Clegg has been huffing and puffing about  throwing crooks out of the Lords, but unless the matter is taken out of the hands of politicians by making the more offences breaches of the Code of  Conduct criminal offences dealt with by the police, it is unlikely that anything radical will happen.  That is the tragedy of modern British politics: self-serving not public service  has become the order of the day.

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