Archive for November, 2011
Other than destroy our saving’s income, a feat he has already achieved, the clammy touch of Chancellor George Osborne can do little harm to a bunch of old codgers given to breeding hens. So the response to yesterday’s mini-budget was somewhat muted this morning. In fact the rare treat of a wind and rain free morning had us in a reasonably positive mood. The weather men say that there is stormy weather ahead but we live for the moment. In any case we realise that the economic storms gathering will surpass anything that the elements choose to throw at us.
None of us watched the Osborne performance which, if most of the commentators are to be believed, was something of a ‘dog’s breakfast’. He clearly had a problem, namely that all he and his boss perdicted just a year ago has failed to come to pass, and the effect of the Euro fiasco has yet to kick in. We have always tended to favour the Keynes approach which has it that if you take away everyone’s spending power you inevitably end up in a recession. No spare cash, no spending, no trade, no growth.
Now we apparently face many years of unremitting hardship for those at the bottom of the income league, and unemployment is likely to rise to levels where social unrest will cause problems for the police whose resources have been cut. Yesterday was the day the gvernment was forced to admit that its austerity plan has backfired. It has been, er, too austere.
But one group will be raising a glass to the Chancellor today. Despite endless changes which will impoverish even more those near the bread-line, offset only by a strange reference to a new by-pass for Tunbridge Wells, not one penny more was taken from the top 10% of earners. Fat plums for the plucking stayed on the tree as the poorest bore 16% of the brunt of the new cuts whilst the richest bore only 3%.
According to the Resolution Foundation over £7 billion could be harvested with 40% tax relief on higher pensions whilst most earners will only get 20%. No additional bank levy was mentioned, there was no ‘mansion tax’, so beloved by the Lib Dems, on high-value properties even though owners don’t even pay their fair share of council tax. Worse still, two-thirds of properties worth over £1 million now change hands whilst avoiding all their 5% stamp duty, by using offshore company accounts.
An even bigger omission was mention of tax avoidance and evasion. Another 12,000 tax collectors are losing their jobs while some £25 billion is evaded and £70 billion avoided. In a time of national emergency the Chancellor had no breath of rebuke about the reponsibility of the rich not to dodge taxes, no threat to curb the culture of avoidance. Despite the High Pay Commission report on out-of-control boardroom pay – which even the Institute of Directors has called unsustainable – the Chancellor said nothing.
Instead came the great attack on public sector employees and war on the pay of women. After a three-year freeze, public pay rises are to be pegged at 1% for two years whatever the inflation rate. That might be painful but acceptable if the same criteria was to be applied to the bankers and super-rich. But the direct assault on the poor is almost beyond belief. When charities such as the Children’s Society and Save the Children launch a fierce attack you can be sure that things have simply gone too far.
I suppose the only consolation is that young George did not wheel out his original claim about our all being in this together!
TRY YOUR HAND AT THE MIDWEEK QUIZ ON LEISURE; 1. What imaginative type of game is known by the initials RPG? 2. Which French game’s name is the French word for balls? 3. In which month is Spring Bank Holiday? 4. Which London Museum is the most visited? 5. How many balls are needed to play a game of snooker? 6. What is the national sport of Japan? 7. What is lawn tennis known as when played on shale or clay? 8. In volleyball what do players hit the ball with? 9. What is the Chinese for “dark” and “light” believed to maintain equilibrium? 10. Where is the Jorvik Viking Stadium?
Sunny Jim is one of the most popular members of our allotments gang. Born and bred in Barbados, Jim always sees the sunny side of life but one of the great mysteries of life is how he can bear our ghastly climate after, for so many years, coming to accept blue skies as a common occurance. This morning, cars on the nearby main road had their headlights on at 8.00am! Just the start for the latest saga of a Chancellor’s long list of platitudes and half-truths.
Interestingly one thing that none of them ever mention is the fact that 69% of the UK land is owned by 0.6% of the population. This small elite group swallows 43% of the EU common agricultural policy budget of £47 billion. Now that would clearly make a rather big impact if diverted into the national purse and it always puzzles me that both Labour and Conservative governments never consider it worthy of so much as a mention.
For most of us the common agricultural policy is yet another sign of EU madness, but we do tend to think approvingly of the amounts allocated to encourage farmers to maintain hedgerows and the like. But that is small beer and, almost unnoticed, huge amounts of taxpayer’s money are handed to a small clique of very wealthy landowners. The arrangement seems to be based on the peculiar assumption that the bigger the land mass owned by any individual the greater should be the financial no-strings-attached payout. Let me give you a few examples.
As chairman of Northern Rock, Matt Ridley oversaw the first run on a British bank since 1878, and helped precipitate the economic crisis that has impoverished so many. This champion of free market economics and his family received £205,000 from the taxpayer last year simply for owning their Blagdon Estate. But that is modest by comparison with Prince Bandar, the Saudi Arabian fixer at the heart of the Al-Yamamah scandal. He received around £1 billion from weapons manufacturer BAE and used the money to buy the Glympton estate in Oxfordshire. For this public service we now pay him £270,000 per annum.
But it is the aristocrats and utility companies that pocket the most of our largesse. The Duke of Devonshire gets £390,000, the Duke of Buccleuch £405,000, the Earl of Plymouth £560,000, the Earl of Moray £770,000, the Duke of Westminster £820,000.
The Vestey family pocket £1.2 million from their Thurlow estate. You’ll be pleased to learn that the previous owner – Edward Vestey who died in 2008 – managed his tax affairs so efficiently that in one year his businesses paid just £10. When challenged, he replied that; “We’re all tax dodgers, aren’t we?”. But it isn’t just the aristocrtas that pocket our cash. Yorkshire Water gets £290,000, Welsh Water £330,000, Severn Trent £650,00, United Utilities £1.3 million and Serco £2 million.
Funding all this costs each and every taxpayer £245 per year. And there are some juicy add-ons. Last night’s Panorama featured the scandal of Private Finance Initiatives (PFIs), a licence to print money operated by people like Serco. When in opposition, Osborne and Cameron made great play of the fact that such schemes are aimed at deceiving the public. Private companies advance the cash to build hospitals and schools which they then own. The repayments are astronomic and invariably end with the institution in question up to its neck in debt and unable to provide adequate services. Since the election Osborne has continued to sanction dozens of such arrangements!
But back to the land payouts, which are the main treat for the already rich. I have listed some examples but others remain cloaked in secrecy For example, a company based in France called Syral UK Ltd receives £18.7 million fom the taxpayer. On its website it describes itself as a producer of industrial starch, alcohol and proteins. So far I can find no details of the land it owns to justify such a handsome hand-out.
The strangest thing of all is that the government continues to lobby in Brussels for changes to the common agricultural policy, but only focuses on one aspect. It warns that the proposed change to enable a limit to be imposed on payments to large landowners should be dropped. This, the government argues, “would impede consolidation”. It seems that 0.6% of the population owning 69% of the land isn’t equitable enough!
Surely the only subsidies that merit existence are those to small, vulnerable farmers. How on earth can anyone justify simply handing vast sums of money to the ultra-rich landowners? Even the claim that they are not damaging the environment are as daft as suggesting everyone who doesn’t commit a crime should receive a bonus.
This is a classic example of that biblical reference that unto him that hath shall be given. And before anyone rushes to suggest that people on strike are in some way demonstrating greed and self interest, they should perhaps look more closely at so many little-discussed schemes serving to increase the gap between rich and poor, schemes operated by both Labour and Conservative governments. A further article demonstrating how little tax these people actually pay might finally convince you that we are far from all being in this mess together!
Yesterday the death of yet another British soldier in Afghanistan was announced. It prompts one question. Is this the sort of society that our troops are making the ultimate sacrifice for?
JOIN ME TOMORROW FOR THE MIDWEEK QUIZ!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
The usual ribaldry was notable for its absence on the allotments this morning. There are many soccer fans amongst us and everyone seemed reluctant to chat, everyone seemed lost in a world of their own. Most of us have seen Gary Speed play, not surprising since he became one of the Premier League’s most enduring stars with stints at Everton, Newcastle United and Bolton Wanderers before ending his dazzling career at Sheffield United last year. In all he played 535 matches in the Premier League, still the third highest of any player. But none of us had ever actually met Gary, as happens with all popular spectator sports we had watched him so often that we felt as though we knew him. His sudden death has shocked us beyond imagination.
Gary had gone on to become manager of the Welsh national side and had, in a short time, transformed the prospects of a team so often cast in the role of also-rans. On Saturday several of us tuned in to ‘Football Focus’ and listened to Gary and other commentators discussing the reversal of his team’s fortunes. He subsequently went to Old Trafford to watch the Man Utd game against Newcastle. We now know that just hours later he took his own life in the garage of his house at Huntingdon Hall, near Chester.
In any circumstances the sudden death of such a talenetd and popular star of the constantly publicised world of football would have caused shock waves. It was hard to take in when the news of his death broke and our first assumption was that he had suffered a heart attack, something that can happen to the fittest. When we learned of the reality it was, and is, simply impossible to believe.
The Football Association of Wales wsa quick to describe the loss of “someone so young and talented” as a huge loss not only for his family and friends but a nation as a whole. Gary was, the spokesman said, a hero in Wales and everyone liked him for his gentleness and knowledge of the game. Fellow players were quick to express their own sense of loss
Robbie Savage, Gary’s former Welsh team-mate who is competing in the BBC show ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ revealed that he had spoken to him only the day before his death. He reported that he was upbeat, they were laughing together and discussing the dancing challenge. “Don’t get a two off Craig” (Revel Horwood, the Strictly judge) was Gary’s parting shot. Kenny Dalglish, the Liverpool manager, withdrew Gary’s close friend Craig Bellamy from the Anfield match against Man City, Bellamy was too upset to play.
Ryan Giggs, another of football’s legends, described Gary as “one of the nicest men in football and someone I am honoured to call a team-mate and friend. Alan Shearer described him as “a magnificent, fun person and a wonderful family man – he lit up every room he entered”. Bobby Gould and John Hartson could only cling to each other and cry. Right across the game large numbers reeled from the shock news and wiped tears from their bewildered faces. Why, why why? they cried.
Reoprts tell that neighbours are equally astonished, all talk of a friendly, happy man who always “had a chat”. In common with everyone else they had detected no sign of Gary being other than his usual humorous, cheerful self. And that impression is reinforced by colleague in the TV studio on Saturday, who have revealed that Gary was talking with excitement about the next show and the sporting prowess of his children.
Inevitably everyone who knew or admired Gary Speed is casting around for an explanation of a tragic event. The ghastly gutter press? They have quickly denied any involvement. Pressure of a manager’s role? Maybe, but Gary had brought quick success to a downtrodden team and was the fan’s favourite. Depression? Another maybe for many sportsmen, like many of the rest of us, have succumbed to the hidden but deadly destroyer.
Perhaps we will never know. But one comment above all others echoes in my mind. Kenny Dalglish said that “these things make football secondary”. How right he is.
Of course none of us is immortal and in the midst of life we are in death. Now, for whatever reason, Gary Speed has gone and our thoughts and prayers are with his wife Louise and family at what must feel like a living nightmare.
The allotments looked very like a scene from the Blitz this morning. The gale that roared had done its worst, and the storage areas looked like one of those Woollies sites in the days after their still lamented closure. As we set to work I noticed that Harry appeared to be in a particularly venomous mood and, in an attempt to pour oil on troubled waters, made a fatuous comment about global warming. But our havoc had nothing to do with his mood, he was fuming about Afghanistan. His grandson is out there on his second tour of duty and the family lives in a constant state of tension. This week has brought several more announcements of fatalities and, not surprisingly, those waiting at home continue to ask themselves what the war is actually about, and why we continue to gamble young lives on what is clearly mission impossible. Harry told me that often, in the dead of night, he asks himself over and over how the mindless slaughter can be brought to an end.
Now he has the answer and he is enraged. Some of today’s papers have told us what the government has failed to reveal. Millions of pounds of taxpayer’s money is being spent on paying the most violent of the Taliban killers £100 per month to stop fighting. All they have to do is complete a questionnaire explaining their reasons for joining the insurgency. They are then granted amnesty, allowed to keep their weapons, and encouraged to return to their local communities.
Of those already pardoned in exchange for a promise that they will undoubtedly keep only for as long as the pay continues to arrive, are at least 100 of the bomb-layers of Helmand, where nearly 400 Britsh troops have been killed and more than 5000 seriously injured and permanently disabled. Maj Gen David Hook is in charge of the programme of reconciliation. He previously served in southern Afghanistan and admits that he saw many horrendous examples of Taliban brutality which, he said, he would “personally find it difficult to forgive”. He goes on to remark that the programme will be difficult “for many British families to accept”. Some understatement!
The general has gone on to say that even if the insurgents who murdered members of the Grenadier Guards battlegroup at a checkpoint in Nad e’Ali in November 2009 come forward they will not be prosecuted. The idea of forgiveness is important, insists the general, and the UK has given £6.5 million to deliver peace in this way. In his interview the general draws an analogy with Northern Ireland and the policy of forgiveness applied there. It is a strange comparison for in Ireland British troops were protecting British soil, although even there forgiveness looked suspiciously like betrayal of those murdered.
Amongst the ‘great successes’ of the scheme previously hidden from us is the arrival in the Afghan governmnet of Maulawi Noor ul Aziz who proudly estimates that he ordered or took part in hundreds of attacks on Afghan and Nato forces. As a senior Taliban leader in the Nad-e Ali district of Helmand many of his targets were likely to have been British troops. Yet he too has been granted amnesty. In an interview he talks as one might of a computer war game. He and his men had sown a field in Nad-e Ali with improvised explosive devices, planning to ambush patrols. In fact a Chinook helicopter landed nearby and he and his band detonated their bombs. He recalls that; “All the bombs went off and some of the foreigners were blown to bits and some were wounded. We were very happy with the result”. He sounds just the sort of man we should be paying wages to whilst he rests from his campaign!
To add insult to the injury that this scheme will cause to many a family’s spirits, we learn from Hanif Atmar, a former interior minsiter, that so far many of those being “forgiven and paid” are not genuine insurgents, and the scheme is “failing to undermine the rebels in their southern heartlands”. So not only are we paying leading murderers, but we are also giving rewards to people who have no influence on Taliban activities.
The truth of the matter is that, like the Russians before us, we are indulging in a lethal fantasy. The idea that the Taliban is a seperate entity opposed by the rest of the population is unreal. In many areas it is the community. Hard though it may be we have to accept we were wrong to become engaged there. Nothing we do will reduce the security threat to our island, indeed it is doing the absolute opposite.
There seem to be no depths to which our politicians will sink in their futile efforts to prove “victory” in Afghanistan. They continue to regard our young men as pawns in a game. But this is no game, almost 6000 families have already been sacificed to a greater or lesser extent. Generations will grow up and live their lives without the fathers they loved.
When the defence of our country is at stake our servicemen know that it is their duty to stand and, if necessary, die. The situation in Afghanistan is not in that category. Our troops should not be there and every month adds more blood to the hands of those that keep them there. And now we are handing over fool’s gold to those who delight in their murder!
ANSWERS TO YESTERDAY’S WEEKEND QUIZ; 1. Alan Shearer 2. Play it 3. Judy Garland 4. Girls Aloud 5. Bart Simpson 6. Jose Morinho ( about Spurs v Arsenal) 7. Sydney 8. Terry Wogan 9. Lady 10. Radio Channels
SOME MEMORABLE QUOTES!!!!!!!!!!!! “Games are the kast resort of those who do not know how to idle”……Robert Lynd “Serious sport is war minus the shooting”…….George Orwell “The English football team – brilliant on paper, shite on grass”…….Arthur Smith “Well, either side could win, or it could be a draw”……Ron Atkinson “The manager still has a fresh pair of legs up his sleeve”……John Greig “Steve McCahill has limped off with a badly cut forehead”……Tom Ferrie “The sending off? Well, Jason McAteer would annoy anyone”…….Dave Jones “You’d think that if any team could put up a decent wall it would be China”……Terry Venables “Skiing? I don’t participate in any sport that has ambulances at the bottom of the hill”…..Erma Bombeck “I went to a fight the other night and a ice-hockey match broke out”….Rodney Dangerfield “It has been announced that Northern Rock has been sold to Virgin Mary”……Peter Allen on Radio 5 Live “We have to reduce our expectations and we have the players to do it”…….Steve McClaren on Radio 5 Live
A few weeks ago I told the story of the two lads who are helping us out on the allotments. There is no shortage of things to tackle and some of us with creaking bones are more than happy to pay to delegate some of the heavier work. But both lads deserve better than this. Both have earned their degrees and send off a steady stream of job applications. Even receiving a reply is a rare triumph, but their failure to land even a temporary Christmas postman role was really the final blow.
And they are not alone. This morning we learn that the number of young people not in education, employment or training (Neets) has risen to a record high of 1.16 million. Almost one in five 16-to 24-year-olds in England were “Neet” between July and September, according to information published by the Department for Education. The figure was up 137,000 on the same period of last year. Official figures published last week show there were 1.02 million registered unemployed in this age group. The total number of “Neets” is at the highest level since records began and continues to rise.
To describe this as a crisis is perhaps an understatement. It is not difficult to imagine the feelings of even the most positive youngster who, having left school or university, finds him or herself unoccupied, constantly rejected and, in effect, forced to rely on the goodwill of parents or friends. Our two young helpers tell us that a feeling of worthlessness is never far away. For a large slice of a whole generation to start their adult life in this state bodes ill for the future of our society.
Yesterday, Nick Clegg announced what amounts to a reinstatement of Labour’s future jobs fund and will involve the giovernment in subsidising 160,000 work places by providing £2,275 to any private-sector business willing to hire an unemployed 18- to 24-year-old. Anyone taken on will have to complete the placement or be refused benefits, anyone refusing a subsidised job offer will have to undertake four week’s mandatory work activity. There are various additional frills, but overall the initiative is at least an attempt to trigger some recruitment. According to a senior Lib Dem minister it has been a battle to persuade their Conservative allies to even back so limited a scheme, it has been “like getting a vegetarian to go and buy a kebab on a Friday night”.
That attitude shows in the suspicions surrounding the funding of the initiative. Nick Clegg wouldn’t be drawn on this,but there was mention of a further toughening of tax credits. It is known that the government is considering this and, should that prove to be the case, the general reaction will be hostile given the refusal to tackle banker’s bonuses or tax avoidance plus the desire to eliminate the top rate of tax.
But, in any case, there is a real danger that the whole attempt may fail to help the young unemployed. The number of skilled and semi-skilled workers arriving here from mainland Europe continues to rocket and several of our largest companies are now advertising vacancies exclusively abroad. The government’s attempts to reduce net migration to Britain to “tens of thousands” is failing, official data reveals that net migration reached 252,000 last year, the highest calender-year total ever recorded.
The simple but painful fact is that control of incoming numbers is impossible given our membership of the EU. And now that that body is proposing an “open-door” policy for non-EU countries too the situation will worsen significantly. From an employer’s perspective hiring someone already possessing the skills needed is always the better option, and if they happen to come from Poland or Zambia so be it.
Of course opponents of the coalition will argue that the economic strategy being pursued is leading directly to the crisis of unemployment. For their part, coalition ministers will continue, as Huhne did on this week’s Question Time, to claim that it is all the fault of Grumpy Gordon, not the banks. Frankly, few believe either of them for the credibility of politicians has sunk below the level of a snake’s belly.
Nothing can justify the riots, but they did convey a warning about alienated youth. Maybe the ones involved were of a narrow group but one senses that that group is growing by the month. Something has to be done and, unpalletable though it may be to the Lib Dem and Labour Party, the Conservatives who believe that restrictions on EU immigration are key to any progress are surely right.
We can of course bury our heads in the sand. That, after all, is one of the few things we seem capable of right now!
TEST YOURSELF WITH THE WEEKEND QUIZ!
1. Which England player was likened to Mary Poppins by a director of his club? 2. What would you do with saxhorn? 3. Who was singer Lorna Luft’s famous actress mother? 4. “What Will the Neighbours Say?” was the second album from which group? 5. Which cartoon character is in the class with bully Nelson Muntz? 6. Who said, “4-5 isn’t a football result, it’s an ice-hockey match”? 7. Which is the largest and oldest Australian city? 8. Whose autobiography was called “Mustn’t Grumble”? 9. How is the wife of a Knight addressed? 10. Light, Home and Third used to be what?