Taking back control?

Never in the fields of ingenuity – and marketing resources – have so many people been so deluded by the prospect of this season’s must-have item: ‘independence’ from the EU.

Forget arguments about economics which cannot be proved either way until events transpire to overwhelm us.  Forget arguments about immigration/ control of our borders/ racism.  Having continued access to the single market promised by the Leave campaign requires agreement to the free movement of people (ask Switzerland, Iceland, Liechtenstein).  One argument that has resounded again and again and has never been analysed in any depth is the idea that voters in the UK can ‘take back control of their government’.

Let’s break down what we mean by government here in the UK.

First, the government in Westminster is called ‘HM Government’ which means ‘Her Majesty‘s Government’.

Second, though Lizzie Windsor has always maintained – in public, at least – a politically neutral position, she retains the power to dissolve parliament.  Remember that the UK is a constitutional monarchy (albeit one without a written constitution).  These vague powers also require that her First Minister of the Treasury (or, what you oiks call a Prime Minister) attend on Lizzie to give her a regular update on the business of her parliament.

Third, just because HM Government has debated and voted on what items should be made into law, those bits of legislation don’t reach the statute and become law until Lizzie Windsor signs them off.  Every odious bit of rank bullshit passed by HM Government in the last six years – including the additional taxing of bedrooms required by disabled people for medical equipment/ live-in carers etc – has been signed into law by Lizzie.  And don’t say she can’t refuse because on at least one occasion – The Local Government etc Act (Scotland) 1973 – she has.  (Thank you Fife Regional Council for digging your heels in on that bit of needless meddling by Westminster).

Fourth, the monarchy is not the only unelected, antidemocratic force in the UK, whether in or out of the EU, at this time.  The House of Lords.  That’s 800 gallows needed right there.  A mixture of tax-dodging political donors and former MPs thrown out of office by voters who wanted someone to better represent them in the lower House of Commons.  Only the Chinese government has more uneelected bums on seats making laws.

Fifth, the presence of unelected Parliamentary Agents in the House of Commons.  There are at least five appointees with the power to order your elected MP out of the chamber.  You can’t get rid of these people who variously represent the monarchy, The Corporation of the City of London and others.

Sixth, and perhaps not least.  Before we were members of the EU, everyone was a ‘subject of the Crown’.  In effect, you, your family, your possessions, your right to fair representation in the courts and so on, were at the discretion of the monarch, which is to say that you were property, a slave in effect if not in so many words.  Today, you are a citizen of the EU.  A citizen is one who takes part in the process of selecting governments and in other civil acts.  If, after today, you are not a citizen of the EU, you are demanding the right to once again wear the shackles that previous generations fought so hard to be rid of (and that, Jeremy Corbyn, is the argument which as Leader of The Labour Party you should have been making).  Even if you like Lizzie Windsor and willingly refer to her as your queen*, do you trust the people advising her?

For all its apparent complexity, the EU works on simple basis.  The EU Commission proposes laws to national governments.  Those elected governments then debate between them what should be considered for legislation.  This proposed legislation is then put to the EU Parliament where MEPs elected by you then debate the merits of these proposals before voting on them.  There are 50 thousand bureaucrats for the whole of the EU (of which a third are translators making sure that the laws are properly codified and stated for all 28 member states).  There are ten times that many bureaucrats for the UK alone.

If you think the EU is anti-democratic or unrepresentational then perhaps the problem – and the solution to that perceived problem – is closer to home.  It might be a different referendum from two years ago but the same issues remains in contest: who should lead us?

Remember that when you vote today.

(* I’ll call her ‘queen’, ‘Your Highness’ or whatever when I get a chance to vote on who should be my Head of State… which kind of defeats the point.)

Advertisements

Is Fife Council’s incompetence to blame for the closure of 16 public libraries?

It was interesting to read Alison Flood’s article in The Guardian today but in truth, the closure of 16 libraries in Fife has been an ill-considered process with little public consultation and no regard for the long-term economic prospects of the region or council services in general. Worse, these cuts were not necessary, were not ideologically-driven and cannot even be dismissed as a combination of the most petty form of party politics and collective lack of imagination.

Libraries are gifts from the past, intended for our future. Collectively, we are borrowers from our libraries whether we use the book lending service or not. We all contribute to the services provided by Fife Council and should not ever be left feeling that as taxpayers in small communities, our collective contribution amounts to no more than being in receipt of street lighting and bin collection.

Three different amendments to the motion to close these libraries were proposed and all were rejected by the administration running Fife Council. These amendments were the result of councillors from other parties actively seeking contributions and ideas from the people of Fife who, it is hoped, will remember the fourteen who voted to close their libraries in May 2016.

While it is not disputed that some of the libraries needed to be modernised to make them more accessible to the disabled, the elderly and parents with pushchairs, the legislation governing access for the disabled was introduced ten years ago and certainly before the economic downturn of 2008. Fife Council has had some time to get its property in order and to smooth the transition between old building stock and new.

But the closure of the libraries was not proposed by the council itself. This was initially planned by unelected civil servants and it was only because of an objection by a single councillor, Susan Leslie, who reminded her fellow councillors of the need for a legally-required public consultation that taxpayers in Fife had any warning that these closures were imminent.

It gets worse. Once local campaign groups began asking questions on how this plan of closures became the only plan, it became clear that only had Fife Cultural Trust proposed no alternatives but that FCT had completed no thorough investigation of the costs involved. Closing a library involves more than simply locking the doors one last time. The books must be moved. This involves an extraordinary amount of haulage – extra trucks, boxes, man-hours of labour – and a place to store the books. The furniture has to be relocated along with the IT equipment. Health and safety checks for each process have to be completed. Staff have to be relocated and/ or made redundant (eventually). There was absolutely no cost planning. In essence, someone at FCT looked at the figure they were told to save by the council – coincidentally, the same £800k that FCT was first asked to save in 2011 and hasn’t – then simply totted-up the cost annual costs of each small library until they got to the sum required.

In considering whether Fife Cultural Trust has a good grasp of the costs involved in running – and shutting – libraries, it is worth asking just how effectively FCT has been managing other costs.

In 2012, Fife Council placed libraries, theatres and museums in the care of the newly-established Fife Cultural Trust (SC415704). As a registered charity, libraries managed by FCT were no longer liable for business rates, ensuring a saving of approximately £400k per year to the council. However, Fife Council did not reinvest this saving in the libraries but instead imposed further cuts on FCT and this has already impacted on services, especially what can only be described as the managed decline of the range of books available. There are still, for instance, guides to Windows 2000 on Fife library shelves.

Taxpayers who currently work – or used to work – for booksellers or publishing houses would be surprised to find that there are four people in charge of buying books with a budget of £800k per year for 47 libraries (plus 3 mobile ‘libraries’). It is a small budget and certainly less than a single bookseller would command when buying for a city-centre bookshop. When challenged about this, Laurie Piper, representing FCT said that it was “proof the buyers were doing a good job.” But that’s a cost saving right there: four people employed to do the work of one in the private, commercial sector.

Another saving that could have been made is to not spend over £10k paying a company in Cambridge to analyse visitor numbers to the library but to expect that someone already in theemploy of FCT knows how to use an Excel spreadsheet.

Further savings could have been made in the cultural program. In the financial year-end 2013-14, Fife Cultural Trust spent £150k on promoting the artsfor which the return was around £80k – a loss of about £70k. So pleased was Fife Cultural Trust with this loss that in the year 2014-15, the amount spent on promoting the arts was £300k for a return of… nothing. Zip. Nada. Zero. Squilch.

In the last four years, the mere existence of Fife Cultural Trust has saved Fife Council £1.6m and yet nothing from this sum has been deployed to save libraries. Representatives of Fife Cultural Trust insist that people are reading digitally now and have spent money on third-party software that is unsupported by book publishers and once block-chain technology is deployed to counter privacy, will become redundant. Trends in publishing and book retail are also showing that e-reading has plateaued as eviedenced by Waterstones’ recent announcement that as a result of poor sales, they were removing Kindles from display. People actually like physical books and you don’t have to read The Bookseller (Charlotte Eyre, The Bookseller, 25 September 2014) to know this as you can search for Voxburner’s polling online.

But libraries are about more than books. Yes, they are great places for children to develop a lifelong love of reading and therefore, helping themselves toward a better education but they are often the first point-of-contact for community engagement. One of the biggest maladies affecting the elderly is loneliness. A librarian might be the only friendly face – or voice if books are delivered – that the elderly might encounter. More than this, libraries are often the only place that those striving to get back into work might get help with changes to DWP regulations.

It is a point of fact that libraries receive no funding and librarians no training in helping jobseekers navigate the very stressful search for work by the DWP. As anyone with a BT internet connection knows, access to the world online is expensive. If families enduring financial stress are already having to choose between heating and food, then it stands to reason that the internet connection will have already been scrapped. A library is going to be the only place to access the DWP’s back to work programs online and these must be used or penalties result. It’s all very well an unelected civil servant directing people to use their nearest alternative library but this involves travel costs.

The inability to manage costs, to persuade councillors to give due consideration to savings already made, to understand the changing role of libraries and the increasing importance of libraries in small communities, let alone the proper planning of a more streamlined library service all point to bad management. You’d assume that anyone who failed so many Key Performance Indicators would be made redundant or at least, required to explain their failures but not if you work in the so-called Third Sector.

Several assumptions have been asserted, repeated and worse by both representatives of Fife Council and Fife Cultural Trust, who have used these as the basis for decision-making behind closed doors. Residents of Fife, for instance, are still to hear from Fife’s councillors how re-employing ‘consultants’ who have taken voluntary redundancy for six-figure sums was going to produce an effective plan that would find wide support among Fife’s taxpayers (Freelance move leaves Fife library staff ‘fizzing’, The Courier, March 2015).

It should never be the case that taxpayers struggle to get clear answers to their questions from councillors or employees of Fife Council. For all the great work that campaign groups have done in quickly coming together to collate information that should have been provided to them (and I was privileged to work with just one of these groups in Kinghorn), it should never be the default of reply of councils or ‘charitable trusts’ created by councils that taxpayers – also, voters – are told that such information is not covered by Freedom of Information legislation. But perhaps that has ultimately worked in our favour. Like other registered charities, Fife Cultural Trust has to report its annual figures to Companies House and it makes very interesting reading.

When filing annual figures with Companies House there is a lot of small print that one could easily miss but among the blurb, it states that a director should not file figures if they do not agree that the figures are final and accurate.

Twelve directors are listed as having signed-off the figures lodged with Companies House on 14th September 2015. As these figures have not been challenged by any of the 14 councillors who voted for the closure, perhaps they would also like to reply to these questions:

1. Given that the consolidated financial statement for the financial year-end 31st March 2015 was not filed (and therefore assumed to be complete until 14th September), on what basis were the projected savings of £347,037 calculated for future financial planning by Fife Cultural Trust?

2. What criteria were used in the selection of senior managers and what key performance indicators were placed in contract such that on failure to achieve the stated aims and budgetary performace of the charitable group, these same managers could be removed and /or not have their rolling contracts renewed?

3. In relation to the above, did the directors not have concerns that in the year-end 2014, the arts programme had raised just £80,212 from an investment of £149,843 (notes 5 & 6 of the financial statement)? And further, that in the year-end 2015, for a much larger investment of £301,176, there had been a return of exactly nothing? Subsequent to these results, what KPIs have been put in place to ensure that senior managers deliver the necessary turnaround in FCT’s financial position?

4. From the same reported figures: given that there is no indication of an ability to reverse the decline in revenues through the catering and bar facilities managed by FCT, do the directors accept that franchising these properties would at least gain a positive stream of revenue from rent on these premises or, do they continue to prefer that public money continue to be poured into the serving of alcohol, teas and coffees?

5. Last but not least, how do the directors wish to explain the curious figures for reported wages and salaries? Between year-end 2014 and year-end 2105, the total bill for wages and salaries (note 9) drops from £6,351,700 to £5,480,811. This 14% drop is commendable. But let us consider that the number of employees has dropped 28%, from 458 to 331. Given that salary increases were reported as being 3.5% on average, it is peculiar that the average salary did not increase from £13,868 to £14,353 but instead to £16,588. Either the average pay increase was misreported or the number of employees is misreported or, worse, the total figure for wages and salaries is incorrect.

2015

2014

Wages and salaries

£5,480,811

£6,351,700

Employees (pro rata?)

331

458

Average salary

£16,558

£13,868

 

If the average pay increase figure of 3.5% was accurate, 331 employees would cost £4,750,969 (or, £13,868 x 1.035 x 331).

Would any of the board of directors – or even those 14 councillors who voted to shut our libraries – like to explain the £729,842 difference?

Given that no separate figures are reported for the consultation conducted this year, are taxpayers in Fife (who have read the earlier article in The Courier) to assume that the difference in ‘wages and salaries’ was in fact the sum of money used to pay the consultant who devised Fife Cultural Trust’s library closure plan?

The results are in and it’s Jim Murphy for PM

In the continuing saga of the longest suicide note in history, Labour party members in Scotland have just selected Jim Murphy as their branch leader.  Yes, that Jim Murphy, the Blairite, pro-war, pro-nuclear weapons Westminster politician with an expense account that would shame some Tories.

While many commentators have sought to explain the outcome of the referendum in September, I’ve bit my tongue and had to content myself by sitting back and waiting for hubris to catch-up with the lies.  I was always told that if you can’t say something nice, keep your mouth shut and as much as I’ve tried writing a post that reflected on how the referendum appeared from abroad, I just can’t describe the result without using words like ‘cowards’ and ‘schills’.

I was in Hong Kong at the time the results were announced – and also when the so-called ‘Vow’ was printed on the front page of The Daily Record.  To say that people in the former British colony were stunned by the majority of Scots voting against becoming a modern democracy would be an understatement of epic proportions.  When asked ‘why’, I had no answers but trust me, by the 20th September, the Saltire had disappeared from pro-democracy banners in Admiralty.

Clearly, many Scots are happy with things the way they are or, they’re very scared of making any change at all.  This was not about ‘Scotland vs England’ or about the petty and narrow interests of ‘nationalism’.  Most of the people I speak to who did vote ‘yes’ did so with the hope for democracy or because they felt this vote marked a watershed in the continuing battle between social democracy and neo-liberalism.  When I – and others – use the word ‘democracy’, I apply it in the way that people in other countries apply the word which is to say, a participatory, unicameral, directly-elected government with proportional representation.

Britain is not a democracy.  It never has been.  Even the use of the word ‘meritocracy’ is misplaced because with a close reading of the issues surrounding taxation, land reform and social justice, we understand that land ownership breeds a greater share of capital than any clever notions about investment in stock markets (and if you doubt me, you can easily verify that the same 482 families who owned 80% of Scotland in 1707, still own more than 60% today).

The Head of State (I refuse to recognise that anyone is my better, let alone my ruler – I am not just a republican but anti-monarchical) is not elected.  The upper house of the bicameral government is not elected – and following Labour’s half-hearted attempts at reform of The House of Lords, members merely have to buy their seats unless they’re bishops, in which case they just have to share a medieval belief in women’s ‘rights’.  Unelected agents may intervene in parliamentary debate at any time and not only prevent a vote on key issues of the day, regardless of voter’s demands but may even remove legislation after it has been applied to statute.  In the instance that Ed Milliband actually remembered that he leads a party that is traditionally social democratic, if not socialist, and wins the next UK general election, he will make his merry way from Buckingham Palace (having been given permission by Lizzie Windsor to form a government) to the Houses of Parliament and deliver his policy proposals to The Office of The Remembrancer (which is easy to find, it’s right behind The Speaker’s chair as you see it on TV).  Paul Double is the parliamentary agent appointed by The City of London Corporation who will decide which of Ed’s policy proposals will make it into The Queen’s Speech which traditionally opens parliament.  Contrary to what you might read elsewhere, Wikipedia for example, it doesn’t matter if ‘Red Ed’ wins a mandate to reform the banking system and throw the lying bastards that head them into prison, The City of London Corporation can strike that out before parliament has even met in debate.

Jim Murphy, newly minted as the leader of the Labour Party in Scotland, is a part of this system but as ‘leader’, he occupies a position that, according to his predecessor, is equivalent to being the deputy to the organ grinder’s monkey in London.  If he can’t change this state of affairs and won’t be challenged on his assertions by a British Broadcasting Corporation, there must be a good reason why this former defence minister has effectively not only just taken a demotion but actively campaigned for this role.  As divisive a figure as could have been penned for soap opera, Jim will drone about promises delivered, the parlous state of the economy, immigration and blah blah blah but he will never, ever appeal to those of us Scots who voted ‘yes’.

Scots like myself will continue to choose to get their news from other sources, pouring over the reported figures and hold them up to scrutiny.  We will challenge every political figure – including those from the SNP and the tilting-at-the-moon Greens – and we will continue to look for arguments among friends and family.  We will be metaphorically bashing heads long after we achieve independence – which we will, it’s just going to take longer than expected – so if it’s not too much to ask the media: why exactly has Jim Murphy risked getting egg on his face?

On speaking with free-thinking friends, our first impressions are that Jim is manoeuvring himself to a position where, having secured a respectable recovery for Labour in Scotland in May (thanks to the SNP getting complacent and letting the neoliberals set the news agenda), he will then challenge for Ed Milliband’s job after the Tories (or a Tory/UKIP coalition) are returned to power in Westminster.  Jim will be championed as a man of passion and integrity by friends in the media, willing to get on a beer crate and meet the people but never having persuaded enough of the electorate here in Scotland, Labour will limp on and the SNP will limp on toward another referendum.

Some commentators have it that Jim Murphy will have to compete for a seat in Holyrood but the Scottish election isn’t until 2016.  In the meantime, Kezia Dugdale MSP (bless her willingness to at least try and talk like she did more than just glance at her Spad’s notes) will struggle to challenge Nicola Sturgeon each week at First Minister’s questions and Labour Party supporters will eagerly anticipate the time that Jim Murphy will become an MSP, little guessing that he’s looked at the calendar and banked on replacing Ed Milliband before he has to try for a seat in Scotland’s parliament.  When his ruse is discovered, Jim will campaign as the ‘unification’ candidate, the only front-bench Labour politician who can claim to speak for all of the UK and the best of it is he can point to the period when Alex Salmond lead the SNP when still at Westminster, leaving John Swinnie to hold the fort at Holyrood.

Jim Murphy is no more interested in becoming Scotland’s First Minister than he’s willing to give up the big fat Westminster expense account and open up his Holyrood salary to public scrutiny.  Jim Murphy knows that voters in England may be able to put up with the Tories for another five years but won’t tolerate so-called austerity for longer than that.  Jim Murphy appears to have learned a few tricks from Alex Salmond and may just be the most under-rated politician around.  Why struggle to get into Scotland’s parliament then  struggle some more to take Nicola Sturgeon’s job when, with a little patience and a little networking, he can manoeuvre himself to be in a position where he gets to lay down the law to Scotland’s First Minister?

Think I’m wrong?  Name a member of Labour’s front bench at Westminster.  Ed Balls?  Majority of 600-odd, he’ll be in The House of Lords soon enough.  Yvette Cooper?  As tainted by the Gordon Brown years as her husband.  Andy Burnham?  As Health Secretary, he oversaw privatisation in the NHS in England and Wales.  Tristan Hunt?  Are Labour Party members really going to vote for a public schoolboy to run against the Eton Mob?  Let’s just hope that when Jim Murphy gets the top job in The Labour Party of Great Britain, he brings the same cunning to dealing with the Tories.

Why so many Scots are voting ‘Yes’

One interesting phenomena I’ve observed in the last couple of days is the number of people in the media worrying about share prices and the slight fall in stock values for companies such as Standard Life. This worry has now reached some friends on Twitter who, to put it politely, are sufficiently comfortable that the amount of tax they pay is as much a lifestyle option as the colour of their carpets. Middle class problems, eh?

Poor people in Scotland worry about where the next meal is coming from or whether they’ll have to rely on the support of a food bank next week because they weren’t give sufficient hours on their zero-hours contract job to make ends meet. They worry about where they’re going to find the extra money to pay a so-called ‘Bedroom Tax’.

A three per cent drop in market value is what happens when you use your annual statement to shareholders as a political tool, warning of the risks of a ‘Yes’ vote. The markets are now correcting for the risk that some directors said earlier in the year their companies were exposed to. This is what happens in stock markets. People make projections based on your assessments of risk. If you say that X is risky and Y is not, when X is about to happen, investors get frightened.

In 2008, very few economists or ‘market experts’ predicted the collapse caused by trade in bundles of sub-prime mortgages and now we’re supposed to trust their expert analysis of the risks of a ‘Yes’ vote?

I have news for you: we don’t care. We really, really don’t care. We’re tired of glass ceilings and we’re tired of picking up your bill for unsupervised banks and for the ideologically-driven drivel of ‘austerity’ which is really nothing more than mechanism by which privatisation of public services is sneaked in the back door in advance of TTIP.

As you’ve hurtled from one meeting to another in London, whether in the back of a taxi or a limo, you’ve probably not had time to notice the poor people on the streets. Well guess what? They’re just like us here in Scotland. I’m not the only one to still be looking for a good job in the downturn. I don’t own shares, equity or even contribute to a private pension. Those things require a well-paid job.

I’m one of the 99%. You know, one of the so-called ‘little people’ but guess what? I have a vote. My little person’s little vote probably doesn’t account for much but it is mine.

I’ve watched you in your limousines and your taxis, I’ve seen the way you talk about us on news and current affairs programs and the way that you write about us in your right-wing newspapers. We want to work but we can’t because of choices you made. Congratulations! You got rich selling our stuff, our natural monopolies – energy utility companies, train companies, postal services and now the NHS – on the cheap and made yourself a nice fat profit. I’m happy for you. Really.

Now I’m here to collect on what you’ve previously charged to account. No good debt goes unpaid and all that.

While you’re worrying about a slight drop in share price, I see neighbours who depend on public services. While you worry about long-term economic prospects and talk about fiscal blah, I’ve seen people hurry embarrassed from a food bank, people who have jobs that simply don’t pay well enough for them to guarantee three meals a day for their children.

Well, my little vote plus their little vote plus their friend’s little vote outnumber your rich man’s ‘No’ vote. So go play, trade your shares and your stock options but remember this: everything has a price. The price for your illicit, unethical gain is about to run its term and now it’s time to pay.

We’ve learned how to live without, to make do and mend, to survive but you haven’t. You’ve simply acquired lots of stuff. Let’s hope it’s enough to see you through. This neo-liberal party is at an end. It’s time to unload the jack-hammers, the sledge hammers and the crowbars, this house of corruption and ill-gotten gain is coming down because we Scots can do more than Occupy London, we can do a Matthew 21:12 and smash some glass ceilings.

That’s why I and so many other Scots are voting YES.