Monthly Archives: July 2017

Justice for All

I only ever attended one Employment Tribunal during my career, about twenty years ago – and I found it a bit of a pain and a waste of time. So, at first sight, you might think I have some sympathy for the headline in today’s Daily MailDaily Mail headline

But I don’t. Here’s why.

My Tribunal Experience

My presence was required at an Employment Tribunal as a result of a grievance claim from a former member of staff who was dismissed for gross misconduct. I was the senior manager and the final step in the company’s appeals process: I had dismissed the appeal and upheld the sacking. The offence was theft of a small amount of cash. We had a clear policy on this type of misconduct: the nature of the work required a high degree of trusting our staff and the hard line was pour décourager les autres.

The case took two days and was held in Croydon: a two hour journey each way from home. The tribunal dismissed the claim and awarded us costs. I admit to feeling slightly sorry for the guy, for his poor judgement and false hope in thinking he had a case. But I was also irritated by the – to me – waste of everybody’s time. Was the case “spurious”, to use the Mail’s language? In their eyes, probably yes, but I felt that “misguided” would be a more accurate term.

Grayling’s Failing

Fast forward to 2013. Justice Secretary Chris Grayling introduced fees for ETs, of up to £1200 for the more complex cases – extra if there were appeals. The reason Graying gave was to deter “vexatious” cases, an assertion made without conducting any research into the verity of his statement. Volumes of cases fell dramatically, by more than 70%. If the assertion that fees would deter the more frivolous and less worthy cases, the success rate of the remaining volume of cases would have risen. In fact, the opposite occurred. The logical conclusion was that most claimants who would have succeeded in the past had been deterred from claiming: a denial of justice.

As an advisor in the past four years, many times I’ve given advice to clients on employment issues. They had a valid claim against a rogue employer who has cheated them out of money or discriminated against them. But when told of the fees, they decide not to proceed. Very often this is simply that they cannot afford the money. Sometimes they’re advised to sue in the county court instead, because this is cheaper. This was correct advice, but absurd when you consider that the Employment Tribunal system was created as a better-matched and less intimidating way than the courts for mistreated employees to seek justice.

Praise to Unison

Unison bannerSo I was delighted to see the news that Dave Prentice and the Unison union have persevered in their legal fight against tribunal fees – and won. The Supreme Court ruled that fees were a denial of justice and were unlawful. The decision of the five judges was unanimous. Grayling’s policy changes when Justice Secretary have been ruled unlawful before. But this time, the Supreme Court went further. In one paragraph of their ruling, they effectively lectured the Government on some basic truths about our constitution. It’s worth reading in full (the emphasis is mine):

  1. At the heart of the concept of the rule of law is the idea that society is governed by law. Parliament exists primarily in order to make laws for society in this country. Democratic procedures exist primarily in order to ensure that the Parliament which makes those laws includes Members of Parliament who are chosen by the people of this country and are accountable to them. Courts exist in order to ensure that the laws made by Parliament, and the common law created by the courts themselves, are applied and enforced. That role includes ensuring that the executive branch of government carries out its functions in accordance with the law. In order for the courts to perform that role, people must in principle have unimpeded access to them. Without such access, laws are liable to become a dead letter, the work done by Parliament may be rendered nugatory, and the democratic election of Members of Parliament may become a meaningless charade. That is why the courts do not merely provide a public service like any other.

Now, that’s basically what’s called a bollocking! Call it teaching grandmother to suck eggs, if you like. The “enemies of the people” (Daily Mail style) yesterday called out those who are the real enemies of the people in this case: the Government in trying to defend the unlawful actions of an earlier Tory Justice Minister. The Court ruling has been called a “lesson in patriotism” in a powerful article by Afua Hirsch in today’s Guardian.

Justice for All

So, the Mail did what it always does: take a news story and spin it to the opposite of the truth. It again confirms their attitude to the law. It’s fine when it’s used by the rich and powerful to bully and intimidate others into getting their own way. It’s the law as a plaything of the rich: super-injunctions to suppress awkward facts and expensive divorce settlements for spouses of billionaires. But the law as a bulwark to protect the rights of the poor and exploited? No way. There’s a word for this attitude: feudal.

And as for my irritation at the two days I spent in Croydon all those years ago? Put it down as the necessary price to pay to protect those freedoms we have gradually wrested from those in power, over the past 800 years since Magna Carta.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail
twitterrss

One Penny Has Dropped

Regular readers of this blog will know that I have banged on many a time about economic policy: Free Market Fundamentalism, as I call it. It is one of the two major delusions from which the country is suffering. We have suffered the consequences of a fatally flawed view of human economic behaviour for over 35 years.

Over a similar time frame, a second delusion has taken hold, growing to overwhelm us in a moment of supreme folly on 23rd June last year. It is the delusion that Britain would be better off outside the European Union. To make my position absolutely clear: it is 100% certain that every possible outcome from EU trade negotiations about the UK’s trading position outside the EU will be worse than the status quo. Every option would be worse; it’s only a matter of “by how much”.

To overcome a delusion, first the “penny must drop” to the sufferer that they are mistaken. No progress can be made during the period of denial. As I said in my recent post, Take Back Control, I believe that, at long last, the penny has dropped for an increasing number of Britons that there’s something fundamentally wrong about our economic system. The Labour Party get this; the Tories not, so far. That’s bad news for the Tories and good news for those of us who think that they’ve been wrong all these years. But we also need the second penny to drop: that staying in the EU is the UK’s best conceivable option. That penny hasn’t dropped – yet.

Project Fear Revisited

There was a whole load of bollocks spoken by the Remain Tories, and in particular by Osborne and Cameron, during the EU referendum debate last year. Their opponents, with some justification, called it “Project Fear”. (In comparison, the Leave campaign should be dubbed “Project Outright Lies”.) It was a source of immense frustration that the debate, as reported by the media, was conducted solely by the two opposing wings of the Tory Party (with some vile “sounds off” on the extreme right by UKIP). The economy didn’t crash and burn within days of the referendum result (although the pound did drop sharply); its death was always going to be a slow, lingering one, barely started even now.

The 2017 Election: The First Penny

Of the two delusions mentioned above, the result of the 8th June general election shows, I think, that the first penny has dropped. Increasing numbers of voters are sick of austerity and can see for themselves that it’s not working. For obvious reasons, the rich tend to save a higher proportion of their income than the poor. By taking money from the poorest, Osborne plunged the economy back into a needless recession in the early 2010s, reducing his tax income, increasing the need for benefits and made his target of balancing the books harder to achieve.

Theresa May on election night
May on election night

The effects of the remorseless downward pressure on public sector expenditure (instead of, for example, raising taxes on the wealthiest) didn’t really seem to have much effect at first. But by now, the cumulative effect is apparent in many different places. The struggles to maintain standards in the NHS have been all to plain to see for some time now. Then teachers and parents are concerned about the cuts to school budgets and their effect on class sizes, curriculum options and much more. More recently, damning evidence of the collapse in discipline in our prisons was made clear by the Chief Inspector of Prisons. The fact that not a single youth custody centre is safe to house young offenders is a spectacular disgrace for a relatively rich country in the 21st century. Police, firefighters, paramedics, doctors and nurses have rallied round time and again in recent months dealing with the aftermath of terrorist attacks. Failure over seven years to give them a decent pay rise is increasingly seen as unfair. And squeezed living standards from rising inflation are affecting all but the very richest in work and those on benefits alike. I could add low growth, record levels of personal debt and of the trade deficit, as well as many other economic weaknesses.

The delusion that Free Market Fundamentalism creates a strong economy is falling away fast. That leaves one more penny to drop.

The Second Penny: EU Membership

One year on, there’s still a large minority of the population who feel justified to have voted Leave last June. These include several members of Theresa May’s cabinet, including those most involved in negotiating terms for our departure. But with no overall strategy from May, even they are disagreeing among themselves about how hard a task they’ve set themselves. The most delusional, Liam Fox, said negotiating a trade deal with the EU would be “one of the easiest in human history”. David Davis, by contrast, described it as more difficult than a moon landing: “Half of my task is running a set of projects that make the Nasa moon shot look quite simple,” he said. I’m glad to see that he turned up in Brussels this week fully briefed and prepared:

David Davis empty desk
Look no notes!

About 45% of the UK’s trade is within the EU. The 27 countries share culture, values and ideals most like our own. (For example, the USA is, culturally and in social attitude, a very alien place indeed!) Fox and his ilk seem to think the world outside the EU is just waiting for us to leave so they can start doing a whole lot more business with us. In practice, Fox is swanning around the world, at our expense, trying to do business with a combination of the “old Commonwealth” (i.e. the white folks) and a bunch of despots and human rights abusers. With the latter group, the talk seems mainly about selling them arms. Just like old times in the Ministry of Defence, mixed with nostalgia for the days of the Empire.

The likelihood that such trade could fill more than a tiny fraction of that lost within Europe is zilch. Nada. Nothing. How long will it take and how much damage will be done to our economy and to our national reputation before the second penny drops? I hope it’s soon, for all our sakes.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail
twitterrss

Schadenfreude

Were you still watching on election night 1997 when Stephen Twigg defeated Michael Portillo in Enfield Southgate? My late wife and I were. Great, wasn’t it? We went to bed shortly afterwards with tired smiles and a feeling of contentment.

Twigg defeats Portillo 1997
That Twigg defeats Portillo moment

Talking of wives, my current wife is a real dog lover and she wouldn’t knowingly harm any animal. And yet, she laughed uncontrollably at the sight of a small, cute dog being accidentally thrown into a cement mixer in a famous sitcom scene.

Binky in the Mixer
In goes Binky

Schadenfreude, that most guilty of pleasures, seems to affect us all, no matter how well-intentioned we claim to be. Taking pleasure out of someone else’s misfortune has been the stock-in-trade for moral tales and for comedy down the centuries. From the comeuppance of Shylock to the humiliation of a self-important Basil Fawlty, the audience is invited to feel good or to laugh at witnessing the suffering of a rogue or buffoon.

As a comedian once said, “I wonder what the German word for schadenfreude is”. Although we have no everyday word in the English language, there’s a whole host of idiomatic phrases to choose from. “Cut down to size”, “got what (s)he deserved”, “the higher they climb, the harder they fall”, “taste of your own medicine”, “(s)he had it coming” all spring to mind. Clearly our in-built sense of justice often includes a levelling down as well as a levelling up.

So, why do human beings, even quite moral ones, exhibit schadenfreude? An interesting article in Psychology Today attempts to answer this question. A key point is this: “people … have a fundamental need to believe that the (social) world is a just place and that this belief is functionally necessary for them to develop principles of deservingness”. That’s fine, I get that… except that it doesn’t explain the joy at poor Binky’s fate. Of course, the core theme of the sitcom was that most British of subjects: embarrassment and the gradations of the English class system. But I think we’ll keep our dog walking away from building sites, just in case.

The chocolate orange

Chocolate orange
Chocolate orange

Right now, the UK government is in a state of collapse. In a few short weeks, the evil hubris of “crush the saboteurs” has given way to minority government, bribes to the DUP, open warfare in the Tory party, a breakdown in Cabinet discipline and the PM’s plea to opponents for ideas. The head of the National Audit Office speaks of disarray between Government departments, a lack of policy-making capacity and the real danger of the UK’s approach to EU exit negotiations falling apart “like a chocolate orange”.

The government’s official economic watchdog, the Office for Budget Responsibility, said this week that the UK economy was in a worse shape now to cope with economic shocks than it was in 2007, before the global crash. Exiting the EU on May’s proclaimed terms will be the biggest economic shock since World War II. The sheer size and breadth of the mess is becoming clearer by the day. So much for Tory austerity policies. Anyone brave – or insane – enough to say “strong and stable” one more time?

Ode to Joy?

Of course, I can’t help at times feeling some guilty pleasure at all this misfortune falling on a group of people who felt they were entitled to rule for generations. In my heart, my dream scenario – or, perhaps more accurately, the most benign nightmare scenario – would be this. May and her ragbag of incompetents and fantasists struggle on long enough to damage their reputation and electability for a generation. But in so doing, they don’t do so much damage to our economy and national interests that we – and especially the poor and most vulnerable – are harmed irreparably for decades to come.

My heart may wish for such an outcome, but my head says the chances of this happening are vanishingly small. Perhaps I’d better stop my indulgence in schadenfreude pretty damned soon. But, hey, I guess the odd snigger from time to time might still be allowed.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail
twitterrss

Take Back Control

Arguably, the most successful soundbite of last year’s EU referendum campaign was “take back control”, used by the Leave team. It was delusional, of course, based upon the ridiculous idea that Little Britain could be master of its own destiny outside the EU. The realpolitik of 21st century capitalism means that the mega-rich and multinational corporations are free to move capital – and jobs – around the globe. This makes pure fantasy the idea that one medium-sized country can be in control. Standing together with like-minded countries in a bloc like the EU gives some chance of the needs of the people winning – sometimes – against the rich, powerful and footloose. On our own, forget it.

But the idea – and the phrase – caught the imagination of many, assuming they didn’t think too deeply about it.

Ironically, one year on from the referendum, the idea of taking back control – in a different sense from before – is really beginning to catch on. And, this time, it’s a development of which I approve. Two recent events best illustrate my point.

The 2017 General Election

Once again, the pollsters got it wrong. The Tories’ loss of overall majority came as a surprise and, this time, a pleasant one for me. (The shocks of 1970, 1992 and 2015 were three times too many for one lifetime!) There genuinely seem to be signs of change. Specifically, I mean signs that more and more voters are seeing the Tories and their austerity agenda in its true colours: as a way of reinforcing the power and wealth of a minority at the expense of everyone else.

People are beginning to see the value of the public sphere: the schools, hospitals, police, firefighters, public infrastructure, clean air, enforcement of reasonable regulations for safety in employment, and many more. It extends to an appreciation of the longer-term strategic view that public ownership can give to areas such as blue-sky R&D and in the energy sector.

For three and a half decades, government and economists have asserted the supremacy of free market fundamentalism. They assert that free markets, unfettered by government interference, will produce the best of all possible outcomes. For the poor, their concerns and fears are vilified or ignored. At long last, an increasing number of people see that assertion for what it is: a lie.

They can see with their own eyes that the average worker is still worse off than before the 2007-8 global financial crash. They can see the rise of low quality, insecure jobs and the sham self-employment. They see ruthless employers increasingly treating their workforce with contempt. Too many people feel they have no control over their lives. Job insecurity means they cannot make sensible plans for the future, about basic matters such as housing and starting a family. For the rich, every whim and opinion is indulged and flattered.

The recent general election result showed that more people have seen through the Tories’ lies. Corbyn’s Labour Party finally gave them a real choice: a chance to get back some control. Emphasis on workers’ rights and the renationalisation of railways and utilities is seen to make sense. Private utilities casually rip off their customers – their nationalised forebears never exploited them in that way.

The Grenfell Tower Tragedy

And then came that most unimaginably awful, utterly avoidable tragedy: the Grenfell Tower fire. Four weeks on, those who have lost their homes and those who have lost loved ones still haven’t had their questions answered. Still the authorities, above all Kensington and Chelsea Council, are failing in their most basic obligations to the residents. Most of the support and help for practical, emotional and psychological issues still seem to be given by volunteers and community organisations. Yet Kensington and Chelsea is the UK’s richest authority, with nearly £300m in its reserves. The total breakdown of trust between the state and the citizens of the area is palpably raw and tragic. The Grenfell residents aren’t being given even the basic answers to help begin a grieving process and to rebuild their lives. The lack of control they have over their present and future lives screams out every minute of every ghastly day.

Out of Control

Whilst in no way comparable, I remember clearly the moment I found out my first wife, in her mid-40s, had been diagnosed with cancer. There was an overwhelming sense that our lives had, very suddenly, got totally out of control. Over the following few days, through our own research and with good support from medical staff answering our many questions, we began to feel better able to cope. The cancer hadn’t gone away, but we had more information to begin to make sense of it all and gain a feeling of control once again.

It would be simply wrong, impertinent and insulting to the Grenfell victims to say I know how they feel. But it is, after all, a defining feature of being human that we try, however inadequately, to empathise with those who are suffering. All I can say with any certainty is that it must be massively, massively worse than what I went through – unimaginably so.

A Turning Point?

It feels like the Grenfell fire and its aftermath is a turning point: I really, really hope it is. Grenfell, or something like it, is what happens after thirty-five years of inhumane economic policy, treating humans simply as economic units. And, as economic units, the rich and powerful are treated with utmost respect; the poor and vulnerable with utmost contempt. I sense that people really have had enough, at last.

The hope now is that we can be led by people with the vision to plot a new path to the future. The Labour Party manifesto for the recent election was a good start. Jeremy Corbyn seems to have found his feet. He clearly recognises that, if everyone is to “take back control” of their lives, most of us, at some time need the state to be there to lend a helping hand. This help takes many forms: benefits, doctors, nurses, firefighters, a decent job with a predictable wage or basic needs like gas and electricity from an organisation that doesn’t try to rip you off all the time.

The Tories won’t get us there. Several members of May’s cabinet are professed admirers of Ayn Rand and have called her most famous novel an “inspiration” – here’s one example. Free Market Fundamentalism, that cruel and heartless creed of greed, is the natural brainchild of Rand’s cold-hearted and false assumptions about human behaviour. It must stop. All the people of Britain, poor and rich, must be given the opportunity to take back control of their lives. Starting now.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail
twitterrss