Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Autumn Statement

Today, the Chancellor of the Exchequer delivered his 2011 Autumn Statement to Parliament.

Responding to the Office of Budget Responsibility's updated Economic and Fiscal Outlook, the Chancellor has set out details of further action the Government will take to protect the UK from global instability and the euro area crisis and build a stronger, more balanced economy for the future.

The Chancellor announced permanent reductions in spending to ensure that the UK meets its fiscal targets, using some of those savings in the short term to fund infrastructure investment to generate long-term growth.

Alongside this, he announced measures to help households and businesses cope with higher inflation and to ensure that deficit reduction is implemented fairly.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, said:

"We are committed to making Britain the best place to start, finance and grow a business.

"The measures I am announcing today will help us to achieve this by creating an environment in which businesses are easy to set up, have access to credit when they need it and are able to grow without being held back by red tape.

"This action supports our deficit reduction plan and the Government's monetary activism as we build a balanced economy."

To give more support to the economy and help businesses, families and individuals through this difficult time, the government:

* will set out a new strategy for coordinating public and private investment in UK infrastructure. The Government will use the savings from current spending generated over the Spending Review 2010 period to fund £6.3 billion of additional infrastructure spending, of which £1.3 billion was announced earlier in the autumn. Alongside this, around £1 billion of new private sector investment in regulated industries will be supported by government guarantee. The Government is also announcing commitments to £5 billion of capital projects in the next Spending Review period, as part of the National Infrastructure Plan;

* has signed a Memorandum of Understanding with two groups of UK pension funds to support additional investment in UK infrastructure. The Government is also working with the Association of British Insurers to set up an Insurers’ Infrastructure Investment Forum, and will target up to £20 billion of investment from these initiatives. In total the Autumn Statement supports around £30 billion of new capital investment;

* will increase the Regional Growth Fund for England by £1 billion, plus Barnett consequentials for the devolved administrations, and extend it into 2014–15, to provide ongoing support to grow the private sector in areas currently dependent on the public sector.

Credit easing

The Government will:

* allow a more active monetary policy by the Bank of England to stimulate demand while controlling inflation. To complement this, the Government will launch a package of up to £21 billion of credit easing measures to support smaller and midsized businesses that do not have ready access to capital markets. This will comprise

* a new National Loan Guarantee Scheme. Up to £20 billion of guarantees for bank funding will be made available over two years. This will allow banks to offer lower cost lending to smaller businesses, subject to state aid approval

* an initial £1 billion through a Business Finance Partnership, which will invest in smaller and mid-sized businesses in the UK through non‑bank channels.


The Government will:

* look for ways to provide a quicker and cheaper alternative to a tribunal hearing in simple cases — a ‘Rapid Resolution’ scheme;

* complete a call for evidence on the impact of reducing the collective redundancy process for redundancies of 100 or more staff from the current 90 days to 60, 45 or 30 days;

* begin a call for evidence on two proposals for radical reform of UK employment law. First, the Government will seek views on the introduction of compensated no-fault dismissal for micro-businesses with fewer than 10 employees. Second, the government will look at how it could move to a simpler, quicker and clearer dismissal process, potentially including working with ACAS to make changes to their code or by introducing supplementary guidance for small businesses;

* ask independent Pay Review Bodies to consider how public sector pay can be made more responsive to local labour markets, to report by July 2012;

* launch a new Seed Enterprise Investment Scheme (SEIS) from April 2012, offering 50 per cent income tax relief on investments, and will offer a capital gains tax exemption on gains realised in 2012–13 and then invested through SEIS in the same year;

* introduce an ‘above the line’ tax credit in 2013 to encourage research and
development activity by larger companies.


The Government will:

* invest an extra £600 million to fund 100 additional Free Schools by the end of this Parliament. This will include new specialist maths Free Schools for 16-18 year olds, supported by strong university maths departments and academics; and

* invest an additional £600 million to support those local authorities with the
greatest demographic pressures. This funding is enough to deliver an additional 40,000 school places.


The Government will:

* introduce a new build indemnity scheme to increase the supply of affordable mortgage finance for new build homes; and

* reinvigorate the Right to Buy to support social tenants who aspire to own their own home.

Balancing the books

To address the gaping hole in the public finances which the previous Labour government left behind, government measures will have to include

* setting plans for public spending in 2015–16 and 2016–17 in line with the spending reductions over the Spending Review 2010 period;

* raising the State Pension age to 67 between April 2026 and April 2028 in response to changes in demography.

* setting public sector pay awards at an average of one per cent for each of the two years after the current pay freeze comes to an end. Departmental budgets will be adjusted in line with this policy, with the exception of the health and schools budgets, where the money saved will to back into the NHS and schools respectively;

* uprating the child element of the Child Tax Credit and disability elements of tax credits in line with the Consumer Prices Index in 2012–13.

* adjust the allocation of Official Development Assistance in line with the OBR’s revised growth forecast, so that the UK spends 0.56 per cent of Gross National Income on Official Development Assistance in 2012, and 0.7 per cent in 2013 and thereafter.

Monday, November 28, 2011

West Cumbria libraries future confirmed

Cumbria County council has been considering the future of local libraries and has held a public consultation.

Following the consultation it has been announced that three West Cumbria libraries which had been considered for closure will remain open.

Among the suggestions was the possible replacement of 20 smaller community libraries – including Moorclose, Seaton and Distington – with borrowing points in community centres, shops or other locations.

However, the council has announced that instead of closure it is looking at the possibility of setting up friends groups for Seaton and Moorclose libraries to enable the community to enhance the activities beyond those which the county council can fund and provide.

Distington was be discussed by the county’s Copeland local committee last week. There, council officers have suggested negotiating with the community centre for it to take over the running of the library.

Bruce Bennison, county manager for library service review, said: “We are taking a proactive approach to address the decline in library use in positive ways, through local committees to take on board local feelings, opinions and needs.

“We have no plans to close any libraries.”

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Thoughts on Advent Sunday

Today is Advent Sunday, which means a number of things

* The actual official start of the Christmas season, so all the people who have put up Christmas trees, shops selling Christmas stuff, etc, etc are no longer jumping the gun

* The start of the church's year

* The start of the Advent season in which the Christian church looks forward to the coming of the saviour.

The bible readings set for Advent during this season look to the coming of Jesus - not just his coming as a baby but as a man, and his second coming. As such they include some pretty apocalyptic stuff about the end of the world.

As I was listening to one of those readings in St James' church Whitehaven this morning, I was reminded of those people and sects who have used these passages of the bible to predict the imminent end of the world. (Canon John Kelly made the same point in his sermon a few minutes later.)

And yet, however, frightening these passages can be, the people who use them to predict the end of the world are all guilty of selective and misleading quotation out of context, of hearing what they want to hear and use while ignoring the rest. Because all of them are qualified with expressions like "No one knows the day or hour."

Interestingly, both the theories currently favoured by modern science and the teaching of Jesus have something in common in what they say about the end of the world.

Both say that it will happen: both say that we don't know when. (Jesus said that he himself did not know when the end of the world will come, he predicted that in the future people would claim to have that knowledge, and said that they would be false prophets.)

So whether you believe in the Christian religion, or whether you pay attention to what science has to tell us, the best way to live your life is to be ready if the world ends tomorrow, and to be ready if it doesn't, so that either way you have used your time well and looked after your fellow creatures.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Prime Minister's Questions

Hat tip to the Guardian for organising a set of "Prime Minister's Questions" in which various people put a question to David Cameron.

You can either read his answers here,
or hear them here.

A sample of some of the questions and replies:

From Piers Morgan, TV presenter:

If you could relive one moment in your life, excluding births of children and marriage, what would it be?

DC ANSWER: "God, that's a really good question. Piers, why don't you ever ask really good questions like that normally? I think it would be this holiday in Italy when I met Samantha properly. It was that sort of carefree wonderful time when you get together with the person you end up spending the rest of your life with. That feeling of happiness and a wonderful holiday with your family around you and the sun is shining and the sea is beautiful and you're with someone who makes you laugh, makes you happy with that sense of excitement in the future."

From Richard Dawkins, biologist, author and proseletysing atheist:

Why do you support faith schools for children who are too young to have chosen their faith, thereby implicitly labelling them with the faith of their parents, whereas you wouldn't dream of so labelling a "Keynesian child" or a "Conservative child"?

DC ANSWER: "Comparing John Maynard Keynes to Jesus Christ shows, in my view, why Richard Dawkins just doesn't really get it. I think faith schools are very often good schools. Why? Because the organisation that's backing the school – the church or the mosque or the synagogue – is part of the community. And it brings a sense of community and a sense of responsibility and the backing of an institution to a school. The church was providing good schools long before the state ever got involved, and we should respect the fact that it's not just the state that can provide education but other bodies, too. So I support faith schools on the basis of the proof that over the years they've been good schools."

From Mike Leigh, film-maker:

What is your moral justification for the state not providing free further education for everybody, and for the principle of student loans? And I do want to hear your moral reasoning: not any economic, political or historic excuses.

DC ANSWER: "I think there is a strong moral case for this, which is the evidence that going to university brings a benefit to that individual person over the course of the rest of their life. Therefore, I think it is morally right that they make a contribution to the cost of that course, which is what our fees policy does. And I think it would be morally wrong to ask the taxpayer to bear all of the burden of that cost, not least because there are many taxpayers who don't go to university who don't have that benefit."

From Ian McEwan, novelist:

There's still a very strong general feeling around that wage earners are picking up the tab for the excesses of the banking sector. Why not take seriously the "Robin Hood" campaign? (And don't be blackmailed by bankers' empty threats to move abroad – the proposed levy is tiny on any given transaction.)

DC ANSWER: "I'm all in favour of the idea of a financial transaction tax, but only if you can do it globally. And while of course it is a tiny tax on transactions, if the effect is that you just move the transactions to another country, you then lose the tax revenue. The EU keep talking about it, but in the end they know the problem is that even if you did it throughout the EU, the transactions would all go outside the EU."

From Miranda Hart, comedian:

What's the least favourite part of your job (apart from the difficulty of ordering takeaways to Number 10)?

DC ANSWER: "The thing I dread the most is news of casualties from Afghanistan, because that's the greatest responsibility. The thing that is odd and weird is having to have people open car doors for you because they weigh two tonnes and if you tried to do it yourself you'd cut your leg off."

Nigel Farage, leader of UKIP

Why do you refuse to give the British people a referendum on the EU, despite your earlier cast-iron guarantee?

DC ANSWER: "I made a policy of having a referendum on the Lisbon treaty, and if the Lisbon treaty had been still extant at the time of government, we would have had a referendum on the Lisbon treaty. I don't believe Britain should leave the European Union, but I do believe there are powers we can retrieve from Europe to have a better balance."
From David Blanchflower, economist:

There are one million youngsters under the age of 25 currently without a job. How are you going to prevent them becoming a lost generation?

DC ANSWER: "As David knows, there is no simple answer. You've got to improve the quality of education so you don't have children falling out of school at 16 without skills, you've got to have proper apprenticeships that take people from school into work, you've got to make sure that there are training programmes to help those who can't find jobs. Youth unemployment went up in the years of economic growth as well as recession, so this is a deep underlying problem with the British economy that we have to solve."

Monday, November 21, 2011

Beating the metal thieves

It is comparatively rare for a Labour MP to put forward something which I strongly approve of, but it has happened with this week when Graham Jones MP proposed the Metal Theft (Prevention) Bill in the Commons under the Ten Minute Rule.

Bills proposed under this mechanism very rarely become law, but are a useful opportunity to highlight a problem, and the one Graham Jones has drawn attention to needs urgent attention. I hope the government will take the opportunity to implement something along the lines he is suggesting.

As Mr Jones himself pointed out, metal recycling is a valuable industry, it is a sustainable means of reusing an increasingly important commodity. But we need to put this industry onto a regulatory basis which does not provide an incentive for thieves to steal metal which is still in use.

It's not a new problem, but it is one which has become vastly worse over the past few years.

About twelve years ago, around the start of my second period as a councillor in St Albans, metal thieves broke into a redundant NHS building in that city which was about to be transferred via the council to become an Emmaus centre providing a home and work for some of the most vulnerable members of society. They stole some copper piping and wires worth at most a couple of thousand pounds at black market rates, but caused water leaks which did well over a HUNDRED THOUSAND pounds of damage, (in 1999 money) to the building.

Who paid for it? In the short term, I suspect it was the NHS's insurers, but in the long term of course, the incidence of this sort of cost falls on you and me, the long suffering taxpayers - oh, and the vulnerable people who the building was to house had to wait that much longer before the Emmaus centre eventually opened.

This made my blood boil at the time, but metal theft has become a much worse national problem with the growth of the legitimate recycling industry and with the increased price of metals.

An example of just how persistant and disruptive these thieves can be occurred recently in Essex when a section of BT cables was attacked twice within days, with the second attack occurring hours after engineers had finished repairing the damaged caused by the first theft.

About 4,800 phone and broadband connections were damaged in the first attack and 3,500 in the second. Apart from cutting off many local residents and local businesses, a call centre for American Express that helps customers make travel arrangements was completely isolated, and incoming calls and staff had to be transferred to a London office.

People who steal the cables which provide phone service, electricity, or railway signals are not just causing cost and inconvenience to innocent people, they are also putting lives at risk. Unless the trade in stolen metal is stamped out and the people responsible put where they belong, which is in prison, they will sooner or later create the situation where someone can't make a vital 999 call, where damage to a railway signal is not discovered until too late, or where loss of power causes an industrial or medical accident, and innocent people will die as a result.

The other despicable aspect of the trade in stolen metal is that some lowlifes have been stealing war memorial plaques to melt them down for the metal they contain.

Mr Jones said while proposing his bill that theft of metal, particularly from war memorials and signalling cable from the railways, had reached "crisis point", having risen on the electricity networks by 700% in the past two years alone. He added that the national cost of metal theft has been estimated at £770 million, while there were 2,712 cable thefts on the railways in the last financial year, which had led to 240,000 minutes of delays for passengers.

This has got to stop. Companies like BT - and I'd better declare an interest, I work for and am a shareholder in BT - have been spending millions of pounds on initiatives to assist the police in tracing metals stolen from our network. These have resulted in some arrests and convictions. But we need more effective regulation of the metal market so as to make it harder for metal thieves to sell what they have stolen.

Proposals in Mr Jones' bill include a ban on metal trading in cash, stiffer penalties for those caught trading in stolen metal, and for the thieves themselves when caught and convicted to be sentenced not on the basis on the value of metal they had stolen, but on the cost of the damage and disruption they had caused. (As we have seen this can be fifty to a hundred times higher.) Stolen metal would also be classed as stolen assets.

As I said at the start of the article, ten minute rule bills rarely become law, but what sometimes does happen is that governments pick up the ideas and act on some of them. I really hope that happens this time.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

How not to create jobs in Copeland, part two

The free-for all chaos with parking which has been experienced in Copeland over the past few months in the absence of any enforcement has not been good for local residents or local businesses, so I welcome the prospect that Copeland BC might be about to do something about this.

What I don't welcome is the prospect of car parking charges being raised.

We desperately need to get more people into the town centre, and parking legally rather than illegally. This is not a good time to put up charges from either of those perspectives. I still think the Conservatives were right earlier this year to propose a period of free car parking in the Copeland council car parks and I bitterly regret that the option to do this was not taken.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

How not to create jobs in Copeland, part one ...

I fully understand the position of those Copeland Councillors who voted to grant planning permission for the new Harbourside complex.

For one thing, councillors should never lightly ignore the professional advice of planning officers, and in this case the officers had strongly recommended that permission be granted.

Councillors have a legal duty to grant applications for planning permission unless there are sound and clear cut planning reasons for refusal: "we don't like it" won't cut the mustard and I'm afraid even "the voters don't like it" won't be accepted either unless the council can show that public opposition is based on sound and clear cut planning reasons.

E.g. if members of the public have objected to a planning application on the grounds that that some aspect of the proposal would create a risk of death or injury, and the council can produce hard evidence at an appeal inquiry that this danger really exists, a decision to refuse planning permission should and probably will be upheld if there is any appeal.

However, if a council refuses planning permission because of public concerns about safety, but cannot produce any material evidence to demonstrate that such a danger really exists, it is likely that planning permission will not only be granted on appeal, but that the council - which means local taxpayers - will have to pay costs to the developer.

All of which means that councillors have to be very clear that they know exactly what they are doing if they refuse planning permission for something which their professional officers have recommended should be granted.

This is all the more true if, as was the case with the Harbourside development in Whitehaven which was given permission this week, there is no fundamental objection to the principle of the development.

So nothing I am about to write should be taken as personal criticism of the councillors who voted to grant planning permission.

Nevertheless if I were still a member of Copeland Council and had been on the Planning Panel last week, I would have joined Councillor Stephen Haraldsen who was the one member of the panel who voted against this particular scheme.

Not because I would want to stop any development of this general type on the site, but because IMHO it was possible to put forward a sound and clear cut planning reason for refusal based on the impact which this specific proposal will have on the Georgian townscape by reason of it's scale, mass, and unsympathetic design, thereby failing to preserve and enhance the historic character of the area, and because it is likely to set a precedent for further developments out of keeping with the Georgian townscape and causing additional cumulative damage to that historic character.

There have been some recent excellent developments in Whitehaven which have respected and enhanced the unique character of what is at the moment the best preserved Georgian town centre in Britain, but there have also been too many unsympathetic developments which have not. The failure of Copeland Council to give a high enough priority to the protection and enhancement of that Georgian character is the primary reason for this. The failure to make the developers have another go at designing a less intrusive scheme for the Harbourside complex is part of this pattern, as are the inappropriate design and materials for the scheme the council itself is promoting a few hundred yards away.

The new complex will generate a couple of hundred jobs, which is good news, but a better designed scheme which was a more appropriate fit to the Georgian character of Whitehaven Town Centre would also have created jobs.

This week's vote was in this sense a missed opportunity. The chairman of the company which will be developing the site, around the derelict Mark House and Park nightclub buildings, said that

“This will provide major benefits for the town centre and create a more vibrant harbour."

I agree with this, but not with his further statement that

“I honestly believe that we could not put a better scheme forward.”

I'm not questioning his sincerity but when I was planning chairman and then Planning Portfolio Holder in St Albans, I heard too many developers say things like this, but who then found that when push came to shove after the council stood firm they could indeed make a scheme more sympathetic.

Lest anyone imagines that I'm holding St Albans up as a shining example and always criticising Copeland, it might actually be very good for BOTH authorities if certain of their councillors and officers had to do an exchange and take over the jobs of their opposite numbers in the other authority for a year. In my opinion they tend to err in exactly the opposite directions.

Planning might be better in both areas if the St Albans officers were a bit less rigid in applying Conservation policies and Copeland officers a bit stricter, if certain councillors in St Albans paid a bit more attention to their officers and certain councillors in Copeland were a bit less slavish in doing so, and if the planning committees in St Albans were a little less inclined to refuse planning applications at the drop of a hat while the planning panel in Copeland were a bit more willing to do so.

Power cut in Whitehaven

Woken this morning by our burglar alarm going off because of a power cut covering part of Whitehaven.

We were without power for about two hours.

It is extraordinary how you don't realise how used you are to having something available (in this case electricity,) and how dependent you are on it, until it is taken away for a while.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Northern Rock sale

I thought that Richard Branson should have been allowed to buy Northern Rock four years ago instead of nationalising it.

If that policy had been pursued by the last government, the bank would probably now be in a position similar to where it is today but without hundreds of millions of pounds of losses to the taxpayer.

Mind you, that loss was not incurred today. Northern Rock had lost about £400 million in operating losses in the four years since being nationalised - and if it is successful under Virgin ownership, the taxpayer will ultimately get back as a result of today's deal approximately what the previous government originally put in, less those losses.

Nevertheless, I am delighted to see the bank out of the public sector and being run as a commercial enterprise, which is where it belongs.

Governments of whatever colour have enough trouble doing their own jobs. They should absolutely not be running banks.

I'm also pleased that the new owners have guaranteed no compulsory redundances for at least three years. The last thing we need in the present climate is more job losses, and I note that there were cheers among Northern Rock staff when the deal was announced.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Youth Unemployment

The latest unemployment figures, and particularly those for young people, represent a tragic waste which demands the most urgent attention. The government understands this.

To get young people - and everyone else - into work we need to get the economy growing again, which means putting fewer burdens in the way of businesses, especially small ones, and that government at European, National, and local level has to think very hard about how to reduce the burden of bureaucracy.

Abandoning the attempt to cut the government's deficit absolutely is NOT the way to help get youngsters or anyone else into work, because the immediate result if the government appeared to be going soft on deficit reduction would be that interest rates would go up. And even if that did not push Britain into the sort of crisis which Greece, and Italy have been having, it would certainly "crowd out" investment, especially by small firms, and make it harder for them to create jobs.

We also need to watch for the operation of the law of unintended consequences. One powerful story in a report on the radio today concerned the fact that the previous government was been paying colleges by results - including exam pass rates.

You wouldn't think this could be damaging, but the problem is that this has apparently created a perverse incentive to put students in for the exams with the highest pass rates - which may not be the qualifications which will most help them get a job. The suggestion was being made that in particular this was pushing students away from subjects like maths "because they are harder." (The person who made this statement also praised Michael Gove for following her recommendation to take swift action to address this.)

I know as a school governor that one of the most important targets which the previous government set schools and the current government has continued, relates to the proportion of students getting at least five good passes including English and Maths. That should avoid the problem of schools not putting people in for those subjects, though it by no means eliminates the possibility of some perverse incentives in the system.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Boundary proposals consultation still ongoing

If you have views on whether Copeland should have an MP who also represents the Windemere area on the other side of the highest mountain in England and the deepest and longest lakes in England, there is still time to participate in the consultation process on the proposals put forward by the Boundary Commission for England.

Written submissions can be made until Monday 5th December. These can be made:

1. By visiting the following website:


and filling in the online form

2. By e-mail: send representations for the North West region to


3. In writing: send representations to Boundary Commission for England, 35 Great Smith Street, London SW1P 3BQ

Sunday, November 13, 2011

On Remembrance Sunday

From "For the Fallen," first published during the first world war

"They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them."

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Sajjad Karim on the Democratic Deficit

Conservative Euro-MP Saj Karim made the following response to an article by Larry Elliot in the Guardian about the cabal running Europe. Mr Elliot’s article can be read online here.


Larry Elliot’s article on Europe’s democratic deficit (Guardian 8/11/11) may have been stating the obvious but we do need to debate it.

The European Union has always had a problematic relationship with democracy. Ireland said no to the Nice Treaty in a referendum and was ordered to hold a second ballot to ensure victory.

Yes, a cabal runs Europe, it would be worrying if their policies were working but they are not.

The trouble for the average citizen is that governments come and go but the policies remain. The question ‘why bother’ is then asked leaving a vacuum for a cabal to survive. Turnout across Europe at the last EU elections was 43%, hardly a ringing endorsement.

Democracy is not a given thing; it is a concept to create, recreate and enforce. The power of the cabal will be broken when we learn to trust the citizen and involve them in the decision making process. We must debate directly electing commissioners and making the Council transparent. And first to go must be the closed list system for electing MEPs.

The EU is an ongoing experiment with 60 years old achievements and failures, the only way it can be a successful experiment is to never stop striving for improvement


MEP for North West England

Friday, November 11, 2011

Lest we forget

Today is Armistice Day, the 93rd anniversary of the end of World War One: Sunday is Remembrance Sunday.

At 11 AM on both days we will remember those who were killed in both world wars and all the other conflicts in which people have given their lives for others.

We will remember them.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Greek Tragedy

Apparently now Greece will not after all hold a referendum on the bailout plan.

It is interesting that President Sarkozy has suggested that Greece might have to leave the Eurozone if they don't accept the bailout plan. I suspect this will be seen as bullying in some quarters, and it is also a tacit admission that leaving the Euro is possible.

However, he did have a point - operating a common currency without some attempt to harmonize economic policies is simply not possible.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Art wronger, vita brevis

A cleaning lady at the Ostwind Museum in the German city of Dortmund has destroyed a work of art which had been insured for $US 1.1 million by mistaking it for a stain on the floor and cleaning it up, according to a Dortmund city spokesman.

If I were a shareholder of the insurance company who are going to have to pay this sum, or if I were the private collector who lent the artwork "When it starts dripping from the ceiling" to the museum, I would probably be having a serious sense of humour failure about this. And whichever member of the museum management and that of the contract cleaning company which employed the cleaning lady concerned was responsible for ensuring that the cleaners were properly briefed should probably be preparing to spend more time with their families.

A work of art is worth what someone is willing to pay for it. But honestly, can any artwork which it is possible to mistake for a stain on the floor really be good enough that in a rational world it would be worth a million dollars?

This is not the first time that a work of art has fallen victim to zealous cleaners. In 1986, a "grease stain" by Joseph Beuys valued at around $US 550,000 was mopped away at the Academy of Fine Arts in Dusseldorf in western Germany.

And last year Melbourne City Council workers inadvertently painted over a piece of street art by famous stencil artist Banksy while removing graffiti in Hosier Lane.

I can't help thinking that our attitude to art has gone from one extreme to the other. In the 19th century a whole range of great art was dismissed by contemporary critics who were scathing about what we would now consider masterpieces, such as the work of Monet, because it was different.

The trouble is that for about the past century, critics have been so scared of looking daft to posterity in the same way that those who dismissed masterpieces as rubbish did, that nobody dares to criticise the work which really is rubbish.


In fact so much like rubbish that cleaning staff clear it up by mistake!

(For the benefit of anyone who doesn't get the title of this blog post, "Vita Brevis" is latin for "Life is short" and is the second half of the translation into latin of a comment by the ancient greek doctor Hippocrates, "Ars Longa, vita brevis" which is usually rendered in English as "Art is long, life is short."

Ignoring the inconvenient fact that whoever translated Hippocrates' original greek comment into Latin was refering to art in the sense of skill or technique rather than fine art, my alternative version is meant to mean something along the lines of "Art which is rubbish may not last long.")

Greece, Democracy and the Markets

You can make a case that the decision of the Greek Prime Minister to call for a referendum on the Euro-deal was an act of lunacy or a stroke of genius.

Certainly the manner in which it was done has sent the markets into a tailspin and terrified most of Europe's heads of government.

If the Greek government does call a referendum on the package, gets it out fo the way quickly, and wins it, the results would be almost entirely positive. The fact that there was proven to be public support for the package, including the tough medicine to which is part of it, would make the necessary reforms much easier to carry out. And the precedent of involving the public in such decisions would be very positive.

However, the way the proposed referendum appears to have been sprung on everyone could perhaps have been better handled. And if it fails the results for Greece and some of the other Eurozone countries, and those who export to them - like Britain - could be very bad news.

I can see this one is going to run and run ...

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Health and Safety

There are none so blind as those who will not see and that perfectly describes a poster I saw today with the headline "Job Killer" which quotes a statement which David Cameron had made about health and safety rules destroying jobs and businesses, and misinterpreted it as a suggestion that the government is going to scrap all health and safety employment rules.

This is not what the policy is about.

It is not, and never has been, the policy either of the Conservative party or the coalition government that there is no need for legislation to protect the lives and limbs of people doing dangerous jobs.

We have never suggested that there is no need for legislation to protect employees, customers and anyone else who might be exposed to genuine danger if industrial equipment is not maintained in a safe condition with appropriate measures to prevent it from causing such a risk.

Nobody in their right mind would suggest that a facility such as, say, the plutonium containment facility at Sellafield (or the ponds, or any of the other buildings on the site which could otherwise pose a real hazard) should not be the subject of strict rules designed to prevent accidents.

And ditto any job where people are climbing poles or other high structures, or working with dangerous chemicals.

Where the health and safety culture needs to be reined back is not in rules which protect people from genuine hazards.

The problem is where rules which would be entirely right for genuinely dangerous jobs are applied with a lack of proportion or common sense to jobs which are not dangerous on any objective assessment, such as ordinary clerical jobs. Or where vast amounts of effort are spent on trying to prevent accidents for which the risk ranges from trivial to nonexistent.

Let's take speed cameras. The government has not banned local authorities from putting up Gatso or average speed cameras, but has required them to publish the accident statistics for the relevant stretches of road before and after the cameras went in, so the public can see whether they've actually saved lives or not, keep the ones which have indeed saved lines and make a fuss about the ones which are not preventing accidents or doing anything other than getting more money out of motorists.

We do not need the wholesale abolition of Health and Safety rules. We do need them to be applied and administered with intelligence and with a severity which is proportionate for the actual risks.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Government grant creates 1000 jobs in West Cumbria

The Coalition Government's Regional Development fund is to give a grant of £5.5 million to the Energy Coast West Cumbria, which is expected to create 1,000 new jobs in West Cumbria. This is in response to a bid which was supported by local authorities and local business, and the money will help businesses in the area to diversify.

This is one of three successful bids to the Regional Development Fund in Cumbria. Another is for tyre company Pirelli to develop more environmentally-friendly tyres at their plant in Carlisle, and the third is £2.5 million for Gilbert Giles & Gordon to rebuild and refurbish their turbine factory in Kendal.

This is excellent news for Cumbria and shows that the government is taking the problems of the county seriously.