Archive for the ‘Privatisation’ Category

The Economist and the UK General Election – what a squirm

Two years ago I critiqued the Economist’s advocacy of the Conservative Party to form the next UK Government under David Cameron. The magazine, in my opinion, disingenuously dismissed Ed Miliband’s programme in favour of the “stability” offered by more economic-liberal austerity by the Conservatives. The magazine overlooked the commitment to an in-out referendum on Europe despite its avowed support for the European Union, at least in the context of a single market and customs union.

Fast-forward 2 years and here we are with another General Election having been called – we are told by Theresa May – to protect the will of the people translated as her vision of Brexit from those who would oppose it (saboteurs according to the Daily Mail), like parliamentary oppositions are supposed to do under the Country’s usefully unwritten constitution. May, not being a democrat, or not one that I recognise, duly called her General Election after having been on a walking holiday. Though I am minded that she first had a word with the architect of the Conservatives’ last election victory, the benighted Lynton Crosby.

I was waiting to see what stance The Economist would take this time. Let me have a look. First of all, the leader of the opposition is called “ineffectual”. However, that is not the real story. May looks to achieve a landslide victory and increase her majority from the current 17 to something approaching 100. “For the 48% of voters who, like this newspaper, opposed Brexit, this may look ominous” says the Economist, un-reassuringly. However, we have mis-read this. Indeed, argues the newspaper, “[i]nfact, it offers an opportunity for those who believe in a more open, Liberal Britain”. Really? We need to know more.

If I read it correct, if May gets her increased majority, she will fear the Commons less when it comes to the final deal. The House of Commons fought hard to have a say on the final deal and would, if the “deal” was not as good as what the country has at the moment with EU membership, tell her to go back and try harder. One assumes she is particularly fearful of her “hard Brexit” backbenchers. If she has a bigger majority, goes the argument, she can accommodate their wrath as well as that coming from the depleted opposition benches. This means, continues the argument, that she is more likely to be able to make compromises with the EU with this safety net. And that means a softer Brexit. Brilliant!

Dear Economist, that is nonsense. May wants to close the borders. Only a hard version of Brexit will enable that. Plus Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s Brexit coordinator, has himself described it as a “power grab”. Moreover, she also does not want to be bound by the current manifesto of her party written by her predecessor. So, her Finance Minister, Philip Hammond, who suffered ignominy when his budget tax increase was rejected, can now make this a manifesto commitment. Also, May herself is obsessed with selective education and already has in train a return to grammar schools at the expense of children from less privileged backgrounds. The Economist thinks that Theresa May with a majority can fix the housing shortage and make good the “funding crisis in social care”. Bearing in mind that her party is the cause of these two problems and policies so far pursued seek to make it worse, not better (for example, right-to-buy housing association dwellings).

We should not be surprised by this spin and support for the Conservative Party; but we are where we are because of the Conservative Party (austerity policies and THAT referendum). The solutions and future must lie elsewhere.

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The nonsense of anti-trade union legislation

My trade union, the UCU, is in dispute with my employer. My employer seems reluctant to discuss the issues at the heart of the dispute, so the Union organised a ballot if members managed by the Electoral Reform Society, the experts in balloting and the law. The result was a legally acceptable (relative to current law) percentage of members agreeing to take strike action. The Union then called a two-day strike only to find that under the new law, before labour can be withdrawn, two weeks’ notice has to be given to employers. The strike had to be postponed.

We are getting close to the Easter non-teaching period. To withdraw one’s labour in a non-teaching period is a bit of a waste of time (and money). But to leave it until the start of the new term renders the ballot void. So, here we have a piece of legislation that forces members to strike in order to keep the legal mandate to strike. So, at the end of the coming week, we are going to withdraw our labour – symbolically – for half a day in order to strike on another two days later in late April. Brilliant.

The concerted attempts to destroy the post-war consensus in the UK

The UK at the moment is in a mess.

Daily I am subject to the effects of ongoing industrial action by two transport unions – one for train drivers, one for (what we used to call) guards. It being awp-1484414323498.jpg privatised and fragmented railway network, this is happening in a single region, and hence the effects are localised. The objective for the railway workers is to run the trains safely (drivers have recently been given total responsibility for safety on trains, over-and-above the driving, which they argue is not safe). The same unions are in dispute with Transport for London over safety and staffing on the London Underground.

Last week it was the turn of the National Health Service. People are dying waiting to get into a hospital. The Government is now blaming General Practitioners, the primary carers. Seemingly because they do not provide a 7-day service, too many people are going to the emergency departments in hospitals at weekends and evenings.

Then there is my own profession, university teaching. The Government’s priority is to push ahead with a bill that uct_leslie_social_science_lecture_theatre_classenables private companies to award degrees and add further metrics to the practice of teaching. This progressively turns teaching into a proscriptive exercise rather than a learning experience. The arrival of private companies, it is argued, will provide choice in the ‘education market’ (as if there are not enough universities to provide choice) and innovate.

My take is this. With respect to the railway disputes, this is a Government that wants to impose new working conditions on railway workers that have the potential to make travel less safe. We have seen this before at privatisation, It can be deadly.

With regard to universities, the advent of 9000 pound fees per year changed the relationship between teaching staff and students. The fees effectively commodified learning and universities have been complicit in this. Private companies such as the large publishing houses want to control content and merge their content production with delivery. This will squeeze out any critical thinking.

Euro_flag_yellow_lowAs we have seen with Brexit, all is not what it seems. The Conservatives, with hindsight, were always Eurosceptic. They never embraced membership or tried to change it from within.  The incoming Prime Minister, Theresa May, simply sees it as an opportunity. The opportunity to leave the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and to control border (something that she failed to achieve as home minister in the Cameron Government). The mandate from the referendum is there, even if the damage done to the economy is significant. This is not about the economy, it is about nationalism.

And not unrelated is the situation with the National Health Service. It is the ultimate outcome of  a postwar rejection of conservatism. A majority Labour Government in 1948 enacted legislation to enable healthcare to be provided free at the point of use. The UK conservatives see now their opportunity to end this once and for all. They have prnhsogressively been privatising it with many familiar private-sector firms cherry picking services (leaving the public sector with the difficult stuff like geriatric care and chronic illness). Now, the crisis that has erupted in recent weeks with Accident and Emergency services struggling, the blame has been put on General Practitioners who are opposing 7-day working. It is reported today that some are indicating their intention to leave the National Health Service. On the one hand, this looks like something that the Government cannot ignore. On the other hand, maybe it is just what they are looking for in order to introduce an insurance system?

Pictures: A lecture in progress in Leslie Soc-Sci building in theatre 2A. Discott 

Privatising schools by stealth

GeorgeOsborne2015Here we go again. George Osborne (left), the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer – otherwise known as the finance minister – took it upon himself to announce in his budget last week that all Schools will be forced to become academies. This is to rid them of fiendish local bureaucracy and hand them over to private-sector “trusts” where no such bureaucracy can get in the way of delivering first class education to children across the country.

First of all, I was a little confused as to why the finance minister rather than the education minister would make the announcement. Even the Prime Minister is a more likely bearer of such policy news. Who is making policy here? Oh, and while we are at it, let us abolish the right of parents to be governors on school boards. They seem to be part of that unnecessary bureaucracy that gets in the way…

Let us look at the rationale. First, Osborne links local bureaucracy and poor global performance of schools (on very limited instrumental metrics). Simply not demonstrated. Not only are local authority-run schools high performers in some cases but academies also fail – take AET, as just one example. Second, centralisation is an attempt to micromanage education. The national curriculum does not hold in academies, but the testing regimes do. And less-than-exemplar exam companies such as EdExcel (a subsidiary of Pearson) run the show. A far cry from my own secondary education certificate from the Joint Matriculation Board, a lofty university accredited outfit.

The local authority monitoring – sorry, bureaucracy – will be replaced by a highly efficient and non-bureaucratic schools commission. Conveniently accountable to some oblique central authority, not locally-elected representatives or accountable local civil servants.

More pertinent, it seems, is money. There is money to be made for academies not possible under local authority control. So, Knight of the Realm Sir Greg Martin – boss of Durand academy chain, apparently notched up a tidy salary of £390k and management fees of £508k while also running a dating website, a health club and an accommodation business (as if running schools was a part-time business opportunity).

Then there is the land. Oh yes, now we are getting to the nub of the matter. Local authority schools occupy public land. Academy schools’ assets are handed over to a “trust” (if ever the word trust was misused it is here, surely?). Wait and see the terms of use of land held in “trust” change.

Then there are the children who have learning difficulties or behavioural problems. Academies have to be target driven and non-conforming children are removed and ultimately become the responsibility of local authorities, those democratically-controlled entities that bureaucratically hinder educational achievement.

And then there are the teachers. Academies are not bound by national terms and conditions. The current Education Secretary’s predecessor, Michael Gove, already freed up academies to employ non-qualified staff and to replace them with software programs. Really. Now there will be no national negotiations over pay. That is another attack on organised labour and another good reason for conversion.

Talking of which, The BBC reported recently that to date conversion has cost local taxpayers £32.5m. According to Michael Rosen writing in the Guardian, 2,075 out of 3,381 secondary schools and 2,440 out of 16,766 primary schools are academies. That is a lot of conversion money still to be found.

 

The rationale now makes sense!

 

 

Should I admire Jacob Rees-Mogg?

Mhairi_BlackLast week I was driving to work listening to BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour. Jenny Murray, the programme’s avuncular anchor, was interviewing the 21 year old Scottish MP, Mhairi Black (left). It was a general discussion about policy, life, MPing, etc. She made her maiden speech in parliament on 14 July 2015 and was roundly lauded for it, despite having broken the protocol that maiden speeches should be largely apolitical.

It transpires, however, that Ms Black is an admirer of Jacob Rees-Mogg, Conservative MP for North East Somerset. This is not someone that is at the top of one’s list for admiration. I find him extremely divisive and not a little annoying. But listening to the interview a seed of doubt was implanted in my brain. Ms Black said that although she fundamentally disagreed with him he was a) very polite to her and b) articulate such that he would always give a reason for his position (something which I would have thought was true of all MPs, but seemingly not).

Oh dear! Should I now reconsider my feelings towards Mr Rees-Mogg (below right)? Fortunately, to the rescue, came today’s edition of the Radio 4 Sunday morning magazine programme, Broadcasting House, for which he was a guest newspaper reviewer (along with former Business Secretary, Vince Cable and Hon_Jacob_Rees-Mogg_MPShelagh Fogerty, a radio presenter in London). They were discussing privatisation, and in particular the privatisation of Channel 4 Television. Cable argued that privatisation would undermine its public service ethos, particularly its flagship news programme, Channel 4 News.

And so Mr Rees-Mogg did what he does best, plausibly lie. First, he said that there are many private-sector news outlets that have high journalistic integrity. Hence Cable’s argument was not valid. He must have been thinking about Sky News and the integrity of Rupert Murdoch’s unimpeachable global news empire. He then went on to say that there should be a management buy-out; seemingly the best of both worlds, a privatised broadcaster with the existing management’s public service broadcasting ethos.

Now I have spent a good part of my life studying privatisation (UK bus and rail industry). In both of these cases, management buy-outs were seen as good options. Many of the former national bus company regional operators were transferred to the private sector by means of management buy-outs. The same is true of railway franchises. But where are they now? The bus and rail industries in the UK are dominated by large – increasingly international – conglomerates. One of the exemplar management buy-outs in the rail industry, Chiltern Railways (operating trains out of London’s Marylebone Station) held out for 6 years before finally succumbing to corporate ownership. It is currently owned by Deutsche Bahn, the German national railway operator. A few bus companies still hold out. In my home town of Hull, East Yorkshire Motor Services remains stubbornly independent. I cannot think of many more.

The point is Mr Rees-Mogg, management buy-outs are simply a means for corporations to access strategic assets at probably a little more than they were originally purchased by incumbent managements. The best way to protect strategic assets from corporations – if this is a desirable objective – is to keep them publicly owned. In this I include housing (wholesale transfer of public housing and right to buy). Mr Rees-Mogg is deliberately specious. He needed to be challenged on his plausibility. He was unfortunately deemed to be presenting a plausible argument. Speciousness is a deeply unadmirable trait.

Pics: Mhairi Black – SNP (through Wikipedia)

Jacob Rees-Mogg – LadyGeekTVFlickr

Increasingly undemocratic

Jeremy_Corbyn_Global_Justice_NowSome regular readers of this blog have expressed a disappointment over the lack of political content in recent months. To paraphrase, “I do not care about your tandem tour or cigarette advertising, but I do like to read what you think about…Jeremy Corbyn (left) or whoever/whatever”. Like a few of my peers, since the UK General Election in May, it has been quite difficult to muster much in the way of enthusiasm for writing about politics in the knowledge that a significant minority of the population voted for a bunch of lying, thieving and privileged men (largely) to run (down) the country, destroy the trade unions and the Labour Party and oppress working people.

What Cameron said about Jeremy Corbyn at the Tory Party conference earlier this month was outrageous slander. It is true that Corbyn was elected the leader of the Labour Party against all of the odds and in spite of the best efforts of the Tory-lite brigade within the party and their media friends. It is refreshing to hear a leading politician publicly renounce the use of nuclear weapons, expose the lie of the deficit, decline to sing the national anthem and bow before the queen.

Let’s just deal with the national anthem and patriotism. I regard myself as being fiercely patriotic without being nationalistic. I do not sing the national anthem, even at the Proms of which I am passionate.  However, as a republican atheist, it is quite difficult to retain authenticity if one starts singing “God Save the Queen”. Surely? Corbyn was respectful at the Battle of Britain memorial service. He just did not sing the words. Moreover, if one listens to national anthems the world over, mostly they say something about the country, its people, the landscape, etc. The British National Anthem says nothing about these things. It is unsingable for any rational patriot.

Another thing that defines Corbyn is his commitment to democracy. OK, sometimes leadership is necessary, and merely listening might not be enough. The Conservative Government realise that their programme cannot be taken through the UK parliament and be ratified. There is simply not enough support for the programme in both houses. So what does the Government do? Find a way of not taking policy through normal channels, that’s what. For example, there is a law against new selective grammar schools in the UK. They are regressive and favour the already privileged children of middle- and upper-class parents. So instead of trying to get the legislation through parliament – which the Government knows is impossible – it sanctions the establishment of a new school as an annex of an existing school some 20km away, claiming that it is not a new school.

Then there is the issue about sale of social housing units – housing association properties to you and me. Notwithstanding the fact that attempts to sell off social housing stock at a discount is a bad idea as it transfers much needed affordable housing into the private sector funded by us, the taxpayer, to benefit private landlord (this is what happened with the sale of council houses in the 1980s). Additionally, Housing Associations are separate entities from the state and government. The houses are not the Government’s to sell. Yet. Again, knowing that it cannot get this measure through the Parliament, what has the Government done? Well, it has negotiated withNat_Fed_logo_1.png the National Housing Federation an extra-parliamentary deal. According to the Guardian newspaper “Housing association leaders believe a voluntary deal will guarantee their independence as charities and private housing providers, and head off a full-scale battle with government, which has been critical in recent weeks of association performance and efficiency.” In other words, taking on the Government would undermine charitable status, a central plank of their identity and constitution. Essentially, they would then just become private companies, like any other. Or more likely public assets and available for sale. Fortunately, some Associations are resisting this bullying. Overwhelmingly.

Picture: Jeremy Corbyn by JMiall, Wikipedia

Fracking as a metaphor

HydroFracI was reading in the Guardian newspaper an article by comedy screenwriter Ian Martin (In the Thick of It) about how we are all being fracked as corporations find new ways of extracting more and more from us in pursuit of profit. Fracking, for those unfamiliar with the process, is the extraction of gas from rocks by using high pressure jets underground to break them up to the release the gas. Firms that are seeking licences to do this on a commercial scale are experiencing serious opposition from local people, not least because of the likelihood of toxic chemicals contaminating water courses and hence threatening human health (see graphic above left).

Moreover, the Murdoch newspapers take the position that that fracking is some sort of panacea – cheap, plentiful energy, produced locally and not subject to the whim of international diplomacy. Russia, for example.

I had not really thought of a metaphor of blasting rocks with  high pressure jets. Fracketeering, as Martin calls it. So how are we being fracked? Here are a couple of examples from the article:

  • estate agents’ “client progression fees”, where the buyer has to pay the estate agent to make the offer to the seller, even though the seller has already paid for this “service”;
  • admin fees paid on online transactions – such as concert tickets – where the marginal cost is near to zero and where we, the customer, have already spent 20 minutes of our valuable time getting to the screen that tells us that we will have to pay for the privilege of paying (for our tickets).

Here are some that I am subject to, seemingly.

  • In order to get online with my internet provider, I have to have a phone line that I do not need or want. The phone line costs the same as the broadband. No phone, no Broadband.
  • paying to upload to this blog pictures of an illuminated Eiffel Tower that I took with my own camera;
  • not being able to roll over digital credit from one month to the next on my dongle. Have I bought my 3Gb or not? Why can I not pay again when I have used it?

Graphic: “HydroFrac” by Mikenorton – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:HydroFrac.png#/media/File:HydroFrac.png

Those pesky railway workers

Network_railThe strike by UK rail infrastructure workers scheduled for next week has been called off, but the train operators (private companies using the rail infrastructure) had their plans for dealing with the lack of infrastructure. Obviously, not run trains. But it was worse than that. This was going to be a 24 hour strike straddling two days. Never helpful, but this is industrial action, it is supposed to be disruptive. Starting at 1700 on Monday and finishing 1700 Tuesday. Presumably then, trains will run on or near to 1700 on Tuesday? Er…no. Not worth it, it seems. Trains would have restarted the next full day.

PrintMaybe someone can correct me on this, but it seems on the face of it that the costs associated with restarting train services at 1700 are too high and the key passengers – season ticket holders – were unlikely to have travelled in to London or other principal cities in the UK earlier in the day and would, therefore, be unlikely to need the train home. So the rest of us who might want to use a train for non-work travel can go stuff ourselves.

It is easy to say that pre-privatisation (1994) it would have been inconceivable that the trains would not recommence after the ending of strike action. This really does seem to be a case of profit coming first.

Incidentally, I will arrive at Gatwick Airport at 1800 on Tuesday with a view to getting back home on the South Coast. I checked nearby hotels and airport parking. Extortionate. £140 pounds to park at Gatwick. These organisations seem to have had a service bypass!

The one unexpected good business was National Express which planned to put on extra coaches to cater for the stranded passengers at not-inflated prices from what I could see. Top marks. I’ll remember that.

Avoiding tax avoiders

Stefano_PessinaThe UK Labour Party is under pressure, apparently, because big business is not endorsing tax policies. The most recent criticism has come from Stefano Pessina (left) the boss of Boots, the iconic British pharmacy-cum-drug store. Boots was founded in Nottingham, England, in 1849. It is now privately owned and has its headquarters is in Zug, Switzerland, to avoid UK corporation tax.

Now out of the woodwork are the fickle Simon Woodroffe, he of Yo! Sushi fame, who has funded both Labour and the Conservatives simultaneously just to hedge his bets, and Charles Dunstone, founder of Carphone Warehouse, now part of the Dixons empire. Both of these supported Labour under Blair. Arguably, Labour under Blair was conservative, and hence not a risk. Actually it would have been a risk not to support them in the run up to the 1997 election. Even Murdoch did that.

Labour under Miliband has targeted inequality as a key economic factor much to the chagrin of so-called ‘business leaders’ who took us in to recession and are unwilling to contribute to the state infrastructure that enables them to trade in the country safely and predictably.PricewaterhouseCoopers_Logo

Enter Price Waterhouse Coopers (PwC) the accountancy firm has been chastised by the UK Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee, Chaired by Margaret Hodge, for its speciality in advising firms on tax avoidance strategies on an ‘industrial scale’. Denied, of course.

Which other firms offend? We know well about Starbucks, Facebook, Top Shop, Amazon, Google, Apple and Virgin. That said, it is ok for Richard Branson because he is a philanthropist. Maybe we can define a philanthropist as someone who gives away part of their fortune to rectify the ills caused by their own business practices?

Other tax avoiding firms include: Dyson and Wolseley UK, owners of Plumb, Pipe,  etc, Centers.

Celebrities have always moaned about tax. Michael Caine went off to the US, albeit when tax rates were somewhat higher than they are today (but even then, the high rate was a marginal rate).  Unfortunately, Paul Daniels did not go when he threatened to back in the 1990s, let us hope that the likes of Griff Rhys Jones and Ray Winstone do leave as they threaten. Gary Barlow, Anne Robinson, the Arctic Monkeys, Katie Melula, George Michael and comedian, Jimmy Carr (I could go on) have all been exposed as intentional tax avoiders.

Picture: Stefano Pessina – Alliance Boots, available through Wikipedia

 

Here’s the next challenge to our liberties

TTIPSo here is the next outrage – the inappropriately named Transatlantic Trade and Investment Policy, coming to a court not near you very soon. It is inappropriate because it is not really a trade and investment policy. Such a policy would, on the whole, be benign. This one, by my understanding, gives large corporations the opportunity to challenge nation states/governments on issues that they view as restrictions on trade. So, a nationalised health service is conceivably a restriction on trade of US healthcare providers. Under this argument, US corporations would be able to make the case that they should be able to compete for contracts in the NHS – the whole of the NHS, not just the bit that the UK Conservatives have so far transferred to their private sector firms. Equally, all environmental policy could be viewed in this way. Restricting carbon emissions, for example, imposes costs on firms, that is a restriction on trade. Surely corporations should be able to pollute as much as they like?