A Controversial Budget – With Devolution In Mind?

Education featured heavily in the latest Budget delivered by Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne earlier this month.

Firstly, there was the surprising introduction of a ‘Sugar Tax’. When introduced, it will be a tax imposed on sugary drinks. In two bands, soft and sugary drinks will be taxed according to how much sugar they contain. The money raised will be for education initiatives. Although welcomed by those concerned by child obesity and increasing risks of diabetes in the young and by campaigners such as chef Jamie Oliver – the tax also attracted it’s critics. Drinks firms saw a drop in share value following the announcement, and those in business and industry are concerned that the prices of soft drinks could rise to accommodate the new tax.

Other measures in the Budget included plans to extend the school day by adding an extra hour of study, sport or extra curricula activity. Again, the response was mixed. Schools campaigners are welcoming the longer day – but some teachers have raised the issue of extra workloads for teachers and support staff. Those in education, either teachers or support staff, are already overstretched by current regular school requirements, and there are severe issues (verging on a crisis) with recruiting new teachers.

The flagship education measure introduced concerned academies. Under the Chancellor’s plans, all schools will become academies by 2020, or be committed to converting to academy status by 2022. Again, although welcomed by many – the proposal has been heavily criticised.

Teachers, education commentators and campaigners, trade unions, Jeremy Corbyn and Labour have all spoken out strongly against the academy plan. Such dissent was a feature of Mr Osborne’s latest Budget. Most of the main proposals and plans have attracted great criticism and a large number of critics – some from within the Conservative party. The biggest row came over planned alterations to disability benefits. The ensuing row saw the resignation of long-standing Work & Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith before the measure was scrapped. Consequently, Mr Osborne had to revisit his figures so that he could address an estimated £4bn gap in his financial planning which arose from from not making the same in cuts to disability benefits.

When it was debated in Parliament, heated moments and comments followed, from all sides of the green benches. In the end, Mr Osborne won a victory – but a close one. 310 MP’s approved the Budget  – with 275 against it. 35 votes may be a large margin in politics – but it is a narrow margin at the same time.

Although disability benefits cuts were scaled back – the academy plan remained. Academies are state funded but are also independent of government. Academies are also directly funded and run by central government – as opposed to from local government and Local Education Authorities (LEA). Academies are run by the Head Teacher or Principle – but are overseen by a charitable trust known as an academy trust. Many trusts are part of a chain of academies; indeed, there are several chains that run the vast majority of nearly 5,000 academies nationwide. With less oversight from local government, academies have greater freedom regarding admissions and the national curriculum

Government and supporters claim that academies, with less oversight, are able to drive up standards. Critics cite the issues with many academies, and academy trust chains. Whilst supporters praise having less government oversight and control – critics fear that such decreased oversight will actually  lower standards. Teachers have concerns over terms and conditions, and those in education fear that education might become commercialised. With no need to slavishly teach the National Curriculum – the scope for subjects to be taught for corporate agendas or needs is only too great. However, many greatly enjoy the independence and freedom that academy status brings. Although inspected by Ofsted to the same standard, academy schools considered outstanding are not subject to routine inspections.

It must be noted that these changes only apply in England. In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, education policy is devolved, with differing results in policies and implementation, and academies do not exist.

All those regions have gained greater powers, autonomy and greater freedom from central government in London over the last two decades. In keeping with that theme of greater independence – schools have now gained similar independence.

Last year saw the Independence Referendum in Scotland. Chancellor George Osborne and others have long championed a Northern Powerhouse with greater local powers and freedoms. More regions and cities either have, or will be getting, locally elected Mayor’s (or similar) with increased powers and autonomy. Constrained less by central government,those authories will also have greater finanacial powers. Power is seemingly returning to the regions.

It was mostly under the Labour Government led by Tony Blair that power and control was increasingly centralised in Westminster. Central government had greater control of local and regional matters, authories and finances. Ironically, it was also under the Labour government that Scotland and Wales saw their respective devolved powers and Parliaments.

Under the Conservative government of David Cameron, power has seemingly returned to the regions and local cities. Under there recent Coalition, at times it seemed that Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg favoured even more powers for local authorities, or indeed further regional devolution. Indeed, at times public opinion was greatly in favour of greater regional devolution. Together, both leaders presided over a seeming reversal of where the national centre of power was.

With these drastic reforms to education, it is evident that this reversal is not limited to geographical regions or cities. Infrastructure, for example, has seen a comparable ‘devolution’. HS2, Crossrail and similar projects have seen great involvement from local authorities, although overseen by central government. Humber and Hull have seen regeneration plans for their respective dockyards and coastal areas, mostly due to regional influences. Plans for future high speed rails link between Leeds and Manchester are similarly overseen by central government – but with great local involvement.

Greater freedom and autonomy comes in various forms. Whilst being a major Opposition party in Westminster, the SNP still pursues agendas and policies of increased autonomy and freedom from England, for example. The greatest freedom of all, though, derives from being a sovereign, independent entity, free from external control.

Since the Referendum of 1975 that saw the UK integrate with the (then) European Communities, the UK has been part of a greater entity itself – the European Union. Freedom, autonomy and independence across the board have been sacrificed and fallen by the way for the sake of being part of a greater Union across Europe. In June, the British people will get the choice whether to maintain the status quo – or to be an independent nation again.

Government in Whitehall has been seemingly reversing a system of centralised government in favour of greater control and freedoms for local areas and interests. The EU institutions have gone the opposite way, with more powers being handed over to Brussels. In June, the British people get the choice; local and regional freedom, power and autonomy, or central control.

By 2022, all schools will be academies, with greater freedom from the constraints of the national curriculum. What will those future academies be teaching in future years regarding the EU Referendum of 2016? That the British people chose centralised control – or greater freedom?

Sooner Rather Than Later: Consensus & Discord for the EU Debate

After all the hype and talk, it begins in earnest in 2016: the European Union renegotiation and referendum campaign.

Currently, Prime Minister David Cameron is having exhaustive talks with EU leaders from across the board (notably focussing on a few key players such as Germany’s Angel a Merkel) as he renegotiates the UK’s position in the EU. He has met with some opposition- but recently has begun to win some converts.

Discussions in the EU with political, legal and business leaders from the other 27 nations continue apace. Meanwhile, what of things on the home front?

Back in the UK, both in Westminster and outside, the EU debate is gathering momentum. Various pressure groups have been formed to argue the case both for and against.

Setting aside emotive and vote winning issues such as benefits, EU immigration and similar, a key matter is the impact of the referendum on the economy and business. Many political leaders have long cited the positive (or negative) impact the EU does and will have on British economy- some in more detail than others.

Many businesses cautiously welcome the EU, and cite the economic benefits. In a recent far reaching report (Our Global Future [2013]), the Confederation of British Industry (CBI- a business lobby group) found that, on pure economic grounds, the EU was beneficial to British business. Indeed, the EU is our largest trading partner. The CBI report found that the financial benefits of EU membership amounted to around 4-5% of GDP- or £3,000 per household per year.

That, however, is pure economics. Many in business have other reasons for supporting Britain’s membership of the UK- mainly focussing on the trade benefits. Many businesses headquartered in the UK find it useful that they can do business with the EU whilst based in the UK. Some such businesses have hinted that they might indeed move their headquarters, or indeed withdraw from Britain entirely, if the country leaves the EU. Britain Stronger in Europe The official pro- EU campaign group is headed by Sir Stuart Rose (formerly head of Marks & Spencer), and has many business and political luminaries endorsing it, such as Sir Richard Branson

Neither the CBI, nor that instinctive pro- EU viewpoint of business, is informative of the viewpoint of all British businesses. A 2015 poll saw 68% of businesses supporting the in/out referendum, implying a certain amount of dissent, dissatisfaction, or concern with the EU. The rival anti- EU campaign group Business for Britain has its fair share of concerned business leaders, such as Sir Rocco Forte (Executive Chairman, The Rocco Forte Collection), Luke Johnson (Chairman, Patisserie Valerie) and Lord Kalms (President, Dixons Retail Plc).

There are some in business who see that EU rules, regulations and laws can have a very negative impact on their business, and ability to trade freely. For many in business, the EU has become anti-competitive, and inflexible, to the detriment of British business interest. Additionally, the Common Agricultural policy and Common Fisheries Policy have also for many years been singled out and roundly condemned by British farmers and fishers. Lord Bamford (JCB head) has also stated that without the EU, British business could trade freely with smaller and emerging economies.

The business and trade world is evenly divided for and against the EU. That is fairly indicative of much of the EU debate. Parliament is seemingly equally divided. The Conservatives are long seen as Euro – sceptics (with several notable exceptions), and welcome the debate and vote on the issue. Labour has seemingly not made up its mind over Europe; or rather, Mr Corbyn has not made up his mind how he wants his party to act on the issue. As such, the voice of opposition falls to the SNP, who are ardent advocates of the benefits of the EU for Scotland- either as part of the UK, or a sovereign nation.

Despite such vocal disagreement, there is a surprising element of consensus. Although Nigel Farage and UKIP seems to dismiss the possibility of any renegotiation, across party political lines there is a sense that the UK could benefit from a changed, altered and renewed membership of the UK. Essentially, that is what Mr Cameron is striving for, and wants himself.

Another further point is the uncertainty. Under the terms of the European Union Referendum Act (2015), there must be a referendum on the matter before the end of 2017, following efforts to renegotiate the UK/EU relationship. The only question is- when?

The government has not yet set any date. The media has effectively done that for them, with speculation as to several possible dates. It is that uncertainty, however, which is bad for the UK. It is bad for the UK regarding trade, enterprise and investment deals, and no one will know how a ‘Brexit’ will affect matters, or even if there will be one. Politically and diplomatically, it is the same. Many nations (particularly the United States) see dealing with the UK as a method of dealing with the EU. Will those nations still be able to do so?

It is the uncertainty, the subtle plans by business and political leaders preparing for either outcome, that is extremely damaging to the UK. It is the sheer uncertainty which is coasting potentially millions in lost deals, or in lost diplomatic ability.

Whatever their views on the EU, many agree on one simple thing. The sooner that vote happens, the better. The sooner that uncertainty is replaced by a definitive ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ the better for the nation as a whole, whatever the outcome.





Scotland, Mi5, The Workplace – And A New Leader For Labour

In the intervening year since the Scottish Referendum, seemingly a lot has happened regarding the Scottish Question, and constitutional reform – and at the same time absolutely nothing has happened at all. What remains unchanged is that Scotland continues to dominate the political landscape.

In Scotland, the major political parties are still trying to make headway against the apparently unstoppable force that is the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP). Following its defeat in May, the Labour Party has been in disarray, both in Westminster and in Scotland. Whilst the Labour Party has been focusing on the leadership contest, the past few months have seen Scottish Labour trying to reinvent itself, and seeking to regain support in Scotland, and political power. The two were very much linked, as Scottish Labour needs the support of the Labour party apparatus and supporters nationwide for their own efforts in Scotland, with the Scottish Labour voice necessary for the leadership elections.

In that regard, a strong Labour leader was needed, to unite the Labour faithful, and to reinvigorate the party nationwide. The results of the voting revealed a clear win for the former 200/1 candidate – Jeremy Corbyn. He promptly celebrated this victory by courting controversy in his first few days, and attempting to alter the venerable format of Prime Ministers Questions (PMQ’s). Such actions, and prior actions, opinions and behaviour over the last decades have won him both supporters and critics. This was only too evident as he put together his Shadow Cabinet, to great backlash from both Labour and the media. With such a divisive figure leading the Opposition -for better or for worse- British politics will be more interesting over the next few years

Although welcoming his appointment, as a warrior welcomes their enemy to the arena, Prime Minister David Cameron also lost no time in countering the new Leader of the Opposition. Despite a seemingly cordial PMQ’s in which the Prime Minister took every effort to make his adversary comfortable and welcome, the inevitable campaign to challenge the new leader at every stage had already started.

With the announcement barely made, both Defence Secretary Michael Fallon, and the Prime Minister, stated that Labour under Jeremy Corbyn is “now a serious risk to our nation’s security, our economy’s security and your family’s security.”

In support of such a statement are Mr. Corbyn’s actions and declarations previously, such as inviting Sinn Fein leaders to Westminster, expressing empathy (and implied support) for Hamas and Hezbollah, and similar support for Russia and Vladimir Putin. The Leader of the Opposition gets access to the same classified material as figures in government, and indeed receives similar intelligence and security briefings. Some might very well question his trustworthiness with such sensitive material and matters of national security, given his past actions.

At this time, the (tenuous) issue of Mr. Corbyn’s trustworthiness is just one of many issues for MI5 Director General Andrew Parker. In a historic first, he gave a radio interview to the BBC recently, in which, amongst other things discussed, the intelligence chief was quite clear as to the threats Britain still faced.

In the same week that the Prime Minister warned of the danger of Britons being radicalised, travelling to Syria, and turning towards extremism, and the rise of online methods of turning vulnerable people Mr. Parker seemed to echo such views – having probably warned Mr. Cameron of those problems in the first place. For Mr. Parker, MI5’s concerns are more modern ways of inciting extremism. Online videos, chat rooms, social media and similar are all alarmingly contributing to turn some in Britain towards extremism.

A further great concern of Mr. Parker’s was cyber warfare. As modern society, life and working practices have evolved to use technology and online systems more and more, Mr. Parker considered that one of the greatest threats to the UK is cyber warfare, and cyber terrorism. In that, it is fairly well known that Britain is still lacking in sufficient defences, and trained and experienced IT Security specialists to defend against such attacks.

In specifying those security threats, Mr. Parker and Mr. Cameron clearly demonstrate just how the workplace has changed. Technology, the Internet, and even robots have all contributed to revolutionise how we work, and the very nature of some industries. The attitude of the workplace has similarly undergone a great change, adapting to such new working practices and processes.

In other ways that the workplace has changed has been the nature of workplace accidents. However, the law has not changed; how to make a claim following a workplace accident is still rooted in 19th and early 20th century tort law, and employment law dating back 30/40 years, to a different era of employment. However, by and large, that system of employment law is still very effective, and fit for purpose. Despite that, legislation and court cases continue to appear that subtly alters employment and personal injury law to take into consideration modern society, and the modern workplace.

Further to that, it was suggested in 2014 that the security services in some cases should be classed as emergency services. It was proposed that vehicles operated by the security services should be able to have flashing lights, and be treated as emergency vehicles, at times of national incidents or crises. Nothing seemed to come of that suggestion- but whatever the advantages, there was great scope for road accidents, and accident claims, if such an idea went ahead. Accidents and personal injury could have arisen as a result of the security services speeding to save lives.

Aside from changes to the workplace, and related employment and personal injury law, constitutional law has similarly seen alteration. After the 2014 Scottish referendum, greater moves towards regional powers and devolution, political stalemate in Northern Ireland, and greater voter engagement, the legal and political relationship between the regions of the United Kingdom is doubtless set for a great change over the life of this Parliament.

Part of that change will be Jeremy Corbyn. A new, divisive figure, a man of convictions but no opinions, set to reform the Labour Party, the new Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition will doubtless play a major role in either supporting or criticising efforts for constitutional reform.

At this time, though, there has been little change constitutionally. There has been much talk, much planning, and new political issues and figures introduced onto the political landscape. Everything has changed- but nothing has changed. Yet.

The Setbacks of Plans for Modern Infrastructure

As has been mentioned in an earlier post ( http://www.powertoprotect.org/workers/january-a-new-start-for-british-infrastructure/ ), the UK needs to start investing in complex, long term infrastructure projects- particularly concerning transport.

With much of the UK’s infrastructure dating back to Victorian or Edwardian tines, those existing systems need upgrading, or even replacing. In addition, much of the UK’s infrastructure needs a large scale modernisation, to bring systems into line with the modern, technological, computer driven age. It is not just to infrastructure that the above statement applies.

2015 has seen many such projects start in earnest. Aside from the controversial HS2, the North was seemingly finally acknowledged by the Chancellor of the Exchequer and central government earlier this year with statements and intentions regarding a ‘Northern Powerhouse.’ Greater regional autonomy, and greater financial powers for regional authorities, are also seen as the way forward, with tentative steps being made in that regard- especially following the Scottish referendum and the ensuing recommendations of the Smith Commission. Indeed, Manchester and some other northerly cities have seen great boom, growth, investment and redevelopment over recent years.

In this matter of modernising, both infrastructure and cities, seemingly the regions have been quicker off the mark that London and the South East- an irony not lost on many millions who have long criticised the South East centred policies of central government.

London still exists on a very reliable but elderly (and absolutely vital) Underground network, with similarly elderly and unreliable local and regional train service. Crossrail, lengthy underground and station upgrades, and the Thameslink renovations will indeed go far in reversing that. As welcome as such projects are, and for the benefits they will bring overall- are they far enough?

In a related area, there has also been the on-going issue over airport expansion. Everyone agrees that the elderly airports in the South East either need to be expanded, or a new one built. The recent decision of the Airport Commission recommended a third runway for Heathrow; both during the decision making, and after the announcement that was greeted with a range of responses. It is uncertain as to whether that preferred option is the best option; but at least a decision has finally been made after years of delay and prevarication. With the current system costing the UK, and in need of updating and moving onto the 21st century, any movement, any firm action, is welcomed.

On the ground, Mayor of London Boris Johnson has shown great vision, regarding such infrastructure. He has opening backed cycling in London, and has been a significant part of great transport developments around the Capital. One such change was the efforts of City Hall and Transport for London (TfL) to make the Underground 24hrs, as such systems are in many other cities globally. In this, however, Mr Johnson has had problems.

The increasingly strong grip that the Unions have over transport means that there has been great opposition to this. There have been disputes over pay and conditions, work/life balance amidst the prospect of 24hr shift work for drivers and other underground workers. These have recently resulted in strikes. Currently, the matter is still unsettled, with both sides still in talks.

Due to a lack of agreement at time of writing, the unions have announced another strike. This will be in the middle of the week prior to the August Bank Holiday and Notting Hill carnival; although for only 24hrsm, it is predicted that the knock on effects of the strike will last into the weekend. The current contentious issues are rosters and timetables for those staff involved in overnight services.

With the deadline for the commencement of the 24hrs services as 12 September- both sides nowhere close to any agreement or consensus. Londoners should start seriously considering alternative forms of transport in the meantime- perhaps a return to the humble taxi.

However, the venerable taxicab is under threat. The iconic ‘Black Cab’ in London, with their equally iconic and knowledgeable drivers, has seen severe challenges over recent years. For all of the gripes and critics, Uber has changed and modernised taxi services.

Uber, in this way, has seen great opposition from local taxi drivers, unions, and associations in many major cities worldwide. In some places, there have been protests, legal actions, and even assaults and violence against Uber and its staff and drivers in some cities. The same fate has befallen similar taxi companies, such as Hailo.

In court cases that have been heard, the algorithm of the Uber app has been under severe scrutiny. It has to be determined as to whether the app was a meter. Such meters are banned from private cars in London, with many other cities having similar regulations. 2014 saw TfL announced that it considered the app not be a meter. A key factor in their decision was a lack of a physical connection between the device and the vehicle, as the app is in a smartphone, unlike in a black cab. However (and amidst protests from London cabbies), TfL referred the matter to the High Court to get a binding, legal ruling. After filing and starting the case before the courts was delayed and held up, the matter is to be heard over this summer, according to City Hall and the High Court. Both sides are in agreement that a legally binding decision regarding Uber is welcomed.

Despite the legal challenges, and opposition, Uber remains popular amongst customers – despite many of those customers professing support for traditional taxis. For better or worse, Uber and its (app? algorithm? meter?) are the future of taxis, and are here to stay. For better or worse, Uber is progress, and the next evolution of the humble taxis from a horse drawn hansom carriage to today.

Despite the best of plans and intentions- new projects of all types are being held up, and delayed. The delay does not come from government, private interests, funding, pressure groups, or lobbyists – but by ordinary people themselves. Such a social shift in itself is in keeping with greater awareness and engagement following the Scottish Referendum and the recent General Election. Such a social and cultural change is more welcome and better to behold than any modern infrastructure project.

Cutting the Cost of Justice, From Grayling To Gove

It was very recently announced that the government is to commence discussions over closing up to 91 courts and tribunals nationwide.

From Education- to Lord Chancellor

From Education- to Lord Chancellor

After making his mark in no uncertain way as Education Secretary, the new Justice Secretary Michael Gove is only the second non lawyer ever be Lord Chancellor- the first being his unpopular predecessor, Mr Chris Grayling. After Mr Grayling’s savage legal aid cuts, and bewildering policy decisions, the legal sector was perhaps hoping for a new style of Justice Secretary for this new Parliament. In that they were disappointed. It seems as if Mr Gove is seeking to carry on his predecessor’s good work. With little legal aid left to cut, this time the axe is seemingly going to fall on courts and tribunals under the consultations.

In an era of economic uncertainty, instability and slow recovery, in a government marked economically by its austerity measures, and when there is less and less public funding available to provide more and more services, it is only necessary and inevitable that the Ministry of Justice would feel further cuts to its budget. Savings must be found from somewhere, and court services will need to be streamlined, cut back, or phased out over the next few years to provide those savings needed under austerity measures. During the last Parliament, the Ministry had to find savings of an estimated £2.5bn from an annual budget approaching £10bn. However, closing courts and tribunals to achieve that aim will not be easy or popular.

Setting aside the job losses, and the internal restructuring and issues that such closure will cause, after the legal aid cuts, closing courts is potentially another step in reducing access to justice. Further, senior judges (notably the combative President of the Family Division, Sir James Munby) have long called for measures to process, hear, and settle cases faster. In some areas (notably Family and the Court of Protection), it can take months for a case to be brought to court, and even longer for a case to be settled completely.

In the criminal justice system, a previous Criminal Justice Minister, Damian Green, was moved in 2013 to state that “[Such] delays cause extra crime.”

“The faster you can get it through, the more likely you are to have gone through the system, be put on probation and these days hopefully to be put on a drug rehabilitation programme which will stop you needing to shoplift in the first place. That’s a very direct link between a more efficient system and a system that actually helps cut crime… [These] unforgivable delays all too often characterise our system… Nobody involved in the system finds it shocking, because that’s just the way it is… Actually, with a completely fresh pair of eyes, this is shocking, this is not acceptable.”

“It is unacceptable that only 44 per cent of trials go ahead on the day they have been listed, if every day only 44 per cent of trains left the stations, or 44 per cent of planned hospital operations took place there would be a national uproar. Yet every day this happens in the Magistrates’ courts.”

“It is simply not good enough… Ineffective trials should be the exception, not the rule.”

In some aspects, little has changed since 2013 in this regard; 2015 still sees delays in the criminal justice system. This is partially due to a lack of custody lawyers available to represent defendants- which in itself was partly due to a shambolic new system rolled out for lawyers and law firms to tender for police station contracts. That attracted much criticism from criminal lawyers- as have the much maligned cuts to legal aid. Indeed, one of Mr Gove’s first actions as Justice Secretary was to seek to introduce a pay cut for those custody lawyers. Custody lawyers are not famous for their inflated pay cheques- unlike their legal brethren in the corporate world.

Not only have cases been adjourned or delayed due to this, but there have been cases of the police simply bailing suspects because the officers know that there is no representation available for them. Further, in some cases, a lengthy delay in hearing a case can be considered to be a breach of Article 5 of the Human Rights Act; the right to liberty enshrined in Article 5 provides for a trial ‘within a reasonable time’. In a true sense of irony, in acting in accordance with Article 6 (the right to a fair trial, and legal representation), the police may be acting accidentally and unintentionally in breach of Article 5.

Such delays are not just in the family and criminal sectors, but can also be seen in many other areas of law. Closing courts will only serve to exacerbate such delays, and to make the issue worse. Although alternative measures (mediation, arbitration, etc) can be found, and are encouraged and preferred, quite often a case simply needs to go to court. With less courts, time in court will be increasingly precious.

Potentially, court hearings could become much shorter, sharper, and brisker. There might be less time for the crucial details which so define the legal sector. Although no one, from judge to juror to usher, wants lengthy court hearings, sometimes they are necessary. Returning again to Article 6, it is absolutely essential under the rule of law that a case is tried for as long as it takes to fully investigate all and every aspect of the case as is necessary to see that justice is done. If that means calling expert witnesses, spending hours debating a single point of law- then so be it. For natural justice to be done, such lengthy hearings are necessary. With leas court space, and therefore less court time, that essential legal right might be infringed upon.

At time of writing it must be stressed that these are consultations only; the following months and years will actually decide what happens in this regard. Such public sector cuts are sadly inevitable, and indeed need to be found in Justice Ministry. However, as the Chancellor of the Exchequer recently found creative ways to reduce the ever growing burden of social security spending, surely the Lord Chancellor can similarly find more creative ways to save money than closing courts.

Whatever the outcome of the discussion, one thing is certain- Mr Gove is set to make his mark as Lord Chancellor just as he did as Education Secretary. Those who celebrated the departure of Mr Grayling might well soon welcome his return to the Woolsack as Lord Chancellor.

Protecting Workers: Common Overlooked Health And Safety Issues

Health and safety standards are improving around the world, but lapses do still occur, and when they do, the consequences can be disastrous for workers and businesses alike.

As well as the personal suffering that can be caused, companies can experience a range of ill-effects. Safety training specialists Phoenix HSC point out that even a single safety incident can result in lost productivity, legal costs and reputational damage.

If you’re keen to boost your company’s risk management efforts, it’s vital that you control all potential dangers. With this in mind, here are some of the most commonly overlooked safety issues to watch out for.

Slips and trips

They might not sound particularly serious, but slips, trips and minor falls have the potential to be highly dangerous. When workers suffer accidents like this, they can experience anything from minor bruising to broken bones and severe head injuries. It’s therefore imperative that you remove hazards that could lead to such accidents. For example, make sure that any spillages are cleared up quickly, and always put warning signs up when floors are being washed. Also, keep floors free of paperwork, wires and other potential hazards that could cause your employees to fall.

In addition, make sure that any changes in the level of paths caused by slopes or small steps are clearly marked. You should also ensure that your outdoor paths are safe to navigate during wet and freezing weather too. Bear in mind that in some areas, you might need to install handrails to help people keep their balance.


Electricity might be the lifeblood of your business. Without it, you’re operations may quickly grind to a halt. Because we’re so used to relying on electrical equipment, it’s easy to become complacent about the risks it can pose. However, if strict safety standards aren’t adhered to, employees are at risk of suffering severe and even life-threatening injuries.

To reduce dangers, make sure all the electrical equipment that your firm uses is suitable for the work and check that it is in good condition. Many faults can be found simply by conducting a visual inspection. Warning signs include burn marks or staining and damaged wires. If you are concerned about the standard of equipment, take it out of use and ask a trained specialist to inspect it. Meanwhile, you must also ensure that your devices are compatible with your power supply, and your staff members should be trained in the use of the relevant equipment.

Manual handling

Lifting and moving objects is something most of us do multiple times a day. However, when done badly, even simple manual handling tasks can lead to back injuries. In your risk assessments, your company should decide if particular objects need to be moved at all and, if they do, whether your workers would benefit from using lifting aids like pallet trucks, trolleys, hoists or conveyors. Also, shortening carrying distances and reducing the need for twisting movements can help to raise safety standards, and better lighting and flooring can make these tasks safer too. In addition, your personnel should be trained in manual handling techniques.

By focussing on these commonly overlooked health and safety issues, as well as the other risks facing your personnel, you should be able to keep your workers out of harm’s way.

Flags, the EU- and the Politics of a National Election

This upcoming General Election has seen much talk and discussion of the European Union. The major parties are also fairly divided as to the issue internally- with the exception of UKIP. Their anti European Union stance is very well known, and a cornerstone of their planned policies and manifesto.

By contrast, the other political parties have, seemingly, yet to have a coherent and unified policy as regard the EU. Referenda and renegotiation of the EU, and similar plans, have exposed internal party rifts. Even the traditionally Euro sceptic Conservative party find it hard to wholeheartedly support the Prime Minister’s plans for an ‘in/out’ referendum if re-elected.

Whether Europhile or Eurosceptic, both sides have to admit that the EU, for better or worse, had had a quite an impact upon the UK, in what has proved to be a troubled union throughout. Aside from rules and regulations regarding everything from free movement of people to trading standards, the introduction of human rights legislation, and the Common Agricultural Policy, the EU has definitely left its mark upon nation states. Legally, the EU has made its mark upon the canon of legislation and case law that guides the UK legal system.

Aside from polices, trade, and the law, infrastructure is another area where the EU has left its mark- literally. EU funding and initiatives- most notably the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF)–  have often sponsored or assisted in domestic infrastructure projects, from railways to port improvement, to funding local and regional smaller scale projects. Those projects, as commented in a prior post (http://www.powertoprotect.org/workers/january-a-new-start-for-british-infrastructure/ ), often come with great opposition due to their nature, expense and Byzantine nature. However, such projects are often very necessary, and drive the country forward; they are a long term national gain and are necessary for the future.

From this under the EU -

From this under the EU –

Under the relevant EU regulations, such projects have to be marked with the blue and gold starred EU flag, signifying the EU involvement with the infrastructure project. Under plans from Liberal Democrat Treasury Secretary Danny Alexander, that is set to change. Under the plans, projects funded by the UK government will be marked with a Union Jack to reflect the money invested by the taxpayer. Setting out the Union Jack plaques in March, Mr Alexander said that they would “proudly adorn infrastructure investments from roads in Cornwall to broadband in Caithness”.

“I’ve prioritised infrastructure in this government because only long-term investments will support UK businesses and get the public finances and economy on a firm footing… It’s only right that we recognise the contribution of the UK taxpayer in supporting this economic growth, which is why I’m delighted to launch these union jack plaques.” The plaques have been dismissed as gimmicks, however, politically motivated by the government. Critics point out the need of the three major parties, which include the ruling Coalition, to rally voter support following a surge in support for the SNP and UKIP in a scheme worthy of the The Thick of It.

- To a more national approach

– To a more national approach

The Liberal Democrat ministers behind the scheme claim that the plaques are about celebrating British infrastructure and British endeavour- a throwback to former Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s famous “British jobs for British workers” statement.

It is clear to see that the regional parties such as the SNP and Plaid Cymru will gain great local support in May, and could be a challenge or a part of, the next government. By visibly marking projects as British, it is a local reminder of the national whole, of a nation state beyond the region. In the same way, the EU badge on domestic infrastructure projects is a remainder to the member state that it is but a member of a bigger Union.

Both the UK- EU relationship, and regional disharmony, are issues that will become more important, and will be top of the agenda for the next government, whoever it is. Sadly, dealing with such emotive issues will not be as easy as plastering over it with a flag, national, European Union, or regional.

Ethics & Public Responsibility; for the Church and HSBC

The Church of England places great store by Christian ethics and principles, and abides by a great sense of social responsibility and fairness. Similary, the banking sector is overned by rules, codes of standards, and professsional ethics- only those are man made, not God given.

Like many big banks over the last few years, HSBC has been implicated in its fair share of scandals, contrary to professuional ethics and such banking standards. Investigations and further lurid details are still emerging regarding the latest banking scandal; HSBC’s alleged involvement in aiding its wealthy clients to dodge tax in offshore accounts. In excess of £100 billion was placed offshore to this end. Meanwhile, many millions in the UK are struggling on very low incomes, increased costs of living, and debt problems.

However, such low income or financially troubled households are seeing increased political awareness of the issue; whether this will translate into action after the General election remains to be seen. What is not in question is that there are some who have spoken up for such issues (such as the Church of England and senior Bishops) , and there are some protections and guarantees in place for such low income, or financially pressured, households. One such protection is the National Minimum Wage.

The National Minimum Wage (NMW) is currently, where applicable, set at £6.50 per hour, and is the legal minimum rate of pay. The Living Wage (LW) is what has been recommended and calculated to be the base cost of living in the UK. Currently, it is £7.85 per hour, or £9.15 per hour in London. It is not compulsory.

Despite that, many businesses have started paying the LW. The LW further has many champions, in business, and politics, with the Living Wage Foundation working to promote and encourage more employers to pay the LW. One of the greatest advocates of the LW has been the Church of England. Aside from statements for the Church, February saw the House of Bishops once again release an internal statement advocating the LW.

It was rather embarrassing for the Church Bishops and leaders for it to be revealed a week or so later that the Church itself does not actually pay the LW. Whilst most positions in the Church of England are indeed paid the LW, the Sun noticed postings for some Church jobs that paid below the LW– but were NMW or better.

In response, the Church of England was quick to point out that it was essentially made up of several different entities. Each diocese and sub division of the Church were effectively separate bodies of the Church, with their own individual rules and governance. The Church further went on to state that they would investigate the matter.

A further heated response to the hypocrisy came from the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Most Revd Justin Welby hit back at critics following the news. Quoting from replies the Archbishop made on the matter, he admitted to the shortcomings of the Church, and stated that the matter is “embarrassing, of course, I won’t say otherwise… But in the light of transparency, which I welcome, I will say we are a complex institution and every parish church and cathedral is an independent charity, as is every diocese… We don’t have a centralised method of control… I’m not very keen on centralised control where, from far away, you tell people what to do.”

Archbshop Welby: social reform champion, or hypocrite?

Archbshop Welby: social reform champion, or hypocrite?

As part of his robust defence, the Archbishop reiterated the Church’s move towards paying all its employees the LW by April 2017. It must be pointed out, that the Church of England is effectively a charity. Despite being a great landowner, and having other investments and assets, a great dal of the Church’s everyday finances comes from the donations it receives as a charity. As such, it is very impressive that in tough economic times a charity is able to pay the vast majority of its employees the LW. The private business sector should take note of such an example.

Such a spirited defence, and an admission of responsibility and wrongdoing is in remarked contrast to Archbishop Welby’s prior profession- that of an oil executive.

After revelations from whistle blower Herve Falciani were investigated, HSBC was publicly shamed last month as being involved in tax dodging. It was alleged that wealthy clients had placed their money with HSBC in foreign banks – particularly an HSBC private bank in Switzerland- in efforts to doge tax. The details are still emerging as the allegations are investigated- and the fallout from the scandal has been great, reaching all the way to the political parties and senior Establishment figures, either directly or indirectly.

To clarify, tax avoidance is legal; tax evasion is illegal. Tax avoidance involves lowering tax liabilities and (sic) tax bills.  Tax avoidance involves structuring financial or other assets in such a way that the tax paid is lowered. Providing that the appropriate tax is paid on those assets, and those assets are structured in accordance with law, such actions are perfectly legal. If prosecuted at all, tax avoidance will merit a fine or similar. By contrast, tax evasion is wilfully avoiding paying tax. Tax evasion involves going outside legal means and methods to hide or conceal assets, or to wilfully or knowingly act in a way to avoid paying taxes, Further, it must be the intent of the individual or business to avoid paying tax. Tax evasion is illegal, and is punished by hefty fines or even prison. HSBC has been accused of tax evasion.

However, the people in question remain silent, and similarly defiant. Indeed, no one has taken any responsibility. When pressed for comments or answers, the response of senior UK based HSBC executives past and present such as Lord Stephen Green, be they before journalists or to Parliamentary committees, has been one of evasion, lack of knowledge, or passing the matter to someone else.

Overall, it is estimated that nearly $120bn was put in the Swiss bank. At this stage, the investigation into the extent and exact nature of HSBC’s alleged client offshore tax evasion is on going in several countries around the world.

HSBC stands accused of tax evasion in yet another banking scandal. Similarly, the Church of England has once again been accused of hypocrisy. Previous years have seen the Church revealed to have a stake in a payday lender- after openly criticising such companies. Once again, the Archbishop of Canterbury rose to the occasion, denouncing the investment, raising the question of ethical investing, and soon ending the Church’s stake in the company. However, the question of the Church acting ethically in both that episode and the current issue remains. The ethical investing (or otherwise) of HSBC similarly raises questions over the bank’s own ethical and professional standards.

In a further faintly humorous twist, the Archbishop of Canterbury used to work in oil and finance. Former HSBC Group Chief Executive Lord Green is actually an ordained minister in the Church of England. Lord Welby brings his financial acumen to the Church, which has enabled him to deflect such scandals admirably. Lord Green could well remember, especially in the aftermath of such a scandal, to bring a Christian element to his handling of HSBC affairs; humility and asking for forgiveness.

Oil Prices, Pay & Politics

The debate over pay and wages, and the balance with inflation and soaring cost of living, has become increasingly political recently.

January 2015 saw a surprising fall in oil prices worldwide, raising serious issues in the oil industry and financial markets.

Amidst those falling process, Prime Minister David Cameron was quizzed on the matter when on a visit to the US in January. His response to the White House reporters was to suggest and encourage firms to take advantage of the benefits of cheaper oil, and the windfalls they were making, to pass those savings on to employees. This also comes amidst falling unemployment figures, and record earnings in the ever buoyant UK services sector and manufacturing,

Quoting from his response to White House reporters, the Prime Minister endorsed more firms paying the living wage (as opposed to the minimum wage), stating that what he wanted was “to see companies’ success passed through in terms of wage increases… It has to be done in a way that’s affordable, and in a way that companies can continue to grow, we need to see productivity increase… [those companies] that can afford to pay the living wage should [do so] … Falling oil prices [are] going to benefit a lot of businesses and a lot of countries and we want to see those benefits passed through in all the ways they can be.”

Such a response was inevitable welcomed by many hard pressed employees and households- p[perhaps not so much by some businesses. Equally inevitably, Labour leader Ed Milliband took to the stage of a Fabian Society event to roundly condemn such a suggestion.

In a wide and far ranging speech, Mr Milliband took the opportunity to criticise Mr Cameron’s double standards. According to Mr Milliband, the Conservative government has had “five years of failure” as regards living standards and the cost of living, and have previously “shown a tin ear” to the many thousands affected by low wages and soaring costs of living.

The Labour leader went further, stating that the government has “denied the cost of living crisis. They have been woefully out of touch with the daily struggles of families…They have rubbished the idea that people are worse off. Even this week, George Osborne was saying we were set under him to be ‘the richest country in the world’, and that his economic victory is complete… But we wake up this morning to hear that the prime minister thinks ‘Britain needs a pay rise’.” Mr Miliband also criticised Mr Cameron’s sudden concern on this matter a mere four months away from an election.

Despite the trans-Atlantic schoolboy spat between the two political leaders, the issue was clearly raised. As the economy slowly recovers, as employment rises, and inflation catches up with wages, pay and living conditions are an emotive and topical issue- and an election one.

Indeed, many are calling for more firms to pay a living wage (LW), as opposed to the national minimum wage (NMW). The NMW, where applicable, is £6.50 per hour. This is opposed to the LW, currently at £7.85 per hour, or £9.15 per hour in London. However, although NMW is compulsory, the LW is not. Indeed, many politicians and business leaders (especially in London, which has seen the greatest growth and development, often to the detriment of the rest of the country) want to see the LW rolled out more. The Living Wage Foundation, and many groups (such as the Church of England), and indeed several businesses and business leaders, are very active in promoting the LW. Some individuals have also called for its further implementation, such as the ever colourful Mayor of London Boris Johnson (who raised the London LW to its current level in November 2014).

There are good arguments for a wider and wholesale implementation of the LW. The economic argument is clear; more money for consumers and households means more and increased spending power. More spending stimulates the economy further. Aside from the economic argument, on a humanitarian and personal level, surely paying the LW to hard pressed workers and families only the moral and humane thing to do? Especially after years of austerity measures, and runway prices, surely it is about time that the matter was addressees, to give welcome financial relief to many tens of thousands in the UK today.

Although many businesses (particularly large businesses) are on board, the reality of paying the LW more requires further business to pay more to their employees. This would mainly affect small to medium firms (SME’s), considered the backbone to economic recovery. Actually paying the LW might affect the profit, productivity, activity and overall contribution of those vital SME’s. To pay the LW would require many SME’s to be very bold, and to, in many cases, take a risk. It is not that such enterprises are risk averse (far from it); it is a simple matter of business, and financial efficiency. Although many SME’s back the LW in theory- it is often financially hard for them to translate such support into action. Such stimuli such as the falling oil prices, or tax breaks, will give businesses the opportunity to pay their employees the LW.

Whether more companies will take the moral and decent course of action in taking advantage of the improved economic situation of January 2015 and pay their employees more (be it the LW or not), remains to be seen, and is uncertain.

What is more certain is that this matter of cost and standards of living, NMW vs LW, tax breaks and prices, will be discussed eagerly by MP’s in the House of Commons. Aside from a moral and economic matter- it is also an election matter, seemingly. As such, the respective political leaders will continue their schoolboy antics and speeches in trying to win over an electorate who would simply prefer to have the opportunity to work and be paid accordingly.

January: A New Start for British Infrastructure?

For the UK, this January- indeed this year- marks a new beginning. Aside from constitutional changes, and changes in relations with the regions and central government after the Scottish referendum of 2014, above all changes in infrastructure, and in similar and related massive construction and regeneration projects, will be seen.

Two such massive and long standing infrastructure projects are Crossrail in London, and the much maligned HS2. For both projects, the plans are well advanced. The plans and details released in glossy press releases show two complex projects that will take many years to see through to their completion. Not only will they be costly in the public money they will consume, but costly in the amount of jobs they will create, and in the supporting infrastructure and industry that will be created in support. Both projects will be engineering marvels, using state of the art technology (such as the ingenious burrowing machines currently being used underground in London for the Crossrail excavations); a pseudo return to the days of Victorian engineering feats, particularly as regards Victorian railways and bridges throughout the country.

Both Crossrail and HS2 will bring great benefits to London and the Midlands respectively- especially when linked up with other supporting projects, and developed as time goes by. In the case of HS2, for example, there are plans to develop and expand the high speed service further north by the Pennines by the 2030’s. Indeed, Birmingham and the surrounding area are undergoing several large and local regeneration projects that will tie in with HS2 when both come on line, making the West Midlands region a local powerhouse- in a throwback to its great days in manufacturing and industry in Victorian times.

However, both projects have attracted controversy and criticism. For Crossrail, many have said that East London will be impacted negatively by the disruption, excavations and new services to support the minority in the City of London. There have also been issues over house prices rising around prospective Crosssrail stations and sites– again to the detriment of local, longstanding homeowners in the area. Indeed, some rail experts have stated that the plans will not benefit freight trains in the London and South East area- but again just a few commuters to the City. As well as some historical areas and places being demolished, the prospect of London’s buried heritage and artefacts (such as underground Roman remains) accidentally being destroyed have been a cause of concern to historians.

Crossrail: coming to a (London) station soon

For HS2- the controversy has been more severe, and has attracted more attention seemingly that the actual plans. Local residents and environmentalists have been most vocal in opposition to the project. Some in business and even in Parliament have questioned the need for the service, and as to whether the predicated revival and future economic and social benefits are that significant to warrant such massive investment, disruption and construction work. The opposition continues- and will continue as preparations are made to commence construction of the new railway service. Despite that, HS2 continues to attract wide and varied support.

Whatever the coast, and opposition, there is little doubt that both Crossrail and HS2 are bold and ambitious projects, intended to revitalise the UK, and to assist business and communities. Such massive infrastructure projects are necessary, to modernise the decaying infrastructure of previous eras, and to accommodate a booming population and new business and social needs not foreseen by previous eras.

Further to such projects, other new and lob projects are needed to modernise the UK. Aviation experts and business have long been saying that a new airport hub, or an expansion of Heathrow, is a vital necessity. Despite government committees, business reports, and the efforts of lobbyists and pressure groups, the matter is still undecided. A decision, and firm action, needs to be taken to maintain the UK’s current statues as a major international aviation hub, with all the public wealth that is generated from a constant influx of air freight, corporate aviation services, and increased passenger flights. However, a decision, or even a discussion on that, is not even a possibility until May.

After all, no politician would want to commit themselves to a new public infrastructure agreement or project in the few months prior to a General Election, and sceptical UK voters. After the Election, however, such matters will doubtless move forward a step or so.

After the election, whatever party is in power will have the unenviable task of assessing the current projects- such as HS2 and Crossrail. Crossrail is but the start of ambitious further rail and related infrastructure plans for London and the greater South East region; HS2 has not even started in earnest. As such, there is ample scope to cancel HS2, and to stop any further expansion after Crossrail.

The question for the new government will be to boldly carry on, and to lead the UK into the 21st century, with new, modern transport and infrastructure, to cope with national demands for the next few generations. Alternatively, the government can look back to times past, and play it safe, spending scarcer public money with maintaining the crumbling, over stressed and stretched infrastructure services.

January is named after the Roman god Janus, who had two faces; one looking back into the past and the old year, and the other face facing onto the future, and new starts. Although May will not be January, it will be a new start for the UK politically. The question will be- which face will that new government have, and which way will that face look?