Yesterday, the civil service PCS union went on strike – in a predictable, if unsuccessful, attempt to hijack Budget day for their own publicity.
The slogans were hackneyed, the reasons were predictable. “Get the Tories out”, “General Strike Now” declared the placards while PCS leader Mark Serwotka proclaimed that they were starting a fightback to get more pay and preserve gold-plated pensions, regardless of the fiscal mess the country is in.
Strangely, Serwotka didn’t seem keen to discuss his own pay (£88,675) or pension (£26,159 in annual contributions, the same as the average British worker’s annual wage).
Hypocrisy at the top wasn’t the only travesty, though. Despite all the rhetoric about striking against Government policies, or to “get the Tories out”, the PCS’ own website revealed who the union was really hitting: the public.
Their live blog of the strike openly crows about their success in letting down the 99% whom they claim to have solidarity with. Here are just a few extracts:
09.13 Business in the [Welsh] National Assembly has been severely curtailed today because of the effects of the strike.
09.45…we’ve had some superb strike news from DWP Jobcentre members across the country.
- 75% out at Horsham JCP
- 85% out at Haywards Heath JCP
- 90% members out at Watercourt site in Nottingham
- 100 Members on strike at Airdrie JCP, Lanarkshire. Signs up to say the office is closed.
- 97% members of Brighton out on strike. 20 on picket and more joining all the time. Supported by Caroline Lucas MP, various councillors, Socialist Party Brighton Benefits Campaign and unemployed centres.
- 95% are on strike and ten pickets in place at Folkestone Jobcentre.
10:15 Some news from HMRC offices around the country:
- 90% support for strike at Dorchester House, Belfast. Support from NIPSA staff and Socialist Party.
- 85% out at Dorset Harbourside Branch
- 80% on strike in Greater Manchester
- 70% on strike at Ralli Quays
- Over 80% out at Merry Hill contact centre
11.13 Strikers celebrating a very succesful morning at the National Gallery which has resulted in a number of galleries and rooms having to close.
Rep Candy Udwin said: “Large school parties have been turned away because they don’t have enough staff to keep them open.”
11.43 Three out of 14 court rooms open at Preston Crown Court.
12.30 The Tate in Livepool has been closed by the strike
12.48 HMRC – 92% out at Portmadog so the office is closed and there is no Welsh language service today.
15.13 ARMs member David W took part in a ‘Guinness Book of Records’ challenge to see how many HMRC Offices he could phone in two, one-hour sessions (AM and PM) following a suggestion made by one of the group members.
“I reckon it could be fun and of course when I am asked what my enquiry is I shall say something like: “Why are you working while your colleagues are out on strike fighting your battle for you?”
Given that only three days ago MPs criticised HMRC for letting down the public by failing to answer 80% of calls promptly, it’s surely wrong that the PCS – who claim to be on the side of ordinary people – are urging anti-cuts activists to clog the lines with prank calls attacking the workers who actually turned up to serve the public.
By my count, the above list shows the people actually affected by this strike were: unemployed jobseekers, victims of crime, schoolkids hoping to learn about art and taxpayers phoning HMRC to resolve their problems.
It might be great fun for Serwotka and his mates to have a day off and do some shouting, but I doubt the ordinary people let down by them agree the strike action is “superb”.
The scandal rushing through the offices and studios of the BBC has many sources – horrifying historic sex offences on a staggering scale, poor journalism making it to air due to an apparent panic within Newsnight and a disastrous failure of management at the very top have all played their part.
The results of the crisis are clear to see. The Director General has gone under the professional guillotine. Newsnight’s future is in doubt. Less than half of the public, who fund the Corporation, now think it is trustworthy (according to a ComRes poll carried out before the erroneous report aired and Entwhistle resigned). Infighting has gone public, with various famous faces slugging it out in the press.
The question now is how to solve this mess.
Simply hoping that the next DG, and all of his or her successors, will have a better approach to crisis management than the beleaguered George Entwhistle, is not enough. As the misappointment of “Incurious George” showed, the current system cannot guarantee it will always pick the right candidate.
Not only is the appointment process flawed. Entwhistle’s flailing attempts to hide behind protocol and process rather than step up and deal with the scandal showed that the position itself has a fatal lack of legitimacy and authority.
The next Director General must be selected through a process which is transparent, which openly tests their abilities and policies, and which confers on the winner a genuine authority and legitimacy. In short, the Director General of the BBC should be elected by the licence fee paying public – an electorate who, through a recall power, should also be able to sack them if they so wish.
Only that way will we end the oddity of the people’s broadcaster (and its multi-billion pound budget) being run by an anonymous suit anointed by Lord Patten for reasons unknown. Only that way will we prevent a re-run of the farce in which the Editor-In-Chief of a publicly-owned Corporation seems surprised that the public expect him to answer to them when things go wrong. Only that way will the people be willing to place their trust once more in the BBC’s discredited leadership.
There was understandable anger at the news this week that t-shirts urging people to dance on Margaret Thatcher’s grave were on sale at the TUC Congress. While disgusting, sadly it’s nothing new that the hard left have some pretty unpleasant opinions – as I’ve reported on this blog in the past.
What is more worrying is that the organisation selling the t-shirts, the Derbyshire Unemployed Workers’ Centre, is apparently taxpayer-funded and closely tied to parts of the political establishment – far from being the independent loons the media reports have so far portrayed them as.
Take the following items as evidence:
- According to the DUWC 2011 Annual Report, their Chairman is Cllr Graham Baxter MBE, the Leader of North East Derbyshire Council, who uses his introduction to the report to rail in a partisan way against the “Tory County Council”
- On page 8 of the same report, the “Fundraising” section lists money received from Bolsover District Council, North East Derbyshire District Council and Chesterfield Borough Council, as well as grants from no less than 11 County Councillors
- The Summer 2012 edition of their “Solidarity” newsletter headlines on a new campaign launch attended by Dennis Skinner MP and Natascha Engel MP, and thanks 5 County Councillors for the allocation of their 2012 taxpayer-funded grants
The DUWC may well do a lot of valuable work – certainly you can see the potential for an organisation offering impartial advice to jobseekers. However, it seems they’ve crossed a line a long time ago from helping unemployed workers to campaigning on a party political basis in a rather unpleasant way.
Until they go back to focusing their efforts on their proper, worthwhile mission, it is surely inappropriate for them to be using taxpayers’ money for partisan campaigns.
Tomorrow, at long last, squatting becomes a criminal offence – at least in residential properties.
For libertarians, who are not normally quick to welcome the creation of new crimes given the glut of absurd and oppressive laws introduced in recent years, this is a rare bit of good news. Property rights are one of the essential foundations of a free society – the law should protect anyone’s right to gain or create property, to do with it as they wish and to sell it if they so choose.
Squatting, by contrast, is an outright assault on property rights. Someone who doesn’t own the house in question enters it, take up residence, feels unrestrained in making changes or causing damage without the owner’s consent and, under some circmstances, can even apply to seize legal ownership after a long enough stay. The law as it used to be told homeowners they had no right to enter and evict squatters, and in some circumstances the only thing the police would do was to prevent them reasserting their right to their own property.
We rightly treat burglary, theft and robbery as crimes, and we should treat the non-consensual occupation of someone’s fixed property as a crime as well. I’m glad the Government have acted to change the law.
But, as ever, there are loud voices making the opposite case – in fact, the BBC helpfully top their online article with just such an individual. There are a number of flawed arguments the squatters are putting across, and I thought it would be helpful to rebut them.
There is a homelessness problem in the UK
That’s absolutely true. Homelessness is an incredibly complex issue – there are those who due to financial problems find themselves losing their house, there are those who suffer mental health or substance absue issues and many other causes. Each of those needs a multiplicity of solutions – but stealing other people’s property isn’t one of them. If having lax laws that allowed mass squatting was a solution to the homelessness problem, then after decades of having exactly such lax laws we would have solved it. We clearly haven’t.
There’s also a false assumption that all squatters are impoverished and homeless against their will. This isn’t always the case – indeed, the pro-squatting Advisory Service for Squatters said in 2003 that “many have full time work”. This is at least in part because of a rarely mentioned but major element of squatting: those who do it out of a political ideology which opposes property rights.
Squatters aren’t breaking in
It has always been illegal to break into a building – which is why squatters are advised to say that they found an already-open route in. I say “advised to say” because it’s widely known that many squatters do break in anyway, claiming someone else conveniently came by with a crowbar ten minutes earlier and broke the locks off the property. As the ASFS says, the police “would only be able to do anything if there were witnesses”.
Morally, this is besides the point. Taking or using someone’s property without their permission is wrong in and of itself. You might be stupid to leave the keys in your car ignition and the door wide open, but it is still wrong for someone to get in and drive off.
Ludicrously, a squatter on the Today Programme this morning claimed squatting was “not taking the property off the owner” because if they wanted to they were entitled to “take us to court”. The victims of the Bernard Madoff will, I’m sure, be delighted to know they weren’t really deprived of anything because they, too, had the opportunity to go to court.
The idea that squatters would just merrily move out if someone wanted their house back is also ludicrous – they regularly force homeowners to fight lengthy legal battles through the civil courts to regain access to their property. Locks are changed, access is denied and barricades are even put up to prevent legal entry.
These buildings are permanently empty
Well, some of them are, but far from all of them. Janice Mason in Walthamstow was about to sell her house when she found it had been occupied. Peter Nahum was restoring a listed building before moving his family into it. Dr Oliver Cockerell and his wife had just gone on their summer holiday. It’s clear that this isn’t some clean dividing line between occupied homes and permanently empty houses.
In fact, this is often simply an arrogant and self-serving assumption on the squatters’ part. They look at a house and decide on limited information that it is permanently empty – when the owner may well be saving to repair it, applying for planning permission, selling their own home elsewhere and so on. A survey by the Empty Homes Agency found that in the East Midlands just 13% of the owners of empty homes planned for them still to be empty 12 months later. 42% said their home was on the market for let or sale, and 63% said it was currently being improved or repaired.
Again, even if it was the case, it wouldn’t be ok to seize them from their rightful owners. A key part of property rights and a free society is being able to do what you choose with your own property.
There are huge numbers of empty houses in Britain
This is also true – but again it is no reason to just hijack them as you see fit. There are plenty of things other than squatting that we could and should be doing to bring them back into use, often from a state of severe disrepair.
For example, despite the social goods that come about as a result of repairing such houses, doing so is still taxed at full rate VAT (this also applies to a landlord upgrading their properties, a family making their house more energy efficient and so on). The Cut the VAT campaign, which I’ve long supported, is pressing the Government to reduce this from 20% VAT to 5%. A 12.5% fall in the overall cost of repairing such houses would make a sizeable difference to the number coming back into use.
Scandalously, tens of thousands of the empty houses in the UK are in fact part of the council-owned social housing stock. These are owned by the people with the express purpose of using them to alleviate homelessness, and yet many councils don’t do anything with them. Given the fiscal situation they may well have some trouble getting the cash together to repair them all – but the policy solution for that is to sell some of the empty houses and use the capital to bring the others back into use.
Of course, we can predict the people who would vocally oppose such tax-cutting, market-based solutions to the housing shortage. They would be the same commentators on the Left who stand up for squatters’ right to occupy other people’s private property – it seems they might not want the real problems fixing after all.
The new campaign from my former colleagues at the TaxPayers’ Alliance looks good:
As someone once said, there’s no money left – so personally I struggle to see why we are lending billions to a serial-defaulting country that seems intent on undermining our sovereign territory and trade?
I’ve signed the TPA’s Argentina petition, and I hope you will do the same here.
It didn’t take long for the Wikipedia graffiti artists to get to work on Formerly-Sir Fred Goodwin’s page:
“Goodwin’s knighthood, granted in 2004, was annulled in January 2012, due to his excessive use of profanity in the company of the Queen. He was shot a few days later.”
A lot of thought’s being put into the practical implications of Scottish independence – I suspect that if the country doesn’t become independent this time (which more English voters support than Scottish voters), it probably will in the next decade or two.
It’s the practical ramifications which are increasingly causing Alex Salmond touble. The problem being that the SNP likes to have its cake and eat it, too. Take fiscal devolution – when the TaxPayers’ Alliance proposed full fiscal devolution to the Scottish Parliament (an SNP manifesto policy), SNP spokesmen blew their lid because the report also called for an end to English Barnett Formula subsidies for Scotland.
So it has been with Alex Salmond’s plan for full independence – he wants to take as many powers and assets as possible, but leave the nation’s debts squarely on the shoulders of English taxpayers.
For example, he thinks that North Sea oil and gas should be allocated geographically (giving the Scots over 80% of the revenue) but national debt should be allocated on a per capita basis only (giving the Scots just over 8% of the total bill). This is particularly relevant when you start to consider where the debt and liability for RBS would fall in you took a geographical approach to where debt should be allocated.
Happily, someone on the Government E-petitions site has come up with an elegant solution. When we calculate the share of the national debt to be allocated to an independent Scotland, why not use the Barnett Formula?
Yes, is means each Scottish person would have 22% more debt than each English person, but if it’s fair for dishing the cash out then surely it’s fair for sharing the burden of our debts, too?
I’ve signed the e-petition here – I hope you will, too.
The furore over Iain Duncan Smith’s proposed benefits cap was predictable, and Ministers have merrily sailed into it for two reasons – because a high profile fight on this topic brings them an electoral advantage, and because they knew the Left would swallow the bait in one great, unthinking gulp.
The idea that no household should get more than £26,000 in benefits – equivalent to a pre-tax salary of £35,000 – is overwhelmingly popular. British voters subscribe to a strong idea of fairness, particularly when it comes to the idea that working should be more rewarding than not working, and they have been outraged by numerous reports of large families living at no cost to themselves in huge, overpriced houses in particular.
The critique of the proposals coming from the Left, notably from Lib Dem Guardianista Tim Leunig, is fatally flawed because socialist economics fails to recognise that the economy is dynamic. You can’t change one input to the system without others shifting in response – both when macro market forces and micro human behaviour are involved.
The flaw comes when they crunch the numbers. Leunig’s Guardian piece claims to calculate that the benefits cap would leave people living on 62p a day. The most crucial element of his workings is that a 4-bedroom house in Tolworth costs £400 a week. That’s true right now, but it wouldn’t be the case once a cap has been brought in.
The truth is that some of the main beneficiaries of overly high benefits are private landlords. They may not get payments from the DWP direct, but they reap the cash anyway through inflated rents, secure in the knowledge that every time they put the price up, benefits levels are raised to pay them. This is a racket, exploiting the foolishness of officials in pumping more and more money out and the absence of taxpayer power to rein in this behaviour.
Tim Leunig is right that if rents were fixed as they are now then his hypothetical family would pay£400 a week. But rents aren’t fixed, they are fluid. If you remove a large amount of cash from the system then prices will fall. By arguing for the system to remain as it currently is, rather than accept a cap, this supposed “progressive” is effectively fighting the corner of benefit-farming landlords.
There are knock-on benefits to removing the artificial inflation in rents, too. If renting property out becomes less profitable, the desire and the financial means to buy-to-let will be reduced, helping to address the shortage of affordable housing that is so often highlighted as a problem.
This is why we can expect IDS to be intensely relaxed about this fight gaining so much publicity. When it comes down to it, he has public opinion and solid economics on his side.
Evening Standard polling on the London Mayoral Race shows clearly that transport fares, and the management of the underground service, is the only major chink in Boris’s armour. It’s a topic which is high on Londoners’ list of concerns and it’s the only area where Ken appears to have a distinct opportunity.
As a result, Ken Livingstone is hammering the issue, promising a 7% cut in fares. But can he be trusted to stick to this pledge for a so-called “fare deal”, or is it pie in the sky?
Judging by his track record, it’s the latter. In fact, he’s broken promises on fares at both of the last two Mayoral elections.
In September 2003, with an election coming up, Ken promised to peg fare rises to “no more than the rate of inflation”. But in September 2004, he announced tube fares would rise at inflation +1% and bus fares would jump by inflation +10%.
In December 2007, with another election approaching, he told the London Assembly “I intend to freeze Tube fares in real terms in 2009″. He lost the election, but by April 2008 leaked emails emerged showing that when he gave that pledge to the Assembly he had already signed off on higher than inflation rises for bus and tube passengers.
It’s understandable why Ken – lagging by 8 points in the polls behind Boris – is making increasingly desperate pledges to persuade voters. The question has always been how he will fund them. Looking at his past behaviour gives us the answer – he won’t have any trouble funding his 7% cut, because he makes a habit of breaking his promises as soon as the election is out of the way.
So Thom Yorke of Radiohead appeared at Occupy London last night to play a gig in support of their aims.
Whilst most of what Occupy stands for is so vague it’s almost impossible to pin down – even when they try to do so themselves – it is perfectly clear they claim to be for the poorer “99%” and against the rich “1%”. In their world the 1% are responsible for all ills, their wealth should be redistributed and they are fundamentally immoral by simple virtue of their wealth.
But which group does Thom Yorke fall into? With over 30 million record sales worldwide, it’s hard to see how he is part of the 99%…
Or do their principles of class war not apply when it’s someone left wing who’s been raking in the cash?