Issue 118:2017 08 17:The Korean Crisis (Neil Tidmarsh)

17 August 2017

The Korean Crisis

A world-changer, even without a nuclear apocalypse.

By Neil Tidmarsh

Next week, South Korea and the USA are due to begin their annual joint military exercises.  North Korea regards these defensive manoeuvres as offensive, and its leader Kim Jong-un is threatening to fire missiles towards the Pacific island of Guam, an unincorporated US territory hosting American military bases, if the USA doesn’t stop what it regards as sabre-rattling.  President Trump has replied by saying that the USA is ‘locked and loaded’ and ready to respond with ‘fire and fury’.

The next issue of Shaw Sheet isn’t due to appear until the beginning of September (the team is taking a fortnight’s holiday); but under the present circumstances one wonders if it will appear at all.

A nuclear apocalypse, however, is so unthinkable and so unimaginable that it is (hopefully) unlikely to happen.  Nevertheless, the North Korean crisis does seem to be producing revelations and developments which will have very real consequences not just for south-east Asia but for other regions and for the whole world too.

First is the suggestion that Ukraine has played a crucial part in North Korea’s rocket building programme.  London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies said this week that the engine powering Kim Jong-un’s long-range Hwasong-14 missiles appears to closely resemble the RD-250 engine designed and built by a state-owned company at Dnipro, Ukraine.  The Institute says that the speed with which North Korea moved from a missile of only medium-range capability to an inter-continental ballistic missile can have only one explanation; “North Korea has acquired a high-performance liquid-propellant engine from foreign sources”.  It also points out that two North Koreans were caught stealing from Yuzhnoye, the Ukrainian state-owned rocket designing and building company, five years ago; that the company’s factory is close to the pro-Moscow rebel territories; and that the chaos and confusion of the country’s civil war might encourage and facilitate all kinds of clandestine transactions.

The Kiev government denies any such involvement with North Korea.  But the accusations are bound to affect the country’s already sensitive situation.  Kiev needs the support of the West against Russia, which backs the pro-Moscow Ukrainian separatists and is tightening its grip on the Crimea.  Some voices in Europe and the USA are beginning to suggest that relations with Russia should be re-set by relaxing the sanctions slapped on it for interfering in Ukraine, and by accepting its claim to the Crimea.  Allegations that Ukraine has been instrumental in turning North Korea into a nuclear power threatening the West will give those voices extra volume and resonance, to say the least.

Second, South Korea’s diplomatic attempts at rapprochement with North Korea are straining relations with its neighbour Japan.  In an attempt to lower the temperature on the Korean peninsula, President Moon of South Korea offered this week to open a joint investigation with North Korea into atrocities (such as the forced conscription of millions of labourers and the use of ‘comfort women’ sex slaves) committed during Japan’s colonial occupation of Korea from 1910 to 1945.  The subject is extremely sensitive, and threatens the goodwill between these two Western-backed democracies which is crucial for the stability and security of the region.  Seoul is saying it might review the agreement it reached with Tokyo two years ago which was supposed to have settled the issue of ‘comfort women’ with recognition and reparations, just as South Korea and Japan need to show a united front against Chinese assertion in the South China Seas.

Third, the USA’s attempts to apply leverage to China to persuade it to bring Kim Jong-un to order are threatening a trade-war between these two super-powers which would have a drastic affect on the global economy.  The US Treasury Department is said to have drafted potential sanctions against Chinese bodies, and drawn up new quotas on imports – the Commerce Department has said that it could put an import tax of 80% on Chinese aluminium foil.  This week President Trump signed an executive order instructing trade representative Robert Lighthizer to examine allegations that China indulges in unfair trade practices such as stealing corporate secrets, counterfeiting and piracy.  The study will take a year to complete and will then decide whether a formal investigation should take place, leading to the possibility of retaliations such as tarrifs and other sanctions.  The White House insists that this move is not related to the Korean crisis – after all, Donald Trump has long promised to impose tarrifs on Chinese imports and complained about the trade deficit with China – but a few days later the President, talking about the crisis, said “If China helps us, I feel a lot differently about trade, a lot differently.”

The world may well survive this current threat of nuclear apocalypse, but it will not emerge from the Korean crisis unchanged. The stresses and tensions of the confrontation will alter allegiances, alignments and economies. The crisis is sure to produce further world-changing revelations and developments over the next week or two – let’s hope that we’ll still be around to write and read about them in a fortnight’s time.

 

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Issue 118:2017 08 17:Better the devil you know (Frank O’Nomics)

17 August 2017

Better the devil you know?…

Libor may be a dead man walking – but the pace will be very slow.

by Frank O’Nomics

There are many people in financial services who must wish that Libor had never been invented. Obviously those traders who are currently detained in Her Majesty’s prisons will be in that group, but also those bank employees whose bonuses were cut due to the huge fines that were paid for rigging the rate ($9bn and counting); also the regulators and central bankers who were widely discredited for their inability to fulfill their supervisory roles. There should then be widespread celebration following the announcement from the Financial Conduct Authority that Libor as a benchmark will be phased out by the end of 2021.  However, this may be easier said than done, when an estimated $350 trillion worth of interest rate swaps, forward rate agreements, exchange traded futures and options, syndicated loans and floating rate notes have been priced using it. We are then faced with two key questions: What will replace Libor?, and, how quickly can it be fully replaced?  Neither has a simple answer.

First it is important to understand the background to the Libor fiasco.  The London Interbank Offered Rate was created as a benchmark in 1986 to help price the growing number of loans and other financial contracts that depended on a floating rate.  There are 35 different types of Libor, across 5 currencies and 7 maturities ranging from overnight to 12 months.  The rates are calculated from submissions by banks who estimate what it would cost to borrow money from each other.  The problem came when, due to the financial crisis, banks weren’t prepared to lend to each other, meaning that the levels were artificial and subject to manipulation.  Even now, 10 years after the crisis, it is estimated that only one third of the 3 month Libor submissions (the most commonly used measure) are based on real transactions, and one less used measure was found to have had only 15 relevant transactions over a twelve month period.

It seems obvious that a replacement is needed, but what should it be?  There is a difference of view depending on which side of the Atlantic you sit.  In the UK a reformed version of Sonia (Sterling Overnight Interest Average), which has been in use to some extent since 1997, is favoured.  Similarly in Europe there has been a distinct shift from Euribor to Eonia as a benchmark to price transactions. The US on the other hand favours using a repurchase or “repo” rate as a benchmark.  Banks often borrow money in return for lending US Treasury Bonds as security, and the repo rate (which will be termed the BTFR, or Broad Treasury Financing Rate) determines the difference in the price of the bonds between their sale and repurchase.  Both benchmarks have their problems.  The US measure is only measuring the cost of secured borrowing (and over relatively short periods), whereas Libor is an unsecured rate and provides a good indication of the creditworthiness of banks.  Sonia on the other hand, while unsecured, is not widely used for longer maturities and, as with Libor, the problem of there not being sufficient bank-to-bank transactions could remain an issue.

These differences become very important when one considers the vast amount of outstanding transactions that exist.  For example, many pension funds have attempted to match their long-term liabilities by entering into long-term interest rate swaps, many of which run way beyond 30 years, with almost all using Libor as a benchmark.  All of these trades will need to be re-agreed between the two parties, one of whom is currently paying the rate set by reference to Libor and the other receiving it.  This process will take a great deal of time.  Of the $100 trillion of $ swaps outstanding, 65% are tied to Libor, with many having maturities beyond 30 years.  If agreement can’t be reached over the repricing of these swaps using a different benchmark there may be some need for a provision to perpetuate the generation of Libor rates way beyond 2022. This may be easier said than done, with many banks wary of the reputational and financial risks of being accused of misrepresentation in making their submissions.  Without a quorum of banks Libor will cease to exist.

None of this negates the arguments for disposing of an obsolete benchmark, and there are a number of positives about starting the process. The very act of doing so will focus banks on helping to make the new benchmark work and, while it may be difficult to reprice existing deals, a by-product may be a widespread termination of interest swap deals, helping to tidy up many bank balance sheets. Nevertheless, the FCA and other regulators should be careful what they wish for.  Instead of having one, albeit highly flawed (especially in times of financial crisis) universal standard benchmark, we face a new system of benchmarks that vary according to currency and which either have no greater prospect of reliability in terms of gauging the temperature of the banking system, or struggle to be adapted for longer maturities.  The sheer size and length of maturity of the products that use Libor means that it will probably be a feature of financial markets for much longer than the next five years and maybe that is not a bad thing.  As the other great Sonia (the 1990’s Liverpudlian singing sensation) once trilled in the Eurovision Song Contest “better the devil you know”.

 

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Issue 118:2017 08 17:What A Gas (J.R.Thomas)

17 August 2017

What A Gas!

A little light on the price rises

by J.R. Thomas

Never hold a naked flame near an unregulated supply of gas.  Somewhat amazingly, that’s exactly what British Gas plc did two weeks ago.

Luckily, the only casualty turned out to be the corporate image of British Gas. The naked flame was BG’s announcement that it was about to increase electricity prices by 12.5%.  (For confused readers we should explain that British Gas is a major supplier of electricity to both retail and corporate customers; it does also supply gas, in case you are wondering.)  The unregulated supply of gas was not the stuff which BG supplies but the media/social media/web hot air which is ever eager for a cause for an exciting explosion.

British Gas is the successor to the former state monopoly of that name, now owned by the giant publicly quoted company Centrica, which owns a number of energy generation and supply businesses.  It may be good at running an energy business – it is well regarded amongst its peers for being an old fashioned business that just gets on with the job – but it certainly lacks some PR skills.  It made its announcement, out of the blue on 31st July, at a time when the media is hungry for some good headline news, and headlines BG certainly got.  The London Evening Standard (editor, one G Osborne recently of the Exchequer) lambasted the company for corporate greed and for grinding the faces of the poor, something into which the editor has particular insights.  Next morning nearly all the press led with the greed of BG and its outrageous behaviour; and in the strange world of the web the issue was spreading faster than…er…a gas explosion.  Thousands of bloggers and Twitterers, most of whom would be hard put to define the difference between electricity and gas, denounced BG’s behaviour, most calling for the government to do something, preferably to Centrica’s extreme disadvantage and pain.

The government’s position on doing something in any shape or form has, like most other government positions, been messed up by the election.  Mrs May, you might recall, had said during her truly remarkable campaign that the government would introduce caps and controls on energy prices to domestic users.  Like much else that she might have intended with her sweeping majority, that is now parked in a pending tray at the back of a cupboard in No 10.  But the on and offline media community has not forgotten Mrs May’s rash remarks and urged the government to deliver.

Meanwhile, at Centrica’s headquarters in Windsor…  Well, we don’t know what was happening, other than that the press department pointed out what had been said in the original announcement, that the main reason for the rise was huge increases in costs of the government green levies to pay for Britain’s switch to entirely sustainable sources of electricity.  Needless to say, that explanation went almost entirely disregarded, certainly by the government, the Guardian quoting that “Ministers expressed concern about the rise, which they said should not be blamed on government policy…” and further saying that “ issues of fairness for customers” were being looked at.  Which ministers these were and how fairness might be achieved was not set out.

Now, the Shaw Sheet is not here to defend capitalism, especially when capitalists seem incapable of defending themselves.  But if there is a competition in business schools for how to mishandle communications, this must be up for winner of the year.  Firstly, British Gas had not increased its prices since November 2013, almost four years ago.  Since then, its energy costs – creating the power, getting it to customers, generally running its business – have gone up 16%, a figure pretty constant across the industry.  So what has actually happened is that the cost to the consumer has gone down 3.5%, compared with the costs of the product.  That’s a result to be proud of indeed. Not that you would know it from the company whose chief executive, the slightly unfortunately named Iain Conn, said “We haven’t taken the decision lightly, we know it affects 3.1 million customers”.  Secondly, nobody needs to pay British Gas for their electricity (or indeed their gas) for long.  There are six major suppliers in the market and a number of small ones, and whilst their tariffs are a little complicated, they are all much more simple than, say,  trying to operate your Sky TV.  And all those competitors will help you change your supplier. So, if you don’t like BG, move elsewhere.

But thirdly, and crucially for the long term future of private power supplies, the reason that BG needs to put its prices up is beyond its control and can be laid firmly at another door.  That door is in Whitehall; No 1 Victoria Street, SW1, to be precise.  That is where the Department of Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy hangs its hat, folds its scarf, lays down its mittens, shrugs off its lined overcoat, and removes its galoshes.  It was the Ministry of Energy and Climate Change until last month when, significantly or not, it dropped the latter and added all the other bits.  Whatever it wishes to be called, the Ministry is the reason that the electricity industry has seen its costs go up so quickly and enormously.

After seemingly lying prone in the electronic gutter whilst every Twitterer gave the BG body a good kick, Centrica finally got up on Thursday last and went round to see the Financial Times.  The Financial Times may be the newspaper of business and finance, but it is noted for a rigorous approach to facts.  And it finally said what BG should have saying, not just last week but months, if not years, ago.  Britain has the 11th cheapest electricity prices in Europe, so consumers are in a very good place.  That is although costs of transmission and meterage have gone up 10% in three years.  The costs of production have gone down 21% in that time (falling costs of carbon based fuel mainly). And guess what; the costs of government “mandates and policy” has doubled; up from £81 per customer in 2014 to £165 in the current year – a sixth of an average household bill.  BG’s profit margin is 7%, hardly riches unlimited.  Whoever those ministers were that thought the 16% price rise was not to be blamed on government policy need to be sent on a basic accountancy course; maybe an honesty course too.

For green, or sustainable, energy has to be paid for.  It is expensive and with falling prices for carbon based energy, it is comparatively getting more expensive. (It is not that green either – the carbon costs of all that cement and steel, all that digging and transportation, the miles of wires from the wild windy places leaking energy every mile up to the consumers door, all are very non-sustainable.)    That all has to be paid for.  We all use energy, green or otherwise, some of us more than others, and we, consumers, must pay for it.  It could be financed out of general taxation as Mr Conn suggested in his interview with the Financial Times, but that just means low energy old ladies (energy using, we mean, old ladies can generate remarkable amounts of energy) would be paying for the high energy using families with every electronic gadget running at full blast, along with the heating.

The government wants those who use it to pay for it; but they want to pretend it was not politicians who made it more expensive. But it was and is; the energy companies should be saying so, very clearly, every time a consumer gets a bill.  That way we could see what a good job they are doing – and when we look at a massive wind turbine spoiling a view, a fleet of them sailing just offshore, buildings covered in glistening black solar panels, dams in the Welsh mountains – then we will know it is us who are paying for that, and know the true cost of what we are doing.

 

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Issue 118: 2017 08 17: Tyranny (John Watson)

17 August 2017

Tyranny

The reason to hang on.

By John Watson

With Mugabe at 93, Jacob Zuma at 75, and the constitution of Rwanda being altered so that President Kagame can remain in power until 2034, it is worth reflecting on why it is that people cling to power long after their main political contribution has been made.  It isn’t of course unique to Africa.  General Franco ruled Spain until his death in his 80s and, indeed, in rather different circumstances, our own Sir Winston Churchill passed his 80th anniversary as Prime Minister too.

Circumstances differ, but in the case of states which do not function as open democracies it has become the fashion to refer to the risk of prosecution for old crimes (in the rougher parts of the world it would be hard to hang on to power for long without one or two of these), the desire for continued kleptocracy and the wish to continue to enjoy the benefits and status which append to a head of state.  Well, maybe.  Sometimes these things are factors: sometimes they are not.  What is absolutely clear, however, is that many leaders believe that their retention of power is essential to the public interest, so, if we want to understand why they stay, it is necessary to have a look at the basis for that belief.

Let us suppose that you are the ruler of a state.  It may or may not purport to be a democracy but there is a long history of struggle between warring factions.  Perhaps the issue is a tribal one.  Perhaps it is religious – most European countries went through extensive religious wars in the 16th century, and the Middle East is rife with them now.  Anyway, you have been blessed with an iron hand and are tough enough to bring the conflict under control, stop the fighting and boost your citizens’ standard of living.  The poor are fed, the children go to school.

That doesn’t mean that the issues have gone away.  They simmer beneath the surface, but as long as you stay in charge, violence will be kept at bay.  The trouble is that you are getting older and, perhaps as a result of your dominance, there is no one around who is equipped to keep the lid on the national pot.  A decent lot, the younger generation, but, to be honest, a tad ineffective.  If your hand comes off the tiller, the result will be a disaster for the citizens at large and your work will be undone.  It is a grim prospect but not an unusual one.  Marshall Tito must have faced it when he worried about the future of Yugoslavia.  President Kagame will probably have to face it in due course.  Will the attempts by the Hutu to wipe out his own tribe the Tutsis be revived when his personal authority (and supporting military expertise) leave the stage?

The problem is obvious enough but not alas the solution.  What on earth do you do?  In a perfect world you would have trained up a successor but that is not easy.  Successful seconds in command normally have skills which complement rather than imitate those of the leader, so they will not normally have the qualifications required for the top job.  Maybe there is someone else, but if so you are very lucky.  Another approach is to try to put structures in place which, by creating checks and balances, will perpetuate your solutions.  Well, you can certainly try but you only have to look at the way in which Turkey is dismantling Ataturk’s reforms to see how structures collapse when they are faced with real political pressure.  Institutions will do so much but no more.  In many cases there is no obvious way forward.

In practice it primarily comes to timing.  Which to do?  Go early and hope that you will be able to influence what follows, or hang on to the end and give your way of government the longest possible time to put down roots?  You never know.  Something may turn up.  From a personal point of view the second approach has an obvious advantage.  If it all goes wrong you will not be there to be sucked into the maelstrom.  It is one thing to say “apres moi the deluge”; it is another to reflect that you will be out there without an umbrella.  There are only so many things they can do to a corpse.  One can certainly see the temptation to hang on.

The second reason for hanging on is that it is what people do instinctively.  It is only human to think that you are more important than you are and that those around you will make a mess of it.  If you don’t believe that, speak to those who are wondering whether to pass their businesses on to the next generation.

“Good people, of course.  In fact I myself selected them.  Still, they are used to my guiding hand and I’m not sure that they are quite ready to take over full responsibility yet.  Why not a couple of years more so that I can be sure they are ready?”  And then what?  After a couple of years it still looks much the same so maybe another little interval is needed.  That is just human nature, but imagine how it is reinforced by the pressures of autocratic politics when you are surrounded by sycophants telling you how essential you are.

From the point of view of policymakers, the judgements are even harder.  Sometimes the dictator’s concerns turn out to be justified.  The removal of Colonel Gaddafi and, before that, of Saddam Hussein, unleashed pressures of a hugely destructive nature.  Had the results been forseen, the decisions made at the time might have been very different.

So before we talk patronisingly about the efforts of dictators to extend their rule, before we try to reduce it to issues of kleptocracy and guilt, we need to reflect on each case.  Just what is being suppressed?  How quickly would it emerge if the suppressant was removed?  If we do so we will find that the issue is not always one of how to prise the incumbent out of office but that often we and they have a shared concern as to what will follow.

 

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Issue 117:2017 08 10:Consorting With Power (Neil Tidmarsh)

10 August 2017

Consorting With Power

Prince Philip and others.

by Neil Tidmarsh

The Shaw Sheet congratulates Prince Philip on his retirement at the age of 96 after 65 years of public service. It also congratulates him on defying the Daily Telegraph’s account of his death; a rough draft of his obituary was somehow published in its on-line version. Fake news indeed.

How is he spending his well-earned leisure, the Shaw Sheet wonders?  Studying history, perhaps, and reflecting with sympathy and relief, now that it’s all over, on the careers of other royal consorts which didn’t end quite so happily: Queen Victoria’s consort, Prince Albert, for instance, who died from over-work and illness at the tragically early age of 42; or Edward IV’s queen, Elizabeth Woodville, who was charged with witchcraft and narrowly escaped being burnt at the stake; or Bloody Queen Mary’s husband, Philip II of Spain, who lost England and his Armada to Mary’s sister Elizabeth and had his beard singed by Sir Francis Drake to boot; or Mary Queen of Scot’s husbands – her first, Lord Darnley, who was murdered, and her second, the Earl of Bothwell, who died in miserable captivity having been found guilty of Lord Darnley’s murder.

No doubt Prince Philip would have been reading this week’s newspapers with sympathy and relief, too, full as they have been with other unhappy tales of consorts from round the world.

Poor Mrs Macron. The wife of the French president has traditionally been granted a recognised status as First Lady and the resources (a staff of half a dozen aides and a budget of half a million euros) to undertake the duties which go with it. But both position and resources have always been unofficial. This week President Macron sensibly proposed making them official, so that the First Lady’s duties could be defined and formalised, she could be made answerable to the citizens of France, and the cost to the tax payer made transparent.  Who could argue with any of that?

Plenty of people, as it happened.  Just under 300,000 French citizens signed an online petition opposing the idea, and a YouGov poll a few months ago found that almost 70% of people shared that opinion.  Politicians accused Macron of hypocrisy, as he has recently initiated legislation which bans MPs from employing relatives as political assistants paid by the state.  So President Macron abandoned the attempt to formalise his wife’s position by law, and will simply publish a ‘first lady’s charter’ instead.  And Mrs Macron will run an office just like her predecessors, with a chief, a press officer and two secretaries apparently spending who knows how much of the state’s money on who knows what.

In Denmark, a sculptor has been at work for seven years on a silver statue of elephants which will carry two glass sarcophagi and will be buried in Roskilde Cathedral as the last resting place of the current Danish royal couple.  This week, however, Queen Margrethe II’s consort, Prince Henrik, announced that he does not wish to be buried with her.  As far as he is concerned, she can be buried in the royal mausoleum on her own.

This is the latest of a number of protests from Prince Henrik, a French nobleman, about his position as consort to the Danish queen.  He is 83 years old and the queen is 77; they have been married for fifty years. For five decades he has been complaining about his unequal, second-class status (unequal and second class to the queen, that is) and petitioning for the title of king.  He retired last year, renouncing his title of prince, and now spends most of his time away from the queen at his chateau and vineyard – Chateau de Caix – in France.  One title he does value, however, is that of honorary president of the Danish Dachshund Club. He is a dog-lover, keeping dachshunds himself, and even relished a meal of dog-meat in Vietnam when he was a young man.  “It tastes like goat or veal” he declared.

Also this week, the wife of President Maduro of Venezuela won an official position for herself by being voted onto the new assembly in the recent election.  She will find herself in friendly company – the candidates for the 545 seats in the assembly were largely hand-picked by her husband and his government.  Indeed, it’s very much a family affair, with the president’s son joining her as well. It was a shame her two nephews weren’t able to take part in the election, too, but unfortunately they’re in prison in the USA, having been caught smuggling cocaine.

Never mind, she and her son and the rest of the new assembly set to work with a vengeance in their first week, ordering the removal of the attorney general Luisa Ortega (previously a Maduro loyalist but a critic of the regime since last March who now claims that the president is “overseeing state terrorism”), freezing her assets and forbidding her from leaving the country. The assembly has also begun to order the arrest and imprisonment of other opposition figures, such as mayors critical of the regime and judges sworn in by the rival, legitimate, opposition-controlled parliament.

Being a president’s consort is clearly a serious business (no, I can’t be bothered to check if Melania Trump’s range of jewellery is still advertised on the White House website). Lady Macbeth is probably as good a role model as any (though things didn’t end well for her, remember). Or Claire Underwood (I’m still only on series three of House of Cards, so I don’t know how things ended for her – but not well either, I’d guess). Nevertheless, anyone hitched to someone whose “state is kingly” would be better advised to consider John Milton’s comment “They also serve who only stand and wait”, as Prince Philip appears to have done.

 

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Issue 117: 2017 08 10: Charlie Gard (John Watson)

10 August 2017

Charlie Gard

A reminder of the other issues.

By John Watson

The Charlie Gard case leaves different images with each of us.  Some will simply see the parents’ anguish, their hopes for a miracle cure being dashed by the medical evidence.  Others will see the team from Great Ormond Street hospital prepared to put their reputations on the line and accept abuse as the price for preventing unnecessary suffering.  Then there are those making the judicial decisions, from the specialist judge of the Family Division, no doubt losing sleep over his difficult decision, to the members of the appellate courts and the European Court of Human Rights testing his decision against principles of law.  The lawyers, too, acting for the various parties and any number of social workers, specialist witnesses etc.

It has certainly been a massive exercise and (as is always the case) many will have fed from it.  Those who claim rights to pictures or to exploit statements, journalists writing their column inches, newspapers increasing their circulations, advisers of many different sorts to many different parties.  For them the case had pecuniary value.  There are also those who have sought to use it to boost their reputations: the Catholic Church, the President of the United States, those who wish to use the case to further a cause, advance a personal profile or give them a status as protesters.  Their interests may not be pecuniary but they are interests nonetheless.  Many of these will have seen the case as an opportunity, either exploited or missed. But for us, the members of the public, there is quite a different dimension.  The case has brought us face-to-face with fundamental questions to which we do not really know the answer.

The litigation over whether Charlie should go to America ended with his parents accepting that, in view of deterioration in his condition, treatment there would not be able to give him a worthwhile life. It must have been an agonising decision, particularly after all they had been through, and they took it with the dignity we had learned to expect from them.  Most of us will never have to decide whether a child should be “switched off”, or at least let’s hope we won’t; but of course analogous decisions fall to be made at the other end of life and here the issues bother us all.

As life expectancy increases and dementia becomes an ever increasing cause of death, more and more people are left in a condition where they have nothing further to contribute, little understanding of what is going on and where, in the words of psalm 90, their strength to continue has become “labour and sorrow”.  Yet with medical help they remain alive, absorbing resources which could help others, deriving no value from the deferral of death.  What on earth is the point of it?

The sanctity of life is deeply written into our way of life, not just because of the prohibition of killing in the commandments.  Here religion and genetics pull together, the latter contributing a near universal fear of simply ceasing to exist.  This approach is taken a long way.  For example, it is still an offence in the UK to assist a suicide even where the most appalling illnesses are in question, and although this ban is currently being challenged in the courts on the basis of Human Rights legislation, until now the judges have always said that the matter is one of Parliament.  Governments are of course reluctant to risk public displeasure by meddling in such a highly sensitive area, and prefer to use the fact that in practice charges are seldom brought as an excuse for doing nothing.

There, however, we are talking about suicide which means helping to end a life which would otherwise continue.  Much more difficult is the question of when people should be allowed to die.  That is partly a question of resources.  The current approach of fighting for life evolved at a time when resources were less stretched than they are currently.  People died younger and far fewer continued into old age.  That meant that the burden of looking after the elderly was far lighter than it is now, where it uses up an increasing proportion of health service capacity each year.

Now, though, it is different because the cost of preserving the lives of large numbers of elderly people is becoming a steadily heavier weight on later generations, a cloud darkening their place in the sun.  It is possible that the pressure will eventually be alleviated by robotics which will make the care of the elderly much easier but we are not there yet and there is already a need to ask ourselves when we should seek to preserve life as opposed to giving palliative care.  What should the test be?  Should it depend upon whether life is still giving some sort of enjoyment?  That would be difficult to apply as it depends on the state of mind of a patient whose response is bound to be difficult to gauge.  Should it be whether the patient is still capable of making any sort of contribution?  As machines take over more and more human jobs, the whole idea of a contribution begins to fade.

Questions like these are difficult for us to address because everyone will see them in the light of their own differing experience and prospects, and they play heavily upon natural insecurities and doubts. Really we would rather not face them, and when a case like that of Charlie Gard brings them to our attention we try to avoid them and put our heads back under the covers.

The test adopted by the court in the Charlie Gard case of putting the welfare of the child first was no doubt in accordance with the law, but it gives no guidance as to how scarce resources should be allocated.  That is a far more difficult issue, and the knowledge that sooner or later we will have to confront it and that we don’t know how to do so is one of the factors which makes the case so uncomfortable for us all.

 

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Issue 117:2017 08 10:The Virginia Strategy (J.R.Thomas)

10 September 2017

The Virginia Strategy

Yes, the Democrats are still there

by J.R. Thomas

You may be thinking that this is a review of a thriller, perhaps by one of those slightly forgotten but talented authors such as Anthony Price or Eric Ambler.  But sadly, perhaps, no.  The time has come to redress the balance of the emphasis of current media coverage of American politics, that it is all just about Donald.  It often feels that way, with the new President and his party seemingly forming both government and opposition, with scarcely a peep from the minority party.  That can be the nature of politics in the USA, where the constitution does not give much of a role to any official opposition, and where that role, such as it is, gets split between the leaders of the minority in the Senate and the House, and any likely to be nominated Presidential candidate.  This soon after a presidential election, there generally isn’t one of the latter of course.

And in 2017 there is a greater than usual vacuum on the Democrat side.  Whatever the Democrats think of Mr Trump, they do feel that he has stolen, if not their clothes, a good chunk of their traditional voter base.  The Democrat heartlands in industrial America tended to vote for the Trump brand of Republicanism last November, and the Democrats are still not sure what to do about it.

That is not helped by the lack of popularity garnered by their candidate in the presidential contest.  Mrs Clinton has things going for her, it is certainly true; she is hard working and her connections to key people in her party have been carefully built up over many years.  But part of her popularity was because she was seen by the party machine as a winner.  That was not generally the feeling about her among the electors, who saw her as part of an establishment which had failed to deliver a new vision of America.  It is one of those fascinating questions as to how the Democrats might have fared if Bernie Sanders had been the nominee.  Bernie tends to be represented in the British press as a Vermont version of Jeremy Corbyn, but, with all respect to Mr C, Bernie is a very different operator indeed.  He may have been the only independent Senator, and a self-described socialist, but he is an extremely astute political operator who commands considerable respect in the Senate.  He is a chairman of many key Senate committees and that is not a role one is selected for unless one’s standing and political savvy is of the highest order. He managed to combine that with a folksy radicalism which appealed to a lot of voters who had their doubts about Hillary’s “business as usual” presentation.   It does not matter now – especially as Bernie is most unlikely to run again, simply because of the age factor – he will be 78 by the next election.

Hillary is also unlikely to run again, though she has not so far ruled herself out (she will be 72, so not out of the question on age grounds), but there is a growing feeling that the Democrat Party needs to reinvent itself, and that must mean passing the possible presidential baton to the next generation.

To that end the party’s leadership quietly gathered in Virginia on 26th July to consider campaigning and candidate options for the approaching contest for the Governership.  They also took the opportunity to decide a theme and tone for the 2018 mid-term house elections. And deeper than that, they took the first steps, faltering and hesitant first steps, to a philosophy, a platform, and a candidate for 2020.  What emerged was hardly impressive.  The programme for 2018 is to be called “Better Deal”, with a back handed reference to FDR’s New Deal.  But the New Deal was original, bold and brave.  Nobody would describe Better Deal as any of those.  It is a platform designed to offend as few people as possible but with some measures thrown in that would directly help the underpaid and struggling middles (as somebody might have described them not so long ago).

So there is nothing in there about gun control, or climate change, or foreign policy.  But it promises to double the national minimum wage (that one plucked straight from Senator Saunders’ campaign last fall), controls on drug pricing, promises for greater regulation of powerful businesses, and some obscure wording on healthcare.  It is a classic case of looking to win not hearts but pocketbooks.   Even so, in normal times it might have engendered some good publicity and positive notes, but these are not normal times; Mr Trump was having a busy week attacking his Attorney General, calling for further investigations of Mrs Clinton’s actions in office, and banning transgender people from the military.  And working the revolving door of the White House.  The publicity was negative for the President – but the excitement still drowned out the Better Deal.

It also suffered damaging flak from Vermont.  Mr Saunders was not at the gathering but called for stronger measures such as cartel break ups, especially of the big banks, and free healthcare and university education (he has obviously read some of Mr Corbyn’s speeches but not the most recent ones).  The Democrat leadership might be advised, when it comes to Mr Saunders, to revisit that old adage about persons inside and outside tents.

The Democrats are also engaged in much polite shoving and pushing  – not so polite, some of it – on Capitol Hill.  Nancy Pelosi has been Democratic Party leader in the House since 2010.  Before that she was Speaker, which means that she, so far, has had the distinction of being the most senior elected female politician in the US, third in line for the presidency.  She has a formidable grip on the Democratic machine, but is now catching (or trying to avoid) much of the blame for the loss of the presidency last November.  As she is 77 she is not a presidential hopeful and now it is more a question of who her mantle might pass to.  Perhaps it will be Elizabeth Warren, senator for Massachusetts, who was seen as a possible alternative to Hillary, then as a possible vice presidential nominee, and must be a contender for the future.  The two ladies are on different wings of the party, Ms Pelosi being of the Hillary tendency, and Senator Warren leaning to the Bernie persuasion.  There are Democrats, Joe Biden, Presidents Obama’s vice President, for instance, who would say, though not in public, that both are out of touch with the aspirational working class blue collar voters that the party needs to win back.

There is trouble also for the Democrats on Capitol Hill.  Much attention has been paid to the troubles of the Republicans in the Senate, and in particular their failure to roll back Obamacare.  But in Congress it is the Democrats that have the problems.  Mr Trump’s spending bill went to Congress last week.  That was a spending package of $790bn on defence, the bulk of it to keep the lights on in the Pentagon.  But $1.57bn was to build that famous wall along the Mexican border.    Five Republicans voted against their own party as it proceeded.  But no coconut for the Democrats – five of them voted for it.  Not that either group of dissenters made much difference – it went through 235 to 192.  Yes, you read that right. The Wall has its first stage of funding approved.  By end of September it must also go through the Senate and there the math is different.  The Democrats may well have a moment of glory, but will winning that vote be a bad step in the war?  Voting against defence appropriations rarely plays well in the heartlands and this is one area where Mr Trump polls quite well.

The Democrats ought to be looking forward to a good autumn, with an opportunity to seize the spending agenda and score some victories on the Hill.  But with their tired and bickering leadership, a weak programme, and lacking any sort of voter enthusiasm, Mr Trump may continue to make the waves for quite a while yet.

 

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Issue 117:2017 08 10:That shrinking feeling(Frank O’Nomics)

10 August 2017

That shrinking feeling

The subterfuge around trying to increase profit.

by Frank O’Nomics

Are you visiting the supermarket more often due to running out of key provisions more quickly?  You might be concerned that family gastric problems are depleting the supply of toilet rolls, or that you have developed an obsessive compulsion for brushing teeth so that the tubes are forever empty.  There may also be issues with exhausting packets of crisps and biscuits more quickly  – is this the result of a poorer diet?  These concerns are almost certainly misplaced; all you are really the victim of is the corporate desire to maintain or increase profits via the process known as shrinkflation.  Toilet roll is  running out more quickly because there are fewer sheets in a standard roll of Andrex (221 instead of 240), and Sensodyne toothpaste tubes are now 25% smaller.  Many have put this down to yet another result of Brexit, with the cost of raw imports having risen following sterling’s depreciation after last year’s vote. However, this may just be a convenient excuse for manufacturers to try to make more money.

The ONS has recorded instances of 2,529 products shrinking over the last 5 years with 550 of those having occurred since last year’s Brexit vote.  Most of these reductions have come in food products, with packets of McVitie’s chocolate digestives now 300g instead of 332g and Doritos 180g from 200g.  A number of manufacturers, including those of fish fingers (10 to a box instead of 12) and Mr Kipling’s Angel Slices, have cited the currency factors as being behind the changes.  However, the ONS has not found any acceleration of shrinkflation since the Brexit vote, with the reasons cited not always currency factors, or indeed necessarily valid.

Many manufacturers cite rising raw material costs, beyond those of exchange rate moves.  Tropicana cartons have been reduced from 1.75l to 1.6l, supposedly due to supply pressure on fruits due to low yields and poor weather, for example.  Chocolate manufacturers such as Mondelez say that Brexit had nothing to do with them reducing the size of a bar of Toblerone by 10% (by widening the gaps between the triangles) and that this was more to do with the production costs and the Swiss Franc.  Many cite, raw material prices in general, rather than in sterling terms, as drivers of package reduction.  In particular a number mention cocoa prices as being a significant factor, and to be fair the price of cocoa did hit a 5 year high in 2015, following concerns that the El Nino weather system would hit cocoa production in West Africa.  However, cocoa prices have fallen sharply over the last 12 months and offer little justification for reducing package sizes, and sugar (a much more significant component in many of the products) has seen its price fall steadily since mid-2014.  What seems to be the bigger drivers of shrinkflation are pressures of competition and the need to continually increase returns to shareholders.  The likes of Mondelez have form here, having previously reduced the size of Toblerones by 15% as recently as 2010.

A related factor may be marketing.  It may sound cynical, but once you have cut the size of packages it gives you scope to increase that size at a later date and use this in your advertising.  The ONS cites a similar  number of increases to decreases in package sizes over the last year – so we should not be surprised to be shown offers of toilet paper with 10% more sheets before too long.  Other manufacturers have used consumer preference for smaller packaging, with Bulmers saying that the fall in size of fruit cider bottles (568ml to 500ml) came after customer research to shape a new look.  Bulmers argue that the price is not down to them, but to the retailers.  This argument can also be put on health grounds – with Kellogg’s contending that the fall in the weight of a packet of Coco Pops, from 550g to 510g, is due to a 14% reduction in the sugar content.  Given that they have been able to increase the number of Coco Pops in a packet by 15% (from 14,500 to 16,500 – and no I didn’t count them) this would appear to be a win-win situation (if you happen to like Coco Pops).

Advertising standards may forbid most producers using smaller packaging to say that their chocolate bars now have fewer calories, but at least there may be positive health implications, given that we are unlikely to want 2 bars instead of one when the size has only shrunk 10-15%.  There are however 2 key concerns with all of this. Firstly, we need to be aware that we are getting less for our money – and it seems that it is only the diligence of the press that is keeping us informed of recent changes, with no compulsion on the manufacturer.  Secondly, if the impact of a fall in sterling has not been the driver of what is effectively inflation by another name, is this effect still to come through?  There is typically a 6-9 month time lag between exchange rate moves and supermarket prices which means, given the recent plight of sterling, we may see some further inflation – or may just have replenish the larder even more frequently.

 

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Issue 117: 2017 08 10: Universities In The News (Lynda Goetz)

10 August 2017

Universities In The News

Economics and education.

By Lynda Goetz

Universities seem to have been in the news a good deal in the last week.  However, none of the news seems exactly positive.  First there were Baroness Deech’s comments urging vice-chancellors to stand up to student demands if free speech is to be safeguarded; then there were reports about the increasing numbers of international students in universities and finally an item about two female law students suing Oxford university over its ‘unhelpful’ attitude to their mental problems.

The first issue has been discussed in the Shaw Sheet on a number of occasions (Freedom of Speech, University Rankings and Free Speech, Students or Vice-Chancellors a Threat to Democracy? Sir Tim Hunt) the second and the third appear at first glance to be new developments. According to a Sunday Times investigation, increasingly commercialised universities are recruiting higher numbers of foreign students as they pay greater amounts in fees than UK students.  Foreign students can pay up to £35,000 a year for subjects such as medicine, whilst British students’ fees are capped at £9,250.  The detailed figures appear to show that, across all UK universities, the number of national students being offered places is down (at a time when overall applications have increased) whereas the number of places offered to foreign, non-EU nationals has been on the up since 2008.  Dr Anthony Seldon, former Master of Wellington College and currently Vice-Chancellor of the independent Buckingham University, has said that if proven, discriminating against less lucrative British students would be ‘very wrong’.  Of course, as Sir Anthony has carefully acknowledged in his wording, like most statistics, those compiled by Andrew Gilligan and his researchers can be subject to different interpretations, and a lively (if at times surprisingly illiterate) debate ensued on the website following the appearance of the article at the weekend.  The Higher Education and Research Act 2017 should perhaps throw further light on this subject when it comes into effect in April next year.

Jesus College Oxford

The third news item concerns two young women, a Miss Dance and a Miss Spector, both represented by Chris Fry, a leading equality and human rights lawyer.  Mr Fry, wrongly stated in The Telegraph as being a managing partner at Unity Law, is nowadays in fact a partner in a new cooperative firm, Fry Law, set up in March of this year, which has taken over Unity Law’s cases after that firm went into administration on 2nd June this year.  Mr Fry, representing the two women on a ‘no win, no fee basis’, considers that the surge of lawsuits against universities by students is driven by the changing attitudes of the young ‘more aware of their rights’ (clearly nothing to do with the increasing availability of lawyers taking ‘no win, no fee’ cases).  He goes on to comment about the cases he has undertaken under legislation in the 2010 Equality Act, whereby the ‘reasonable adjustments’ required by the Act to accommodate mental illness were not made.  Miss Dance is suing Jesus College, Oxford, for psychological harm and loss of earnings as she was forced to take a year’s break from her studies when staff at the college refused to allow special arrangements for her exams.  Jesus College refutes allegations of discrimination and denies that the requirements for mock exams to be sat in a large hall and to be handwritten placed students with anxiety or depression at any major disadvantage to their peers.

Baroness Deech

Baroness Deech, the cross-bench peer, former lecturer in law and principal of St. Anne’s College (1998-2004) Oxford, in a letter to The Times which was then commented on in other newspapers, pointed out that vice-chancellors needed to stand up to students if they were not to be regarded as complicit in the limiting of free speech in our universities.  She considers that by pandering to the students’ requirements for ‘safe spaces’ and ‘trigger warnings’ in case they might find the content of lectures (e.g. on rape cases) distressing, vice-chancellors are contributing to the stranglehold on free speech which could have a negative effect on Britain’s economic and social success.  The comments in her letter are in some ways a re-run of many points made in a letter signed by a number of academics back in December 2015 at the time of the ‘Rhodes must fall’ campaign (Baroness Deech was  incidentally a trustee of the Rhodes Scholarships 1997-2006).  That letter said, inter alia, that “ ‘self-censorship’ is turning universities into over-sanitised ‘safe-spaces’ ” and that this “threatens the very fabric of democracy”.

So what, if anything, do these items about universities have in common?  The key word is possibly ‘economics’.  Now that students are paying a much higher proportion of the costs of their education, ‘you want to ensure you are receiving a kind of service that allows you to maximise your outcome’, to use the words of Mr Fry.  Does this mean they feel ‘entitled’?  They consider they have the right to a university education; they want that education to be on their terms; they believe it should result in well-paid employment.  More than ever, they are clients, customers or consumers and they expect a reasonable amount of contact time and decent teaching.  At the same time, universities are required to balance the books and attain or maintain international status amongst the world’s academic institutes.  Can these somewhat contradictory requirements somehow be met?

Of course it is understandable that universities may be increasing the number of foreign students if, functioning as independent competitive businesses, they have to offer high salaries to vice-chancellors (average salaries in the academic year 2015-16 were £277,834, according to the universities union report), copper-bottomed pensions to lecturers for whom they compete internationally and state‑of‑the‑art facilities.  Of course, it is equally understandable that feathers may be ruffled if it is shown that this is at the expense of British students or that it really is easier for higher‑fee‑paying foreigners to access our universities than our own home‑grown applicants.  Of course universities should make sure that all students, including those with disabilities of various sorts, have access to educational opportunities and those with disabilities have a right to expect not to be disadvantaged compared to their peers.  However, is educational disadvantage the same as financial disadvantage, and to what extent is that the responsibility of the university?  Of course universities should be ensuring that they are centres for debate and discussion, and those leading them should not be kow‑towing to ridiculous demands which rewrite history and silence controversy.  Nevertheless, it has been the case pretty much throughout history that youth has derided age and attempted to overthrow the status quo.  The difference now seems to be the degree to which the views of the consumers have become paramount (the 2017 Higher Education and Research Act has even, for better or worse, put student ‘satisfaction’ as a factor into the new university rankings system).

What has to be recognised is the essential incompatibility between the aspirations of universities and those of students, as outlined above.  Universities and those who run them seek status and recognition; students seek exactly the same, but the needs of each to attain those ends are almost diametrically opposed.  Who is to say that Miss Dance would have found paid employment immediately upon qualifying as a lawyer?  There is a surfeit of lawyers at present, as far as I am aware, and I know of a number who have not been able to find traineeships or jobs.  Upon what does she base her right to ‘loss of earnings’?  The university might be considered to have met its obligations in full by allowing her extra time to complete her studies.  Can they also be held responsible for her future employment or lack of it?  Perhaps a little more acceptance of realities and a greater degree of tolerance and understanding from both sides might result in a much higher level of ‘satisfaction’ all round.

 

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Issue 117:2017 08 10:Silly Season Diary of a Corbynista (Don Urquhart)

10 August 2017

Silly Season Diary of a Corbynista

Ruminations from the allotment

by Don Urquhart

Mug shot of Don Urquhart26 July

In August Jeremy Corbyn is out campaigning in the marginals and has urged his parliamentary colleagues to do the same.  There are a few open goals out there.  Will Theresa May pack it in after her Swiss walking tour?

In state schools there are 24,000 teachers without Qualified Teacher Status (QTS).  The number is increasing rapidly and is much higher in academies and free schools than in LEA schools.  Justine Greening supports QTS as a concept but her predecessors, Morgan and Gove were against.  So it’s more evidence of public services being run down.  The NHS in England has 80,000 vacancies.

27 July

The Immigration Minister, Brandon Lewis, is, oddly enough, coming up with a report on immigration.  It will lay down the rules for immigration from the EU.  The report is due to be published in September 2018, 6 months before the UK leaves the EU, and the rules will be effective from the day we leave.  Surely this is a subject which needs all its aspects debated in parliament as the implications of failure are massive.

28 July

The Department of Education reports that academies are spending less per pupil than 4 years ago.  While spending on teachers has gone down, back office costs are rising.  This is hardly a shock horror revelation for those of us who predicted that the academies were effectively privatisations and, however it was dressed up, a few people would be raking in big money at the pupils’ and taxpayers’ expense.

29 July

Anthony Scaramucci would be a fine name for a Bond villain.  He criticised the White House Chief of Staff, Reince Priebus, for being a leaker and a paranoid schizophrenic.  Priebus has been replaced by John Kelly, a military man, who was previously running Homeland Security.  The displaced Chief of Staff had been seen as the Republican establishment’s man in The White House, and his demise distances the President still further from the GOP barons.  At the same time Kim Jong-Un is crowing about his ability to hit mainland US targets with his missiles.  Makes our problems appear trivial.

30 July

Liam Fox has gone out of his way to highlight differences in the Cabinet over free movement.  He has it as ending in March 2019 while Philip Hammond talks of a transition phase which “must end before the 2022 General Election”.  It is not clear to anyone else why the date of the next General Election should also be a key Brexit deadline.  Discussions with people in the Labour Party have also unearthed the opinion that the referendum was just advisory.  I have this as Remainer wishful thinking but it is a view that is getting plenty of air time.

31 July

There are 5,000 fewer mental health nurses than in 2010.  The latest £1 billion initiative just applies a sticking plaster over the carnage wrought in the last 7 years.  Jeremy Hunt is throwing a dead cat on the table.  Some money is better than no money but who really believes that this Health Secretary has the wellbeing of the NHS as a core motivation?

1 August

William Hague voted Remain.  I was surprised to read this today.  I always had him as anti-Europe back when he was in parliament.  He is in the news because he is reporting that the world’s great and good did not believe Britain would really be leaving the EU and had repeatedly asked him how the establishment would reverse the decision.

2 August

Andrea Albutt is President of the Prison Governors Association.  She has written an open letter expressing dismay at the state of our prisons.  The main problem appears to be staffing, both quantity and quality.  Particularly telling was the comment that they hire the wrong people.  Why?   Is it that the pay is so poor or the management incapable of weeding out bad applicants?  At any event there is no mileage in the government pointing to a brave new future.  They have been responsible for the decline in the prison service through incompetence and a conscious austerity policy.

3 August

A BBC investigation reveals poor service for citizens suffering mental health problems.  They are kept in hospitals because there is inadequate provision for their support in society.  Creative solutions are needed.  A high proportion of prisoners have mental health issues made worse by prison life in general and the strong likelihood of becoming drug dependent.  We don’t support people who struggle, whether it’s from bullying, mental illness or simply bad upbringing.  We have to redraw the lines of individual as against state responsibility.  The “nanny state” mantra is chanted at the drop of a hat but there has to be a way of intervening.

4 August

Robert Mueller is initiating a Grand Jury to determine whether criminal charges should be brought in relation to Donald Trump Junior’s meeting with Russian officials in June 2016.  Apparently on his father’s advice he had originally explained the meeting as covering adoption procedures.  The Grand Jury can subpoena anyone to testify.  What will they find?  What laws might have been broken?  One suspects that the younger Trump was negotiating the release of Hilary Clinton’s emails into the public domain given that the Russians were suspected of hacking her files.

5 August

Nicholas Timothy has just been hired as a columnist by The Telegraph and The Sun.  He criticises the Conservatives’ election strategy without being clear about who is to blame or what they should have done differently beyond focussing more on the financial situation.  Given also that he and Fiona Hill were responsible for the dire Election Manifesto it is hard to look beyond the two of them as the culprits.  Lynton Crosby was reported as taking things over as the election neared but nevertheless I have to think that Timothy’s views will rattle impotently round the echo chambers of Telegraph and Sun readerships.

6 August

Dieter Helm, an Oxford professor, has been employed by the government to come up with ways of cutting energy costs.  He will report in October.  It is the Wild West with the market dominated by a few rapacious companies.  British Gas has just raised their electricity tariff by 12.5% arguing that it brings them into line with competitors and that the increased cost is largely down to the government’s climate change policy.  So here we are again.  A public service being raped by private companies and the government making flimsy gestures to look busy.

7 August

Commander Dean Haydon is a senior Scotland Yard officer.  He defends the Prevent programme claiming that many people oppose it for political reasons.  He points to successes in stopping 150 people from going to Syria to join ISIS or similar.  And he denies that it targets Muslim communities.  I think its fundamental problem is the counter terrorism focus.  Prevent looks at young people and tries to work out whether or not they are likely to turn into terrorists.  Were I a young person with a Muslim background I would feel that it is just a crafty authoritarian method of keeping me under observation.

8 August 

There are 136 Hospital Trusts in England and Wales.  The Labour Party sent them all a Freedom of Information request asking about maternity ward closures.  40 Hospital Trusts failed to respond and this might be the most telling statistic.  42 of the 96 that responded reporting ward closure on 382 occasions in 2016.  In 2014 the figure was 224.  As is the rule the government saw nothing to worry about quoting increases in the number of midwives and a healthy training programme.  Convincing, unless your waters have just broken and the maternity ward has the shutters up.

 

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