Monthly Archives: January 2016

Tangled Up in the Web

This is a cautionary tale about the perils of internet browsing. You can’t believe all you read – perhaps not even this post!

Just a few years ago, Michael Gove was in full flow trying to single-handedly destroy education in Britain by his reforms. On more than one occasion, in discussion, I found myself in agreement with head teachers and other professionals on this subject. In particular, we agreed that Gove was intent on improving the skills of our school pupils: the skills needed for life in 1950s Britain. Changes to the curriculum and testing would measure pupils’ ability to remember and regurgitate facts.

I also found agreement about a key skill that I think is vital to equip our children for life in the 21st century. In this internet age, with instant access to unlimited amounts of information, being able to assess the validity and reliability of something read on the web is essential. Taking a sceptical approach, to think for oneself and to carry out proper research are essential tools to equip anyone for modern life.

I learnt this lesson for myself again recently – the hard way.

web of lies
Web of lies?

The Act That Wasn’t

I use the internet frequently to try to establish the “facts” before writing many of my blog posts. I was considering a piece on how, in Britain, there is a lack of informed debate on just how good, or bad, the former British Empire was – for us Brits and for those in our former colonies. I was already pretty convinced from prior knowledge about one stark fact. Historians now generally agree that somewhere between 20 and 40 million Indians died in the late 19th century as a direct result of British Imperial policies and legislation. A whole series of avoidable famines and deaths ensued.

I have a memory of something I’d read a few years earlier about a law passed by the Indian Imperial Government making it illegal for concerned individuals to raise charitable donations for famine relief – lest the corn traders’ profits were affected. And yes – after a bit of web browsing – I found it again. It’s called the 1877 Anti-Humanitarian Act. There’s just one problem: there was no such Act.

This article summarises what happened. A Californian academic, historian Mike Davis, wrote about it in a 2000 book called Late Victorian Holocausts. Guardian journalist George Monbiot picked up the story in a 2005 article, which is presumably where I first heard about it. Davis got it from a book called The Famine Campaign in Southern India by William Digby, Hon. Sec. Indian Relief Fund, published in 1878. What Davis had missed was that Digby makes it clear (on page 55) that this was a spoof, a satire made up by one of the campaigners frustrated by the British Government’s indifference to the unnecessary suffering and death of so many of its imperial subjects.

Where does this leave us? I’m convinced the famines were real, the deaths were real, the UK government’s indifference was real, but the Act isn’t. So, all you seekers after truth, beware! Tread carefully around the web and hang on to that key critical life skill I was banging on about to the teachers!


In Praise of Public Service Values

Three news stories yesterday caught my eye.

Dawn Amos
Dawn Amos

The first concerns Dawn Amos, a 67 year old woman suffering chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a debilitating lung condition. This left her with severe breathing difficulty and barely able to walk to the end of her short garden. She died in a Chelmsford hospital in November. Two days later, her husband opened a letter from the DWP stating that she no longer qualified for sickness benefit (attendance allowance) because she was not ill enough. The DWP letter was sent on the date she died.


The second concerns the National Audit Office report into the “fitness to work” tests carried out by US-owned company Maximus in assessing entitlement for another benefit Employment and Support Allowance (ESA). This is the contract previously run by French private firm Atos until last March. Atos lost the contract following widespread criticism about poor standards and delays. The quality of the assessment tests were so poor that a huge number were overturned on appeal: around 60% of appeals were upheld for clients with support from advice organisations. Mental health charities complained there were too few assessors with skills to assess people with mental health problems. Maximus has managed to reduce the delays from 29 to 23 weeks, but other areas of performance are actually worse than its predecessor. 10% of their reports have been rejected as failing quality standards, compared to 4% of those previously done by Atos staff. And the annual cost of the new contract, at £579m, is almost double that of the previous one.

g4s medway
G4S Young Offenders Centre

The third relates to the suspension of seven G4S staff in a Medway young offenders institution. This follows an undercover investigation by Panorama of evidence of abuse of inmates by G4S staff. G4S have launched an investigation but have also written to the BBC asking them not to broadcast the programme, due for transmission on Monday.

Common Factors

All three stories are about services provided by private for-profit companies in areas once undertaking by public sector staff. My earlier blog post Cat and Mouse described the frustrations of consumers trying not to get ripped off by privatised gas and electricity suppliers. A similar tale could be told of our privatised railways, by far the most expensive in Europe.

In my view, all these services should be supplied by staff working in the public sector. In such cases, there is complete consistency between the objectives of the service as seen by all employees, from the front-line staff through to the most senior managers. For a privatised service, senior management will be primarily focussed on profit maximization and returns for shareholders. No matter how client-orientated the staff may be, the message gets mixed between those at the top and those at the bottom of such organisations. The temptation to cut costs is great, to the detriment of service to clients and to pay and working conditions for the staff. This is particularly acute, for example, in social care.

To promote the virtues of “public service values” may sound terribly old-fashioned, wacky even. The government, abetted by its thought police in “think tanks” and the majority of the press, would have you think so. But I firmly believe my ideas presented here are more in line with majority public opinion – and would lead to a happier and more socially cohesive society.


Pull the Other One, George!

Politicians in government, of all political persuasions, have long lived by the following rules:

  • Whenever there is good news, claim the credit for it;
  • Whenever there is bad news, blame someone else!

Chancellors of the Exchequer are particularly prone to this about the state of the economy.

George Osborne laughingToday, George Osborne tried to pull off this same old trick yet again. Just 6 weeks ago, at the time of his autumn statement, the Office for Budget Responsibility found £27bn down the back of the sofa. Osborne was upbeat, claiming the credit. He announced the “cancellation” of cuts to tax credits (but still introduced by stealth through cuts to universal credit). Now it’s all doom and gloom again. And, of course, it’s now everybody else’s fault:

  • the oil price (previously cited as good news)
  • the Chinese
  • Middle East tensions

… and so on.

So, let’s just remind ourselves of a few facts:

  • Osborne’s false comparison with Greece in 2010 of Britain’s debt killed off a nascent recovery inherited from Labour
  • His target to clear the deficit by the 2015 election failed spectacularly
  • This has been the slowest economic recovery ever
  • Household average incomes are still below 2008 levels
  • The UK has a record balance of payments deficit
  • Our economy is wildly unbalanced towards financial services (1% of global population, 2½% of global GDP, 37% of global financial transactions)
  • No serious attempt to rebalance the economy with over half of Tory Party donation cash coming from the City.

(Sources: IFS, Daily Telegraph, Economics, The Guardian, my blog post The City, Paragon or Parasite)

All this makes Britain uniquely vulnerable to the next economic turbulence. The Financial Times isn’t fooled. It’s another of George’s political, rather than economic, statements. It’s used as yet another reason for continuing debt reduction as number one priority, with the burden falling disproportionately on the poor. It perpetrates the myth that the government is sticking to a “long-term plan”.

Is there any sane person left in the country who believes this? Come off it, George! Pull the other one!


Symbiosis: Kings and Popes

As an atheist, I have often wondered how religions arise and how some, at least, last so long. Durations for the world’s major religions are impressive. The figures are: 4000 years for Hinduism, 3000 for Judaism, 2000 for Christianity and 1400 for Islam, to name the most significant. (Oh, and Jedi – 30 years: 0.7% of people on 2011 census returns cited this as their religion.)

There is now a large collection of books aiming to give an explanation as to why human beings seem to need some sort of spiritual or religious ideas in their lives. Jesse Bering’s The God Instinct, Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell, A.C. Grayling’s The God Argument and Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great are just a few books explaining this phenomenon, from various scientific and rational points of view: evolutionary, psychological and so forth.

In this post, I want to explore one possible contributory reason why religion, in particular Christianity in the West, has lasted so long. This is all about politics and power and the mutual support religion gives to kings and popes.

Kings and Power

Historically, the existence of kings (and they were nearly always men) depended on the use, or threat, of force to retain power. Scheming, plotting, betrayal, violence – including carrying out or commissioning acts of murder – were all part of everyday court life. History books, novels, films and plays down the centuries bear testimony to this truth. With the celebrations last year of the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, the slow journey to modern liberal western democracy has been resisted by those with power at every step, often very violently.

Medaeival crown
Medaeival Crown

Repression of the many by the few takes talent (of a sort), time, a reasonable number of close allies you can trust and, above all, money. Money is needed to bribe key individuals and groups and to pay soldiers who are prepared to fight for your cause. Many a king in history has lost power, battles, wars, influence and land through the lack of means to pay for their protection.

Popes and Politics

According to official sources, there have been 266 popes since the first, St Peter (33-67 CE). Their succession has not always been smooth: 11 were martyred, 6 deposed, 2 murdered, 3 exiled and 3 resigned (including the previous incumbent Joseph Ratzinger). There were periods in the 13th, 14th, 15th and 18th centuries when there was no pope at all. During the “Western Schism” between 1378 and 1417 there were two, and sometimes three, rival popes. At this time, incidentally, England found itself on the opposite side to France (perhaps unsurprisingly), but also to Scotland and Wales.

papal tiara
Papal tiara

For the majority of its 2000 year history, there’s been rivalry, scheming, corruption, riots, popular uprisings and conflict similar to that of the kings. For the first 300 years, as leader of a small but growing cult, the pope had no real power. But from then until around the 18th or 19th century, popes and the Catholic Church played power politics big time, to greater or lesser effect. And, of course, nobody forgets the Spanish Inquisition!

nobody expects the spanish inqisition
Nobody expects…

A Mutual Need

Now, keeping order in an unruly kingdom has always been a problem. A king doing it all by force, i.e. an army or some form of police, is a time-consuming and expensive business. How handy it would be if there was some form of self-regulating mechanism whereby the masses behaved themselves. Aha! The pope has just the thing: an afterlife and the concepts of heaven and hell. Fortunately, these human beings really like the idea of an afterlife: it solves two problems:

  1. It acts as a soothing balm for the recently bereaved;
  2. It offers an outlet for the violent affront to the human ego when trying to imagine one’s own non-existence after death.

Popes (self-evidently) assert the existence of heaven and hell as two alternative destinations for the afterlife (plus the complicating “purification processing factory” called purgatory). Your destination depends on your ability to stick to the rules, as defined by the pope. Just throw in the presence of an all-seeing and judgmental God and – hey presto! – you have your mechanism for social control!

So, kings find popes useful as a means of helping with the social control of the masses, in a cheaper and more benign way than repression by pure force.

So, what’s in it for the popes with this deal? The Roman Catholic Church is an enormously expensive organisation to run. Having the power of the king behind you to encourage the masses to attend church, bide by its rules and drop their coins onto the collection plate is a great advantage.

There are some problems with this arrangement, however. The interests of the king do not always coincide with the interests of the pope. Kings, too, like to make rules, so whose rules must the people obey? Conflicts and power struggles abound down the ages. But, by and large, each needs the other to sustain the system in the long term.

A Symbiosis

pope and king
Pope and King

The kings have the tax raising powers and the greater “firepower” in the use of force, if necessary. But the popes have the “trump card”: kings, too, must either end up in heaven or in hell, and so are subject to the popes’ rules. The interplay between these two “truths” produces a kind of symbiosis which helped preserve the church and monarchy for most of the last 2000 years.

So I find it unsurprising that I’m a republican as well as an atheist!


The Only Way Is Ethics

The news last week that the financial regulator, the Financial Conduct Authority, was dropping its investigation into the culture and conduct of the banking industry came as no surprise. But it was deplorable and depressing news. With over 50% of Conservative Party funding coming from the City of London, any reasonable person will be highly suspicious as to who leant on the FCA to cancel their review. (Of course, the FCA will deny any outside pressure!) I would expect any genuinely independent investigation into the business practices of financial services would conclude that greed, aggressive pursuit of narrow self-interest and other such unethical behaviour is endemic.

The Way That They Do It

My previous post, The City: Paragon or Parasite, considered the benefits, or otherwise, to the UK of a huge financial sector. My conclusions were that an over-powerful City is bad news for us all. But this is not just about what they do, but also the way that they do it.

The Spread of Unethical Practice

For several months, I had been considering a piece on the general standard of business ethics today. My belief is that the rot started in the City in the 1980s and has spread widely since. I’d welcome a debate on the timing and sequence of events, but my recollection goes something like this.

The banks started it, with unjustifiably high penalty charges and fees, e.g. for going a few pounds (or pence) overdrawn. The spread of interest rates between borrowing and savings rates has gradually widened over the years, enabling banks to cream off more and more of the difference as profits.

Coincidentally, today’s Observer carries a piece by Will Hutton which lists further examples of unethical banking practice. Quoting from economist John Kay, here’s a sample: “Investment banks, according to Kay, have three other main routes to make profits, all deploying the innocent word ‘arbitrage’. In plain English, fiscal arbitrage is playing games avoiding tax; regulatory arbitrage is about doing in one country what is forbidden in others; and accounting arbitrage is about hiding what you are up to.”

After the banks, their cousins the insurance industry continued the decline in ethical standards. They had two main wheezes. Firstly, financially useless products, such as PPI, were aggressively sold via retailers. Secondly, they started pushing up prices to “lazy” existing customers on premium renewal, whilst aggressively price-cutting to gain market share from new customers. The “disloyalty bonus” was born.

Next, the privatized utility companies copied the insurers with the same “disloyalty bonus” tricks – see my earlier post Cat and Mouse. They also invented a spectacularly complex mix of tariffs designed to make price comparisons difficult. They adopted the practice of rapid price rises in the retail price of gas and electricity when wholesale prices rose, together with very slow retail price cuts when the wholesale price fell. The petrol companies quickly took up the “rapid rise, slow fall” strategy to retail pricing. The privatized rail companies adopted the “confusing fares” policy.

Major multinational (usually American) online retailers adopted the tax avoidance game through lack of transparency and phoney transfer pricing between their operations in different countries. The customer service call centres of major brands offer appalling service. I recall a survey which showed customers wait six or seven times longer to get a reply from customer service numbers than from sales departments.

The market for mobile phone service is fiercely competitive. Companies compete mainly on the headline price, with the usual price complexity thrown in to confuse. They have to make their profits somehow. An example is grossly excessive overpricing for some aspects of their service. I was recently caught out by such a practice when I exceeded the limit on my mobile data usage. The effective rate per megabyte was a totally unjustifiable seventy times higher than the package rate.

Whatever Happened to Mutual Respect?

I could go on with further examples, but you get the point. It would be a rose-tinted fantasy to say that all was wonderful in the world of business ethics thirty or forty years ago. But, as companies were smaller, decision making was taken at a more local, and personal, level. Perhaps the pompous Captain Mainwaring-like bank manager was not obviously better than “the computer says no”. But, for the former, normal rules of human behaviour demanded a measure of mutual respect. It’s so much easier to treat your customers badly if the decision is “made” by an online algorithm.

Captain Mainwaring and Computer Says No
Mainwaring v “Computer Says No”

Campaign to Stop the Rot

In those areas where we do have a genuine choice to take our business elsewhere, we have some measure of control. But in the areas of “natural monopoly” like rail travel, gas and electricity, the poor customer feels helpless. In the 1970s, CAMRA (The Campaign for Real Ale) was a great, successful fightback against corporate uniformity and blandness. We need an equivalent “Campaign for Business Ethics” to start the fight back – come on, CAMBErs! Wakey-wakey! You’ve nothing to lose!