Author Archives: Peter Cleasby

About Peter Cleasby

If I have a formal occupation it’s as a governance, policy and management consultant, though these days I’d only take on projects in which I was really interested. See www.quantera.co.uk Current interests. I’m: •a volunteer watchkeeper at the National Coastwatch Institution’s Exmouth station, •an active Exeter Green Party member, •a member of Exeter University’s social sciences and international studies research ethics committee, •a blogger, mostly on environment society and public policy, and •happily married and living in central Exeter. Formerly: •Chairman, Plunkett Foundation •Vice-Chairman, CPRE Devon (Campaign to Protect Rural England)o •member, CPRE national Policy Committee •board member, Community Council of Devon (now Devon Communities Together) •board member, ACRE (Action with Communities in Rural England); •Deputy Director at Defra, MAFF, Department of Social Security (and other types of civil servant) •Standards Committee member at Thames Valley Police Authority •secretary of a village community association when we lived in Bucks.

The Softly, Softly referendum

Sesto Calende, Italy

Until we arrived in Sesto Calende, a small town in Italy’s Lombardy region, we knew nothing about the forthcoming referendum on 22 October seeking greater autonomy from Rome for the region.  We were, though, well aware of the planned referendum in the Spanish province of Catalonia which has been attracting international headlines.

The reasons for the difference are not difficult to fathom.  The referendum in Catalonia – which may or may not be held on 1 October – is about independence from the Spanish state, based on the idea of Catalonia as a distinct nation with its own language and culture.  This has so frightened the government in Madrid that they went to court seeking to have referendum declared illegal, and won.  Since then the national government has been using a variety of methods to enforce the court judgement, including the use of police to seize stockpiled ballot boxes and papers, threatening the arrest of public officials and closing down websites.

Here in Lombardy things could not be more different.  The regional administration have made it very clear that they are not seeking independence.  Language, culture and nationhood don’t really figure.  What they want is greater “autonomy” about what happens to the region’s taxes. Many people in the prosperous north resent the taxes they generate being transferred by Rome to the south, often perceived as indolent.  And the national government, unlike its Spanish counterpart, appears to be treating the Lombardy referendum with indifference.  Our friends here say there has been minimal national media coverage, and the regional administration has been running an extensive poster campaign – often on public transport – to drum up interest.

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It will be interesting to see which approach delivers results in the long term.

 

 

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Green and Communal

Sesto Calende, Varese, Italy.

Not everyone is comfortable drinking the tap water in this small town near the southern end of Lake Maggiore.  So sales of bottled water abound.  That’s good for the producers and the retailers. It’s not so good for the people who have to pay for it. And, as Trump would say, it’s Very Bad (and then we’d part company) for the environment because of the need to produce and then dispose of the plastic bottles (think marine pollution and fish deaths for starters) not to mention the emerging if contested evidence that the chemical Bisphenol-A can leach from the plastic container into its contents and so into your body.

In Sesto Calende (and doubtless elsewhere) there’s an alternative that is both green and communal.  In the car park opposite the historic San Donato church stands a bottle-filling machine.  For 2 cents (in UK money that’s about 2p and rising, depending on Mrs May’s latest ramblings) you can fill your own one-litre glass bottle with still or sparkling water.  And you can do it as many times you like for 2 cents a time. Or buy a season ticket.

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Compare this with the fact that you’ll pay 10 times the price for bottled water in a large supermarket and even more in smaller shops.

So, here we have a 24/7 public service which reduces health risks, cuts plastic pollution, saves users money and – even allowing for the fact that people drive to get there – is environmentally positive.  What’s not to like?

The Party really is over

Every household in the country will be receiving around now the usual leaflets from their General Election candidates , including those delivered free of charge by the Royal Mail.  Each leaflet is normally a mix of national party policies and some words about the local candidate we are being encouraged to vote for.  It is, after all, the local candidate’s name on the ballot paper.

This morning, the post included a 4 sided A4 leaflet exhorting me to vote for a candidate called Theresa May.  Well, even if I wanted to vote for her I couldn’t, because she’s standing somewhere in the Thames Valley and I live in Devon.  The identity of my local Conservative candidate remains a mystery.

Closer examination of the leaflet reveals it doesn’t meet the requirements for a free-delivery leaflet [1].  For example, it doesn’t show the words “Election Communication” and it doesn’t mention the constituency or local candidate.  So, although this leaflet is being delivered by Royal Mail as if it were the normal free delivery leaflet, it isn’t.  Which means that Theresa May’s backers must have paid the Royal Mail a substantial sum of money to deliever them.   And, because the leaflet is a national one, it won’t count against the more restrictive local election expenses limits – just like the fake front pages in some local newspapers.

OK, so we know having lots of money gives certain electoral advantages, despite the UK’s self-satisfied delusion that we keep a tight lid on election expenses.  What this leaflet also says is that the Conservative Party has ceased to be a recognisable British political party and has become the creature of its leader.  On the second page there is An Important Message From Theresa May To You, which ends as follows:

The only way you can ensure we have the strong and stable leadership to get this [Brexit] right is by backing me, and voting for my Conservative candidate in your local area.

Get that?  It’s “my” Conservative candidate.  Not “the” Conservative candidate.  Assuming she wins, collective Cabinet decision-making is going to be a bit of a laugh, isn’t it?  Personally, I find it chilling.

NOTES

[1]  The Royal Mail rules are available in a booklet downloadable from http://www.royalmail.com/corporate/electoral-services/candidate-mailing

Is the Prime Minister fake news?

Last week the Conservative Party – rebranded nationally as “Theresa May’s Team” – bought advertising space in a dozen local papers around the country to promote the Prime Minister’s general election campaign [1].  Nothing wrong in that in principle: it’s a long-standing habit of political parties to pay for advertising.  The towns and cities in question appear to be Parliamentary seats which the Tories are targeting to win.  So far, business much as usual.

The commentariat has tended to criticise the tactic as a way of getting around spending limits for constituency election campaigns.  It’s a targeted national campaign which doesn’t mention the local candidates so it’s not local spending, and it’s all within Electoral Commission rules.

Frankly, that’s a second-order complaint.  The Conservative Party is simply doing what any advertiser would do given the opportunity.  If it’s an unintended loophole in the spending rules, it can be put right.  Much more insidious, and an example of further erosion of any semblance of standards in corporate behaviour, is the way in which the newspapers allowed the ads to be designed and placed.

What the local papers did – or, probably more accurately, what they were told to do by their corporate owners – was to accept the advertisement in the form of a wrap-around, with each paper’s normal masthead integrated into the paid-for “front page”.  In other words, a blatant attempt to mislead readers into thinking their local paper was supporting Mrs May’s election campaign.

Defenders of the scheme have argued that people would easily see that it was an advertisement.  Really?  Two points here.  First, at least on the fake front page of the Exeter Express and Echo, the words “ADVERTISER’S ANNOUNCEMENT” are set in a white font on a pale grey background.  This is invisible to anyone looking at the paper from a distance, on a newsstand for example.

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The top half of the fake front page, Express & Echo, 4 May 2017.  Can you see “Advertiser’s Announcement”?

Second, it’s not unheard of for national papers such as the Sun and the Daily Mail to trumpet their support for a political party as editorial matter on their front pages.  If they can do it, why should people be surprised that the local papers are doing the same?

The advertising impact isn’t limited to people who buy the paper: indeed, they will soon discover the real front page inside and put Mrs May in the recycling.  What the technique achieves is massive exposure of Mrs May’s slogans because the papers – typically weekly ones – are displayed on newsstands for a whole week.  These stands are often to be found in prominent places in major retailers: in Exeter, Waitrose and Sainsbury’s have separate stands for the Echo in the entrance areas.

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Sainsbury’s, Alphington Road, Exeter.  Photographed after 6 days’ continuous exposure.  Note the real front page in the middle of the display.

The edition of the Exeter paper that carried the fake front page also ran a leader article entitled “Delivering facts not fake news” [2].  The irony of this was lost on the paper’s editor.  In response to my complaint to him about the fake front page, Mr Parker said:

“The material carried this week was part of a nationwide advertising initiative by the Conservative Party and the decision to publish it was made solely for business reasons as we are, after all, a business.

“It was made clear that this was an advertising arrangement with the Conservative party and is something we are at the moment exploring with other political parties.

“Again, any future decisions will be based on the commercial side of the business and will have absolutely no bearing on the way the Express and Echo covers editorially any news stories whether or not they are of a political nature.

“I cannot emphasise enough that we are a totally independent news operation and proud of that fact and will continue to be so.”

Taking advertisers’ money is one thing.  Trying to mislead your readers – who may not be interested in the distinction between the commercial and editorial sides of the business – is quite another.  And since the rules on political balance don’t apply to the press, we can assume that only those parties who can pay out hard cash for wrap-arounds will be included in the exploratory discussions Mr Parker refers to.

Up in Westmoreland, where the local paper also ran a fake front page, there is some community anger, threatening a boycott of the rag [3].  Something worth considering everywhere else, since even if local papers no longer care about their reputations, their owners do care about sales and profits.

Meanwhile Sainsbury’s, Waitrose and all other retailers giving prominence to local papers should move the newsstands carrying the fake front page to the nearest back room until normal service is resumed.

NOTES

[1] For a list of papers and constituencies, see https://www.buzzfeed.com/jimwaterson/how-the-conservatives-are-using-local-adverts-to-get-around

[2] A longer version of the article is in the online version at http://www.devonlive.com/8203-in-an-age-of-fake-stories-we-always-provide-trusted-news/story-30314208-detail/story.html

[3]  See https://eastdevonwatch.org/2017/05/09/northern-community-boycotts-local-paper-over-tory-wrap-around-ad/

Is our democracy OK?

The behaviour of Trump and May over the past few days should make us ask some hard questions about our governance.

I don’t normally go to public demonstrations.  Yesterday evening I made an exception, and joined in one of the many rallies around the country provoked by President Trump’s travel ban.  Even more out of character, I stood up on a bench, took the proffered microphone and spoke to the crowd.

The rally was in Exeter and some 700 attended. The speakers before me had concentrated, rightly, on the impact of Trump’s travel ban and the damage and hurt it was already doing to individuals and families.  They spoke movingly, based on personal experience and knowledge.  I spoke to highlight the other spectre in the room – the UK Prime Minister, who failed to condemn the ban when first asked about it, and has since made only mild disapproval known through other ministers and her spokespersons.  This is further evidence that Mrs May is not keen on human rights – during the EU referendum campaign, her most memorable intervention was to favour withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights (which is nothing to do with the EU).

Mrs May has steered our country into a position where our government is in effect begging the United States for an early post-EU trade agreement, as if that were the only priority in international relations.  Trump had barely paused for breath after being sworn in as President, before she was on a plane to see him.  And Trump knows we are the supplicant: the pointed refusal at the press conference to confirm his “100% backing” for NATO that May claims to have extracted from him; the hand-holding; and the executive order for the travel ban as soon as she was on the plane home (he clearly couldn’t have tipped her off, otherwise she would not have been so equivocal when asked about it in Turkey – wouldn’t she?)

What we’re seeing is the two leaders of the “special relationship”– both novices in their own way – practising bad government.  Trump is rushing out executive orders on hugely controversial topics, firing anyone he can who disagrees with him (the acting US Attorney General has just been removed), and allowing his press secretary to use inflammatory language: the Attorney-General was guilty of “betrayal”, the senior US diplomats who are protesting against Trump’s policies should “either get with the programme or they can go.”  No respect, no acknowledgement that others may have a point.

Back on our side of the pond, the Prime Minister is unmoved by a petition of over 1.5 million signatures protesting against a state visit by Trump – note that the objection is to a state visit involving the Queen, not to a working political visit.  Statements from May and her office completely fail to recognise the strength of feeling on the issue: she’s issued the invitation and that’s that, is the line.  Even though it’s unprecedented (I think) for a state visit invitation to be issued no more than a week after the invitee has taken office – but then there’s that trade deal to be thought about, isn’t there?  A deal, by the way, that will almost certainly favour the US more than the UK, and will resurrect the objectionable elements of the now-defunct TTIP [1].

Our Prime Minister also has scant regard for Parliament.  It took a decision of the Supreme Court to reassert the need for Parliament’s authority to approve the decision to give our Article 50 notification to the EU.

It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that the behaviour of May and Trump highlights the fragility of the arrangements for representative democracy, here and in the US.  Government is, at the end of the day, a series of negotiated settlements between competing interests, and the purpose of elections is to redefine from time to time what the “public interest” is in those negotiations.  Ministers need to be sensitive to the views of others, open to change where that seems to be in the public interest, and ready to acknowledge and respect other views even where they do not agree with them.

It would be ironic if the two countries who perhaps more than any others stood firm in the defence of freedom, tolerance and democracy during the 20th century were now to be debased by leaders who prefer diktat to persuasion.  But that is what seems to be happening.  In the UK, Parliament needs to remember that it is the source of all legitimate authority – and start acting on it.  And a critical appraisal of our governance should be high on its list of priorities.

 

NOTES:

[1]  The TTIP – Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership – was being negotiated behind closed doors between the EU and the US until talks broke down last year.  In the name of “free trade” the TTIP would have led to some weakening of EU rules on the environment, food standards and employee rights; and would have ensured that once a public service had been privatised it could never be returned to the public sector.  It was drafted as, in effect, a charter for big business to do pretty much what it liked.

More Hovis than Bovis

Like a loaf of bread, the house bullder Bovis is a bit crumbly.  Its chief executive has just departed, in advance of some poor financial results.  One of the company’s problems seems to be that it can’t build the houses it promised to build.

At the end of last year Bovis issued a profits warning.  It stated: “We have experienced slower-than-expected build production across the group’s sites during December, resulting in approximately 180 largely built and sold private homes that were expected to complete in 2016 being deferred into early 2017”[1].

One story not covered in the company’s media releases featured heavily in The Times this morning, and also in the Guardian [2].  This is that Bovis was paying purchasers cash of between £2000 and £3000 to complete the purchase of new homes even though the houses were not ready.  Some 650 people are members of the Bovis Homes Victims Group [3] set up on Facebook to share their depressing experiences.

One lesson to be drawn from this story is that reliance on the volume housebuilders to deliver the housing we need is a fool’s errand.  Despite its use of standard designs, of as low a density and as a high a price as they can get away with, Bovis hasn’t met its own targets.  Moreover, all large housebuilders shy away from building on brownfield – previously developed – land because it costs more to build there than on green fields.  And so we get urban sprawl and loss of productive farming land or greenspace for us to enjoy.  Meanwhile the government blames local authorities and the planning system for delays, while turning a blind eye to the failings among its own corporate supporters.

At the same time, small and medium-sized housebuilders are having difficulty finding land on which to build homes, as a recent report from the Federation of Master Builders and the Local Government Information Unit showed [4].  The report did aim criticism at local authorities for concentrating on large developments when drawing up local plans, a charge that is certainly true in some areas.  This bias against small firms also hinders the development of housing co-operatives which design the housing their members want rather than what the housebuilders tell them they can have.

NOTES

[1] Bovis Homes Group plc press release 28 December 2016 at http://www.bovishomesgroup.co.uk/media-centre/press-releases/press-release-173/pre-close-update/

[2] Guardian story at https://www.theguardian.com/business/2017/jan/11/bovis-accused-of-pressurising-buyers-to-move-into-unfinished-homes  The Times is behind a paywall.

[3] https://www.facebook.com/groups/BovisVictimsGroup/

[4] http://www.fmb.org.uk/about-the-fmb/policy-and-public-affairs/new-fmb-research/

A basic income should be a basic instinct

The idea of an unconditional basic income, payable to all citizens, has been around in various forms for many years now.  The Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN) was founded in 1986 to provide a European, and subsequently world-wide, network for discussion and development of basic income proposals, and its excellent website is well worth a browse.

BIEN defines a basic income as having 5 characteristics:

  • Periodic: it is paid at regular intervals (for example every month), not as a one-off grant.
  • Cash payment: it is paid in an appropriate medium of exchange, allowing those who receive it to decide what they spend it on. It is not, therefore, paid either in kind (such as food or services) or in vouchers dedicated to a specific use.
  • Individual: it is paid on an individual basis—and not, for instance, to households.
  • Universal: it is paid to all, without means test.
  • Unconditional: it is paid without a requirement to work or to demonstrate willingness-to-work.

Some countries are already experimenting with the concept.  In Finland the government is planning to trial a partial basic income of 560 euros per month [1].  The Dutch Parliament has recently debated the concept, and the government is responding with tentative but controversial proposals [2].  In the UK, the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee is exploring the idea of a citizen’s income and is holding an oral evidence session in January 2017 [3]. The Green Party of England and Wales is committed to the concept and published a detailed consultation paper in the run-up to the 2015 general election [4].

Deciding whether – and if so how – to proceed could keep politicians, economists and social scientists fully occupied for many more years yet.  But if anyone has doubts about the principle they should go and see Ken Loach’s latest film I, Daniel Blake.  It speaks volumes about the inadequacies of our system of benefits under which entitlement to benefits depends on meeting certain tests.

The central character, Blake, has been told by his doctors that he should not return to work as a carpenter following a heart attack until his medication has had time to be effective and he himself is fully rested.  He applies for Employment and Support Allowance (ESA, or Incapacity Benefit to those of us of a certain age).  Because his condition does not prevent him doing basic physical functions, like walking, he fails to score enough points in the tick-box assessment interview and his claim is refused.  He has no other source of income, so applies for Jobseeker’s Allowance (formerly Unemployment Benefit).  To qualify he is required to take active steps to look for work, trudging round a grim-looking Newcastle-upon-Tyne leaving his handwritten CV with potential employers.  When he’s offered a job, he can’t accept it because he’s been told by the doctors not to work.  Meanwhile his appeal against the refusal of ESA is delayed.  To raise money to live on he sells his furniture.  It is a vicious, vicious trap.

What Blake fears losing most of all is his self-respect.  One of the most sympathetic characters I have ever encountered in cinema, he is eventually brought low by a support system that makes automatons of the people who administer it and which – in the endless quest for “simplification”, aka saving money – has had its ability to respond to human need knocked out of it.

The irony is that the greatest simplification of all – an unconditional basic income available to everyone – is easily within the government’s grasp.  There would be no assessments, no qualifying rules, and, in the frightening language of the Department of Work and Pensions, no “sanctions”.  Implementing it would mean there should be no more Daniel Blakes.

NOTES:

[1]  A summary of the experiment is at http://ec.europa.eu/social/BlobServlet?docId=15135&langId=en

[2]  See http://basicincome.org/news/2016/10/netherlands-design-of-bi-experiments-proposed-meets-criticism-from-stakeholders/

[3]  See http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/work-and-pensions-committee/news-parliament-2015/citizens-income-launch-16-17/

[4]  Downloadable at https://policy.greenparty.org.uk/assets/files/Policy%20files/Basic%20Income%20Consultation%20Paper.pdf