What with Al Megrahi, the Obama health care battle, ballooning budget deficits, Gary McKinnon, and the bankers’ stranglehold on the State, there’s so much to talk about. But it will now have to wait till 8 September when I return from holiday, refreshed and exasperated and eager for the fray.
Today’s leaked report on massive failures in defence procurement deserves an answer, though the proposal by the report’s author, businessman Bernard Gray, that the relevant MoD division should be privatised is plain silly. Putting public procurement into private sector hands would be like appointing a ferret to choose the hens for the chicken run. But that doesn’t mean that the devastating charges in the report shouldn’t be taken very seriously. To suggest that today’s defence procurement range is £35bn over-budget and 5 years late on delivery, that it can take 20 years to produce major kit like a plane or a ship, that it ends up costing twice the original tender, and that anyway it doesn’t function as specified, is a stunning set of indictments. Of course we need to see the detailed evidence in support of each of these claims, and the 269-page report should be published as soon as possible, not suppressed as the Government seems determined to do (with all those aspirations to a new era of openness once again dashed). But there was already enough evidence in the public domain about huge cost overruns, long-delayed delivery, and inadequate performance to give Gray’s denunciations an aura of credibility. So what needs to be done?
It has just been reported that, exactly a year ago, on 21August 2008, a physically fit man aged 40 was arrested, taken to the nearby police station, placed in a gage in the station yard, and died 20 minutes later. Some 30 persons, nearly all men, die in police custody every year, and in most cases there no doubts or misgivings about the cause of death. In a small number of cases however there are real grounds for suspicion about the reasons for death and real concerns both about the behaviour of the police and the procedures of the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC). The death last year of Sean Rigg, a musician from Brixton, is one such case. There are several suspicious elements, any one of which may later be satisfactorily explained, but which cumulatively do give considerable cause for concern. Nor is this just an examination of one man’s death; it is a system under scrutiny.
As so often with declarations of international morality, there is a good deal of cant thrown in about the Scottish decision to release Abdelbaset al-Megrahi on compassionate grounds. Kenny MacAskill, the Scottish Justice Secretary, a former criminal defence lawyer, made a brave and principled decision explicitly not on political or diplomatic grounds, but in accordance with what he clearly argued were the interests of justice. But that was too much for the US Attorney General who responded: “There is simply no justification for releasing this convicted terrorist whose actions took the lives of 270 individuals, including 189 Americans”. What punishment then, one might ask, has America exacted against the US commander of the warship which without provocation in the Persian Gulf in 1988 fired on and destroyed an Iranian civil airliner killing 290 innocent Iranian and other passengers not long before the Lockerbie bombing? Were those innocent lives lost any less precious than the American ones? If the US captain had been captured (admittedly a pretty inconceivable event) and been convicted – not of terrorism, but of gross irresponsibility leading to mass killing – wouldn’t the US Government have approved of his release if he had just 3 months to live from terminal cancer?
Like the Iraq elections 5 years ago, the Afghan elections are being hailed as the foundation of democracy in a war-torn country. The reality however is very different. As in Iraq, so now in Afghanistan the insurgency is still in full swing, indeed on all the evidence growing stronger all the time, and the writ of the Kabul government scarcely runs further than a few miles beyond the capital. Talk about democracy in such a situation is simply a chimera. Indeed talk about government itself is something of a misnomer. It is riddled with corruption, driven by conflicting tensions between warlords, and headed by the weak and vacillating Karzai. His lack of authority is revealed in his allowing the murderous Dostum of the Northern League to return from exile on the eve of the election, in his succumbing to reactionary pressure over oppressive sex laws, and in his ineffectiveness in imposing any control over feuding warlords. To a depressing political scenario is then added a military stalemate with rapidly rising US-UK fatalities and a Taliban insurgency that still controls (even after Panther’s Claw) the great majority of Helmand province, linked to an unbeaten insurgency in Iraq that has just exploded again with lethal force in Baghdad, disproving claims that Bush’s surge and the Sunni ‘Awakening’ had finished it off. So what should be the strategy from here?
The Tory experiment with an election primary at Totnes earlier this month was hailed as a breakthrough in democracy. It was nothing of the kind. It was never the case that any Tories in this traditional Tory seat could put themselves forward to enter the lists and thence to be voted on by their peers in an open contest. In fact 100 people applied; then the Tory party machine whittled this down to 3 ‘safe’ candidates between whom the good burghers of Totnes could then choose whom they wish. Thus 97% of the aspirants were eliminated before they were allowed anywhere near the electors. It is an innovation worth looking at, rather than dismissing out of hand, but the present Totnes version is deeply flawed.
The pensions timebomb is ticking away. Recent reports estimate that private sector pensions are more than £200bn in deficit, and the shortfall in guaranteed promises to public sector workers may now be as high as £1 trillion, which is two-thirds of Britain’s entire GDP. On both counts the current position is untenable. In the private sector employers are abandoning final salary schemes, based on end-of-career earnings and years of service, and replacing them by defined contribution schemes, where contributions throughout working life are paid into a fund which is invested and the size of the pension is then determined by the value of the fund investments at the time of retirement. In the public sector, the guaranteed final salary pensions can only be paid for either by people in such schemes over the age of 50 delaying retirement or taking a cut in occupational pension income of at least 10%. if younger workers are not to be forced down into poverty to honour the guarantees given, which would act like a tax on younger generations. A fundamental re-drawing of the pensions landscape is now urgently needed. What would it look like?
One factor which underpins the current US vilification of the NHS, but which has drawn little attention, is the unbridled power of healthcare business lobby. It has the funding, the PR, the lobbying machine, the advertising reach and the political muscle to launch a torrent of mistruths and half-truths which can change the terms of a debate. It commands the flow of corporate donations which oils the path to political influence whichever party wins an election, whether in the US or here. It offers consultancies, directorships and advisory roles for a constant stream of former ministers and officials who mutate effortlessly into corporate lobbyists. It can even threaten to overturn the key policy reform of a popular President who has just won a convincing mandate for it from an overwhelming electoral victory. Rampant corporate power, the obverse of corporate accountability, is now a central political issue on both sides of the Atlantic. Although the lies and intimidation now being so blatantly deployed to defend the huge insurance vested interests in the US are egregiously odious, the parallels with the UK healthcare, pensions, banking, construction, pharmaceuticals, energy and defence industries is uncomfortably close.
The Government’s long-term plan for decarbonising the UK economy has been hailed as a world leader because it is the first to include national carbon budgets. It has gained credit too from its adoption of an ambitious 80% target for greenhouse gas emission cuts by 2050. What is not not so clear from the Government’s glossy 220-page booklet spelling out the strategy is that the manner in which it is proposed to achieve its goals casts it in a very different light.
UK greenhouse gas emissions (of which carbon is by far the most significant, accounting for about 70%) have declined by only about 1% a year since the 1990 baseline. That means that cuts of 3.2% per year are needed from now to meet the 80% reduction target by 2050. That’s a tall order, both in enormously improved technology and hugely changed behaviour, but it’s made all the more difficult by the Government (rightly) accepting under pressure that emissions from international aviation and shipping, which are very substantial, should be included. But the Government has a trick up its sleeve.
It really is time we got off the routine refrain that the Tories, if elected, would make huge cuts in public services while Labour will continue to protect people from the recession. It isn’t just that it’s simply not credited in that crude form, it deflects attention away from a range of Tory policy pronouncements which are now beginning to dribble out and which ought to be subjected to much more incisive scrutiny. And it’s not just what is being said by various Tory spokespersons; even more important is what is not yet being said which needs to be teased out. The best example of the latter is the Tories’ virtual silence on bank regulation, on preventing a recurrence (or deepening) of the present recession, on tax and tax havens, on City pay and bonuses, on the role of the State (provider, regulator, facilitator, or merely monitor?), and on control of markets (more de-regulation or less?). All of these go to the heart of Right-wing philosophy. Probing hard on any or all of them would expose whether Cameron is simply a front man for hard-line renewed Thatcherism or a cynical opportunist without a single ideological sinew in his body. But what little has already been said in other areas is even more revealing.
Between Sarah Palin pronouncing the NHS ‘evil’ and the Twitter feed declaring that from experience they love the NHS, inside 140 characters, there is some room for thoughtful reflection about where we are on health systems. Sadly it is emerging as the last redoubt of the Anerican Right for whom uncontrolled guns, unbridled markets and unregulated healthcare are the essence of the American Dream. But it is worth trying to weave a path between some of the wilder Republican allegations about the NHS as the fearful vision of socialised health provision on the one hand and the over-ready boasts that the NHS is the best health system in the world on the other. Issues of cost, coverage, quality of care, access and after-care are far too complex for simplistic comparisons, and lessons need to be learned, not lies fabricated to protect vested interests. Here are some of the factors that need to be assessed for a more balanced appraisal.
The laddites are at it again, slagging each other off right properly despite the fact that their policies are so similar. Of course there are differences, but the similarities greatly outweigh the differences – hence the stridency with which they feel the need to denounce each other. Osborne and Mandelson battle it out again about which party will make the biggest cuts (probably the Tories, but after 2013 who knows?), which will do more to protect frontline services, and how fast the public debt should be reduced. But they share agreement that bank regulation should remain minimal and virtually unchanged, even though bank recklessness was the fundamental cause of the economic meltdown. They agree that public expenditure should be substantially cut rather than tax selectively increased on the richest tax avoiders. They agree that the neo-liberal instruments of deregulation, privatisation and unfettered markets should remain in place unhindered. They agree that there should be no large-scale public investment programme to tackle deep recession and fast-rising unemployment. They agree that the role of the State should be minimised even in areas of serious private failure like housing, pensions, energy and transport. So when are we going to have a real debate on real options rather than mud-slinging?
Greenpeace has just published an incisive report that coud dramatically re-direct energy policy over the next 2-3 decades. It has been the conventional wisdom that once the world climbs out of the current deep recession, the revived global rate of growth, particularly in the emerging economic super-powers China and India, will once again push oil prices into the stratosphere, well beyond therecent record of $147 a barrel. It may still happen. But Greenpeace has presented evidence which suggests that the collapsing oil price of the last year – it reached as low as $35 a barrel in February this year – may reflect not just the cyclical fall mirroring the slowdown of demand, but more fundamental structural changes as well. It is certainly true that technical improvements in energy efficiency, greater emphasis on energy conservation, the beginnings of a major switch towards renewable sources of energy, increasingly focused Government action across the world against climate change, and growing acceptance that fossil fuels cannot offer long-term energy security are all conspiring to push energy policies worldwide in a profoundly different direction. Which then will strike first – peak oil supply or peak oil demand, and when?
Yet another downward twist in the anguished saga of social housing. For the last 2 decades there have been between 1-2 million households on Council waiting lists (the number is currently 1.8 million), yet the number of social housing units built has been continually and drastically reduced and is now no more than a trickle. Under Thatcher the number of houses built by local authorities fell from nearly 100,000 a year to just 13,000 in 1990, driven by the concept of a home-owning democracy and right-to-buy sales. Under Major the sharp decline continued, down to just 450 in 1996-7. Under the Blair regime, the fall tailed off to a trickle, no more than an average of 160 a year over the decade and down to just 63 social houses built in 2001. This virtual elimination of Council house-building was then accompanied by measures to try to force tenants out of Council estates by refusing to carry out repairs and maintenance unless there was a transfer to a private landlord, a housing association, or an ALMO (an arms length management organisation, which managed the houses separately from the Council). This systematic and largely unreported-on campaign against Council housing has now been called off, or has it?
The highly secretive nuclear industry is being forced to release the catalogue of accidents, many of them serious, which reveal just how unsafe are their nuclear plants. The contents of this damning document would not have been known but for the Freedom of Information Act. Written by Mike Weightman, the Government’s chief nuclear inspector, it discloses that between 2001-8 there were 1,767 safety incidents – 2 every 3 days on average – where about half were judged serious enough “to have had the potential to challenge a nuclear system”. They spanned “all areas of existing nuclear plant”, including Sellafield, Aldermarston, and Burghfield in Berkshire. The significance of this revelation isn’t just that it shows that nuclear plants are a great deal more risky than we thought, but that we should also question far more rigorously than we have so far done whether in future a new nuclear build renaissance should be allowed to proceed as a major source of Britain’s energy supply. The evidence now revealed indicates that it should not.