October 31, 2015

How to reform the House of Lords

Previously, I suggested that an elected Lords could easily be worse than what we've got.

So what about reform, short of electing it? Matt Ridley reports a gradual consensus is building inside the Lords that they should use this crisis to reform themselves, "probably by bringing in some combination of a retirement age, a minimum attendance requirement and a rebalancing of party strengths by internal election".
So, after retirements are taken into account, the parties would vote out a proportion of their members so their strengths reflected either the votes cast at the last election or the seats won in the Commons (or an average of the two). The size of the house would shrink to match that of the Commons, though with cross-benchers retaining the balance of power.
My own preference is for party voting strengths in the Lords to reflect votes cast at the last general election.

I would also not appoint members as life peers, but as senators, a designation they would lose once they were no longer active members.

Ridley looks at some issues:
Ukip might need extra peers. It currently has three — 108 fewer than the Liberal Democrats, despite getting 60 per cent more votes in the last general election.
Nothing wrong with that, though this makes it less likely to get past the political establishment.
The Scottish Nationalists might be granted a proportionate number of seats that they could choose to leave vacant if they wished (they currently refuse to appoint peers).
That would be up to them.
Some provision would need be made for rolling retirements to enable the introduction of new blood.
Indeed. Perhaps senators should have a maximum term of ten years.

October 30, 2015

Our country is gong to change hugely - and you will have no say

We've been treated to much handwringing over the past few weeks about how many Syrian refugees we should admit, from anarchist nutjobs calling for open borders, and from luvvies saying we must admit more.

None of them put their proposals in any context of our overall population numbers. It's so much easier that way.

But now, unluckily for them, along come the Office for National Statistics (ONS) with their updated projections. They're horrible.

Over the ten year period to mid-2024, the UK population is projected to increase by 4.4 million to 69.0 million - nearly 7%.

Mass immigration is the major cause of our rapid population increase - it is estimated that net migration plus births to foreign-born parents has accounted for 85% of population growth since 2000.

If net migration continues at 240K (the average of the last ten years), then the population is projected to rise by 2.5 million over the next five years and to reach 73 million in the next 15 years. This is an increase of 8 million people, the equivalent of adding the combined population of Greater Manchester and the cities of Birmingham, Glasgow, Liverpool, Leicester, Leeds, Sheffield, Bradford, Nottingham, Portsmouth and Bristol.

So England especially will become more and more crowded (because that's where most immigrants want to settle). That's why your town or city is probably seeing lots of new housing developments being thrown up. Maybe you don't want them. Maybe you'd prefer the place where you live to stay roughly the same size and retain its character.

You don't have a choice.

The make-up of the population is also changing. 25% of all births in 2013 were to mothers born outside the UK. 60% of the projected 8 million increase will be from future migration.

This blog has always said that immigration is a numbers issue. Since 2000 the population of the UK has increased at a faster rate than any time in the previous 90 years.

Unlike previous episodes of growth, the major reason for this increase is the high level of immigration. In 2011 the population of the UK was 63.2 million, with the foreign born population at 8 million, or 12.6%. It is estimated that net migration plus births to foreign-born parents has accounted for 85% of population growth since 2000.

It's not just more housing we will need to build. More people means more pressure on schools, health, transport ... not to mention energy, where our safety margins are falling away to almost nothing.

Politicians like the idea of ruling a big country. Britain will be the second most populous country in Europe in 2030, overtaking France, and then overtake Germany to become the largest country in Europe in 2047. But so what? How will that benefit you and me? There's little sign that we want more clout in the world.

You may not want the country's population to grow. You may not want its make-up to change.

No one ever asked you.

And now the die is cast.

October 27, 2015

What might an elected senate look like?

So the Lords has placed itself in the path of the elected Commons juggernaut. Will its red flag be tolerated?

If not, what might an elected Lords senate look like?

In the worst case, we will get a House of compliant, mediocre party hacks with a sense of entitlement because they have been voted in - elected on party lists so that we have to put up with them for ever.

Elections for the European Parliament show us the effects of party lists. Dan Hannan can't be displaced as an MEP so long as he doesn't become so much of an irritant to his party leadership that they remove him from the regional list, or put him in a lower position.

Nigel Farage will never demote himself in his UKIP regional list. He has failed in constituency after constituency to be elected to the Commons. When he stands in his own right, voters have always rejected him. But he can't be dislodged as an MEP until he gets sent to prison or dies. Is that democracy?

Any list system would increase the power of party leaders - people who already have too much power over elected representatives.

Let's be careful what we wish for.

October 26, 2015

Get real about drunks

A report in today's Daily Mail suggests that A&E staff, paramedics and police officers are spending a quarter of their time dealing with drunks.

Medics and paramedics express frustration that drunken revellers take priority over people who are ill at home. And they complain about the drunks' behaviour:
More than three-quarters of police officers (76 per cent) surveyed had been injured by drunks and just over half of paramedics (52 per cent) had been sexually harassed....

Consultants said drunks often take six hours ‘to deal with’ and roam the corridors, smash equipment and upset other patients.
Of course they are calling for government to do something:
The Government needs to take a tougher stance on the availability of cheap alcohol and do more to protect our emergency services.
So, on top of a sugar tax, the nannies want some sort of alcohol tax? Why should the orderly majority of drinkers be disadvantaged because of the disorderly few?

And in any case these disorderly few aren't spilling out drunk from their own homes. They are spilling out drunk from pubs and clubs - where drink is dear anyway. So it doesn't seem they are price sensitive.

But who sets these priorities locally? Who says drunks must have priority for ambulances? Why are drunks who rampage in hospitals not always prosecuted, and punished appropriately?

We need local pilot schemes sharpish. (Though the state sector doesn't do "sharpish".) The report "urge(s) the Government to roll out ‘drunk tanks’ in towns and cities – mobile units where revellers can sober up – to avoid them having to go to A&E or police cells".

If local autonomy means anything, why can't local police do this now? If a publicity campaign told local people that drunks were a factor in long waits at A&E, they would support this. And why shouldn't you have to pay for treatment if you're drunk? For sure it may be rough justice in a few cases. But then an innocent man targeted by the bully Tom Watson as a sexual offender paid £60,000 for his legal representation.

We need Affordable Government, and taxpayers cannot afford to give drunks a free ride.

We don't need to "get tough", but let's get real. Trial drunk tanks, prosecute hospital rampagers, give them meaningful sentences, prioritise ambulances for vulnerable people who have fallen at home, and let drunks wait in the rain.

Is there no will among state workers for anyone to take any responsibility for change?

October 22, 2015

The EU will never be one country

As International Secretary of the Labour party after World War II, Denis Healey tried to bring  European socialist parties together, but he concluded that "whether I liked it or not, the basic unit in world affairs was the nation state".

In modern Europe, he says (writing his memoirs in 1989)
there are many ... obvious difficulties in the federal approach - different languages, different cultures, and powerful nationalist traditions.
He suggests national character can change - "and has, significantly, since the war". (But the war was a political earthquake, and as peace has continued, nationalist traditions have arguably reasserted themselves.)
But the olive line remains as real a frontier as any in Europe. South of the line where olives grow, people have little respect for government and use personal discretion in paying their taxes. So a system which requires the Sicilian landowner to give the same respect to authority as a Dutch manufacturer is unlikely to work.
One can debate whether Catalonia and northern Italy fit this geographical template, but the cultural distinction endures.

As another example of cultural difference, he suggests that
We British still tended to regard a juridical commitment as defining the minimum you guarantee to fulfil. The continentals tended to see it as setting an objective at which you aim, although you may well fail to achieve it.
Now we can see Greek dock workers going on strike against a policy only just confirmed in a general election and Greece's privatisation timetable already slipping - again.

And the Portuguese general election has produced a Left majority which seems bound to put that country too on a collision course with the German government. By UK standards the Portuguese parties' programmes are beyond loony left. But circumstances - and national culture - alter cases.

As Ambrose Evans-Pritchard concludes
Powerful populist forces are waiting in the wings in Spain, Italy, and France. The events in Portugal have shown that every election in Southern Europe is a now an "event risk". Political chickens are coming home to roost, and economic time is running out.

August 11, 2015

Kids' Company trustees were too cosy

We mentioned yesterday the role of the Kids' Company Trustees, pointing out that "Trustees are supposed to act like Non-Executive Directors". Yentob, we said, was obviously too close to the charity, having been chairman of the trustees for 18 years - far too long.

We concluded that there should be a maximum term for charity trustees of five years.

Today the FT writes one of its methodical editorials, focusing on the role of trustees at the charity, and Alan Yentob in particular, concluding
It is time Mr Yentob and his colleagues explained what they did, and did not do, in the case of Kids Company’s collapse.
But of course the collapse was only the end game. What did the trustees do, and not do, over the previous years?

In the light of events, how can we not conclude that Alan Yentob did not do his job? There's no reason to think he was financially corrupt, but he was negligent and morally corrupt for taking the role, keeping it for far too long, and not doing the job. He emerges as an advocate for the charity rather than a watchdog.

We commented yesterday on Richard Handover, Vice Chairman of the trustees:
The trustees included ex-WH Smith chief executive Richard Handover, who should surely have known what was required. He has sullied his record.
Just how badly sullied we can now start to see, thanks to the Daily Mail, which reports on Handover children employed by the charity - yes, not one, but two children. Daughter Sasha does not seem to worked there full time 9 to 5. Doubtless she enjoyed her fundraising exploits, but her efforts raised less than her salary.

A Kids' Company spokesman still sees nothing wrong in employing them.

Handover senior was a trustee for ten years. As a former boss of W H Smith he understood the principles of finance. Yet he connived at the charity continuing with inadequate reserves, despite successive years' accounts saying that the issue would be addressed. Meanwhile, the charity gave enjoyable employment to two of his three children.

Charities should be austere places to work. Trustees should be vigilant. Yentob - from high up in the the free-spending BBC - and Handover failed in their duties.

August 10, 2015

What do we know about Kids' Company?

The Kids' Company Organisation

Ms Batmanghelidjh blames Whitehall and the media for having to close amid claims that a potential donor of a further £3m pulled out, after it emerged police were also investigating the charity following allegations that concerns over alleged sex abuse faced by some of the children using the service had not been passed onto police.

The Government has also tried to withdraw the £3m grant meant for the restructuring of the struggling organisation after it emerged £800,000 of the money was being paid out to staff.

Paul Marshall of ARK Schools says he saw "a very charismatic chief executive but with an absence of financial control and basic management alongside her". He called the lack of management "a fundamental failing of the trustees". The trustees included ex-WH Smith chief executive Richard Handover, who should surely have known what was required. He has sullied his record.

From 2009 to 2013 the number of staff grew from 231 to 496. By the time it closed, the charity had 650 staff, of whom 140 were full-time 'key workers’ with a direct counselling and mentoring role.

The charity won a total of £37m in public funding. But it did not build up financial reserves.

Of Kids Company’s £23m budget, £15m went on staff costs in 2013, and £1.5m on food vouchers and cash for children using its services. Senior management also took pay increases over the past few years. In 2009 the employee with the highest salary was paid between £60,000 and £70,000. However, by 2013, the top-paid employee in the charity was receiving between £90,000 and £100,000, while another employee was paid between £70,000 and £80,000.

Two finance directors quit over failure to build up reserves despite funding rising by 75% in five years. Senior directors repeatedly warned trustees of the need to build up financial reserves or face going to the wall and annual accounts repeatedly warned of this problem.

The journalist Miles Goslett says the charity’s statistic of having 36,000 clients was inflated by including parents and school staff. Goslett concluded that it “now acts as a drain on well-meaning donations that might otherwise go to better causes”.

A former employee has claimed teenage girls were groomed for sex by older male clients they met at the charity's centres, which a girl who once used the organisation said 'spending money' given to youngsters was spent on drugs. Ms Batmanghelidjh said on Newsnight she was unaware of these claims (as she says she is unaware of other alleged problems at the charity).

Kids Company employed the expensive global law firm Withers to respond to journalists who didn’t resort to the usual fawning. Not an appropriate use for a charity's money.

The charity had an office in The City. Why?

Alan Yentob

Alan Yentob had been chairman of trustees for 18 years - far too long. Trustees are supposed to act like Non-Executive Directors. But he obviously was too close to the charity. There should be a maximum term for trustees of five years.

He secretly lobbied Treasury officials over the charity’s unpaid £700,000 employment tax bill. In the end, £589,000 of the debt was written off. Yet he had no concerns about the charity's finances!

Camila Batmanghelidjh

Her personal background is here.

The Charity Commission has launched a probe into allegations by former Kids Company employees that the charity helped bankroll a place for the teenage daughter of Jeton Cavolli, her personal driver (!), at Dauntsey’s School in Wiltshire. The school’s chairman of governors, Richard Handover, is also the vice-chairman of Kids Company’s board of trustees. A source who until recently worked at the charity said:
I can confirm that Ms Cavolli was registered as a client at Kids Company, and that Kids Company funds were spent supporting her while she was at school.
It is understood that the amount paid was a five-figure sum.

Mr Cavolli, 46, known as ‘Tony’, has been on the charity’s payroll for nearly two decades. He is believed to have been paid about £40,000 a year. Another ex-employee said:
I don’t think Tony was paid to do anything other than drive Camila’s car. She can’t drive and she never took public transport because she didn’t like to walk long distances.
The investigation was triggered last month after employees met the Commission to set out their concerns about whether the arrangement represented proper use of the charity’s money. Demonstrators marched from Camberwell to Downing Street. Ms Batmanghelidjh arrived in a black cab to offer words of thanks and support to the crowd.

Miss Batmanghelidjh said she needed several personal assistants because she has to dictate all her written communication:
I have very severe learning difficulties so I can’t use a computer and so I have to dictate everything. Consequently because I am working from around eight in the morning to about 11 or 12 at night, the PAs have to rotate. When I fundraise I write each letter personally – or I sign it personally, so everything I have to dictate. The reason I have several PAs is that, first, they share the morning and evening slots and, second, one of them has to be a clinical PA because I work therapeutically with children. Because fundraising is so difficult I also have to do a bit of work on a Saturday and a Sunday so the PAs share the Saturday and the Sunday slot as well.
Where else, we may ask, could someone with severe learning difficulties have a £90,000 salary and the services of a personal driver?

The government

Downing Street had been warned by civil servants and ministers before this year’s general election that funds designated for Kids Company would be better spent on other children’s charities, but were overruled by No 10. David Cameron has defended the move to offer Kids Company a £3m rescue package after the election, saying that it was right to give it “one last chance” - showing a cavalier and dictatorial disregard for taxpayers' money.

The Education Department had wanted to stop public funding, but were overruled by No. 10. Downing Street should not be making decisions about individual donations. Phil Frampton, of the White Flowers Campaign Group, an umbrella organisation for abuse survivors’ groups, said there was real resentment from other groups at the perceived special treatment towards Kids Company by successive governments.

Oliver Letwin expects that the Public Accounts Committee will carry out a wider inquiry into Kids Company.

The Labour party

Harriet Harman wrote to the Chancellor George Osborne last month urging him to provide a cash lifeline to save the charity after financial problems came to light.

Now Labour's hapless Lucy Powell (she organised Ed Miliband's election campaign) says this was the wrong thing to do. She said the National Audit Office should investigate why the Government continued to support the charity when it was in financial difficulty!

Well, that's going to happen anyway.

The Charities Commission

Despite the unfavourable publicity, the regulator seems to have been looking the other way until very recently. Repeated warnings in accounts about the lack of reserves appear to have gone unnoticed.

So who comes out of this well?

Nobody. It suggests that state sector couldn't organise a piss-up in a brewery.

July 23, 2015

Allister Heath writes the next Tory manifesto

The excellent Allister Heath suggests that Labour should re-invent itself as the consumers' party:
We are an aspirational, not especially ideological people who want to better ourselves, live well and help our families. We want to earn and consume more, own our homes, enjoy better health and look after our children; we profoundly dislike criminals and terrorists and wish to feel that we have control over the political decisions taken on our behalf.
He is talking here about British society. Is this still true of the angry majority of the Scottish electorate? Perhaps not, but it does describe the English electorate well.

This tendency to the individualistic, says Heath, has been accelerated by the digital revolution - as Douglas Carswell has been stressing for years.

But this change in Labour isn't going to happen any time soon. Their party workers and their union paymasters are heading in the opposite direction. They may be more interested in fighting for what they believe in than in winning power any time soon, but that's their privilege. As Benn used to say in the last century, voters will tire of the Tories in the end: keep the faith and - in the end - we will be elected with our left wing blueprint.

Nor is our own new Labour constituency Labour MP in the consumerist mould. He proclaims his belief in Socialism (and is a former BBC reporter, so I believe him).

UKIP could of course take this consumerist approach. But UKIP's not sufficiently nimble, held back as it is by the limitations of its leader (sharply shown up in the last general election).

So who will become the consumerist party? If someone slips Allister Heath's piece into George Osborne's reading, look for this approach in a party manifesto at the next election.

The manifesto of the Conservative party.

July 13, 2015

Greece: it's NOT an EU coup

The latest episode in the Greek epic is regarded by many as a coup against Greece. A coup by the Germans or by the EU, depending on who the writer hates more.

The Germans (or perhaps the EU) don't respect democracy, it is said, because the Greeks voted No to austerity.

But Greece is just one democracy in the eurozone. The message from the shambolic referendum seemed to be: We want to stay in the eurozone, but No Austerity, Thanks, We're Greek.

A purposeful government would have put the referendum choice as: euro+austerity or no austerity and no euro. But the ragtag that is Syriza didn't win the election by offering Greeks an honest choice, and they weren't about to start now.

What were the other eurozone democracies to do? Throw more of their own taxpayers' money at the Greeks unconditionally because the Greek people had voted in favour of more fairy gold? Apologies to our own electorates, but Greece has had a referendum so we have to respect that. Until, of course, the rest of us have referenda, and then presumably ours will trump theirs - at least until they have another one.

Some cultural figures seem to argue that modern Greece should be cut more slack because ancient Greece was the cradle of democracy. Well, Athens, anyway. And if the argument is that modern Greece is therefore more deserving than (say) Slovakia, isn't that a decision for the demos in the lender countries, for the voters in those democracies, to make? It's pretty odd to argue that élites should give their taxpayers' money away in honour of the founding of democracy.

And it will be giving it away, not lending it. The taxpayers won't get their money back. Everyone knows that. So if the eurozone ministers are indeed going to bung more dosh at Greece, the very least they can do is to try to protect their own taxpayers as far as possible.

Note, by the way, that they are not faceless EU bureaucrats. These decisions are being taken by elected ministers, who have their own electorates to answer to.

This is not a coup. The Greek government always had a choice. They could take the rational route of leaving the euro and taking control of their own destiny (a big risk, that), or choose, as they have done, to head deeper into the blind alley of the eurozone.

Yes, the Greek government has chosen wrong. But they made the choice. So it is not a coup.

July 06, 2015

A Monday morning EU myth

One comfortable myth of the Out side is that all EU decisions are made by grey, unaccountable bureaucrats. This myth allows Out campaigners unlimited thoughtless railing.

But Eurozone ministers are not unaccountable bureaucrats. They have electorates too.

Directly and indirectly, those countries will have huge liabilities if Greece defaults - Barclays suggest Germany €94bn, France €72bn, The Netherlands €20bn. And who thinks Italy can afford a hit of €63bn, or Spain €48bn?

Some governments will strongly oppose debt write-offs for political reasons - such as Spain and Ireland. If they have been taking the pain, why shouldn't Greece? If Greece is forgiven debt, why didn't their governments achieve it? Finland opposes debt forgiveness in principle, while Slovakia points out that it is a poorer country than Greece, so why should it have to stump up at all? (Hint: read the Eurozone rules before you sign up.)

In all eurozone countries, ministers are aware of their electorates' disillusion. France and The Netherlands already have established anti-euro parties ready to pounce on any weakness - even Germany has the AfD now.

So which will play better with those voters and those governments - huge write-offs now, or lending a bit more?