Archive for the 'current events' Category

On labelling NHS prescriptions with their real cost

Jeremy Hunt announced that all medicines costing over £20 will be marked “funded by the UK tax payer”. Fair enough. I’m happy to pay my taxes to help those who are sick. I call this idea “civilisation”. But it’s right that people understand where the money comes from.

Similarly, I trust that every sleeping member of the House of Lords wear a sign around their necks saying “My attendance today cost 7.5 medicines”; every ministerial breakfast be costed in terms of the number of life-saving drugs that could have been supplied but weren’t, because croissants were more important; every MP’s hotel room that isn’t the cheapest one on have a similar advisory notice on the wall and the receipt. GCHQ should have a sign outside saying “spying on you today cost 1 million prescriptions”.

That would be fair, because we’re all in it together. Aren’t we?

Want my vote? Give me evidence-based policies

This year’s general election is going to be a close one, and a bitter one. For the first time ever, I’ve had representatives of political parties knocking on my door and, although none of the current crop of parties appeals to me, I told the last gang (Labour) that I’m sick of politicians (in this case, Ed Milliband) who react to the moral panic du jour with ill-thought out policies that appease the slack-jawed but actually cause long-term damage.

I’d vote for whoever had the courage to make policies based on evidence and long-term thinking rather than short-term headline grabbing, religious attachment to dogma, or the selfish interests of its core supporters. I doubt such a politician exists, but if any do, here’s my wish-list.


We need to politicians with courage to say we need immigration. We are an ageing population: A Survey of the UK Benefit System by Institute for Fiscal Studies, November 2012) points out that a colossal 42.3% of the benefits spend in the Uk goes to “elderly people” (figure 2.1).

To support more older people, it’s obvious that we need more young people to work and pay tax. However, the birthrate in the UK seems to be falling:

The number of live births and the total fertility rate (TFR) fluctuated throughout the twentieth century with a sharp peak at the end of World War II. Live births peaked again in 1964 (875,972 births), but since then lower numbers have been recorded. The lowest annual number of births in the twentieth century was 569,259 in 1977. The number of births is dependent on both fertility rates and the size and age structure of the female population.The total fertility rate for England and Wales decreased in 2013 to an average of 1.85 children per woman from 1.94 in 2012.

Women are having children later. Tellingly, Coalition austerity policies – a prime example of dogma over evidence-based policymaking – are likely to be contributing to the lower birth rate. The UK government’s Office of National Statistics writes:

Other factors which could have had an impact on fertility levels in 2013 include:

  • uncertainty about employment and lower career and promotion opportunities (such as temporary, part-time, or zero-hours contracts), which can significantly reduce women’s demand for children (Del Bono E, et al.,2014; Lanzieri G, 2013)
  • reforms by the Government to simplify the welfare system, which have resulted in some significant changes to benefits that may have influenced decisions around childbearing. The changes were announced in 2011 and 2012 and included; reduced housing benefit from April 2013 for those living in property deemed to be larger than they need. Children under 10 are expected to share a room, as are children under 16 of the same gender; removal of child benefit where one parent earns over £50,000 from January 2013 and a 3-year freeze on payments for those eligible from April 2011; and a cap on the total amount of benefits that working age people can receive from April 2013, so that households on working age benefits can no longer receive more in benefits than the average wage for working families.

Therefore, the current austerity policies will have a long-term effect of reducing the workforce so making more elderly people dependant on fewer working people. Without immigrants working here, this will result in cuts to the services the elderly receive, or a higher tax burden on those in work, neither of which are desirable – particularly to the successors of the current Conservative government for whom elderly people are more likely to vote, and for which tax reduction is an article of absolute faith.

Immigration also brings us skilled workers. A good friend of mine works recruiting nurses from overseas for a big, nationally-known UK hospital. She doesn’t do this because she is part of a dastardly plot to flood Britain with highly-trained, hard-working Filipinos whose English language is better than that of many “indigenous” residents (to get a visa, non-EU applicants are required to achieve a higher score in their English language tests than EU applicants for some odd reason). No, she does this because hospitals need nurses, and there aren’t enough British nurses.

According to the Daily Telegraph, last year

5,778 nurses were recruited from overseas in the 12 months to September… This compares with a figure of just 1,360 reported by 40 trusts in the previous year. Experts said a lack of trained British nurses meant hospitals were forced to hunt abroad for trained staff, with the costs of global trawls vastly inflating the cost of recruitment. Hospitals pay managers and recruitment agencies to go abroad to seek out staff, while offering bonuses to nurses who come here. In total, 91,470 nurses – around one in seven of those now registered to work here – trained overseas, official figures show.

Why? The Telegraph – a highly conservative newspaper – reports

The surge follows cuts to NHS programmes to train nurses in this country, with 10,000 training places cut since 2010.

Anecdotally (from my friend who does the recruitment), many British people don’t want to become nurses. The Royal College of Nursing (the profession’s representative body) notes that the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, said in his 2011 autumn statement

all public sector wage rises should be capped at an average of one per cent for two years from April 2013. This comes after a two year policy which saw all NHS staff earning more than £21,000 facing a pay freeze, while those earning up to £21,000 received an award of £250 in both years.

The RCN continues:

the supply of nursing staff is being seriously threatened as NHS organisations attempt to save money by cutting posts and by the reduction in commissioned training places for nurses. Commissioned places for pre-registration nursing has fallen by nearly nine per cent from 2010/11 to 2011/12. This is particularly worrying at a time when 12 per cent of the nursing workforce is aged 55 or over and a quarter is aged 50 or over.

Both the RCN evidence and the staff side evidence draw on results from a joint trade union survey of members which found that almost two thirds of nurses said they had seriously thought about leaving their job, and a third would leave for a post outside the NHS. The top two reasons for considering leaving the NHS are stress/workload and staff shortages. Two thirds of respondents said morale had declined in the last 12 months, while 71 per cent said staff shortages have frequently occurred in their workplace over the past year.

The starting salary for graduate nurses is £21,338 (with an additional £4076 for inner London, as if the extra £78 week before tax makes up for living costs there), but it’s a 3 or 4 year degree course to get there. The current government raised the cap on university tuition fees, so the tuition alone for a 4 year nursing course could come to £36,000 – for a £21,000 pre-tax salary. If the government were genuinely concerned to reduce reliance on overseas nurses, it would either raise salaries, or subsidise tuition fees for socially vital jobs, such as nurses. But it won’t, because it’s unable to make sensible policies that might have the desired outcome due to its dogma of not interfering in markets, and its antipathy to the public sector.

Rent Caps

In 2012, the UK benefits spend was £159bn (up by 1.1% on the previous year). The single largest part of that was state pensions to the elderly – £74.22bn, or 47% of the total spend. The next largest item in the budget is housing benefit £16.94bn. That was up 5.2% on the previous year, and will reach a new high of £25bn a year by 2017, according to new government estimates. Housing Benefit is money paid by the government – sourced, of course, from me and my fellow taxpayers – to people on incomes too low to allow them to meet the cost of their housing themselves.

Incomes are low because of austerity policies, and housing is preposterously expensive in the UK because there’s an inadequate supply. It’s my belief that the main reason for this under-supply is the ideologically-driven “Right to Buy” sell-off of social housing by the Thatcher government – councils who owned social housing were required by law to sell it at deep discount to tenants (and weren’t allowed to use the funds raised to replenish the housing stock).

The stated goal was to make Britain a nation of home-owners; the actual result is that a third of ex-council homes are now owned by landlords. One inner-London council now pays £500,000 a year to rent back properties that it was forced to sell, a situation described as “utterly ludicrous” by its housing chief; it’s hard to disagree with this assessment. (Note that David Cameron proposed re-invigorating Right to Buy in 2011.)

Whatever the reason for the under-supply of housing, though, if the government really wanted to reduce the housing benefit spend, it would simply cap rents. Housing Benefit is nothing more than a government subsidy to landlords, who charge high prices because they know the government will pay them. If rents were controlled, the housing benefit spend would reduce. But it wouldn’t dream of doing so because that would be regulation in the free market (it’s religious dogma that the invisible hand is always right, whether it pickpockets your neighbour and hands her purse to you, or pokes you in the eye). It’s also the case that landlords tend to be Conservative voters. Upsetting loads of nurses and public sector workers is one thing – they mostly don’t vote for the Tories anyway – but landlords are part of the clan who rule us. After all, Charles Gow, the son of Mrs Thatcher’s Housing Minister during the council house sell-off, owns at least 40 ex-council flats on one South London estate.

Politicians of all political hues seem happy to talk tough on immigration, as if it were a bad thing rather than an economic necessity. They all seem to agree that austerity is required, while pumping billions into the City under the cloak of “Quantitative Easing” (which has failed, according to its inventor). This nutrient-free flatulent miasma of stupidity appeases the Daily Mail and Express readers, yet it damages the country.

Give me some joined-up, evidence-based thinking, and you’ll get my kiss on election day.

Update Sun 4 Jan: It seems that fewer than 10% of British people are against mandatory legal limits on housing rents.

Update 7 Jan: Great minds think alike. From the Daily Telegraph (of all places!) on 5 Jan, Ten ways we could fix broken Britain suggests paying people to do degrees we need, more tenants rights, more housing (and using the tax system to punish those who sit on land reserves, like supermarkets or volume builders), and other sensible policies like tripling the congestion charge and legalising drugs.

On sex education for 7 year olds in UK schools

The BBC reports that Sex education should start at seven, Lib Dems say.

Of course 7 year old kids should get sex education at school; puberty is from 8 years old for girls, 9 for boys.

The whole point of education is to prepare kids for life, so you have to tell them about stuff first (hint: that’s what “prepare” means.)

Sex education results in fewer sexually transmitted diseases and fewer unwanted pregnancies. This is not only good for the people involved, but is better for the whole nation – which makes it excellent public policy.

However, “parents will retain the right to pull children under 15 out of sex education lessons” according to the Daily Mail. Why? Do we let them take kids out of Maths or Geography classes?

There should be no opt-out from parents trying to foist their religion or sexual hangups onto their children. Education > indoctrination.

On violence

I want to get the men who shot down MH17, and the leaders of Hamas and Israel, and repeatedly punch them in their faces until their noses are smashed. I would enjoy it.

The horrible, bitter irony of this is not lost on me.

Two cheers for the economic recovery

As we approach a council and European election in UK, and are a year away from the General Election, the government is crowing that its years of austerity politics have put Britain right again. House prices are booming (in the South East) etc. 1.2 million new jobs are (apparently) created (but what kind of jobs?). “Welfare has been capped and immigration controlled, so our economy works for those who play by the rules”, say the Conservatives.

It doesn’t feel like a Golden Age of prosperity here in my past-its-heydey suburb of South Birmingham. Our high street supports two family butchers, and a greengrocer. But there are also two slot machine shops, several discount shoes and cheap clothing shops, as well as a slew of charity shops and places to sell gadgets/ jewellry for cash.

Here are some photos of my local high street; it takes 10 minutes to amble along this route – approximately 400m to walk up, cross the road, and walk down again.

There’s an Oxfam charity shop:

Oxfam charity shop

A shop selling plastic stuff and canned food for a pound:

Poundbase pound shop

A PDSA charity shop:

PDSA charity shop

A cheque centre (for cashing cheques at a commission) next to an “Entertainment centre” (where people can buy sell phones, games consoles, DVDs etc):

Cheque cashing payday loan place, next to "cash converters" type shop

A British Heart Foundation furniture and electrical store, where people on low incomes can buy cheap used furniture:

Furniture/ Electrical charity shop

A branch of Pound Stretchers:

Pound Stretcher

“Money for Gold Rope” where you can sell your jewelry:

Money 4 Gold pawn shop

Debra charity shop for cheap used furniture:

Debra charity shop

Cash converters, where you can sell your TV, DVD player. There’s always a queue to sell at weekends:

Cash converter pawn shop

A Marie Curie cancer hospice charity shop next to a British Red Cross charity shop:

Marie Curie Hospice Charity shop next to British Red Cross charity shop

Acorns Children’s Hospice charity shop:

Acorns hospice charity shop

BetFred bookmakers, next to Scope charity shop:

Betfred bookmakers next to Scope charity shop

Albemarle Bond pawn shop:

Pawnbroker shop

Bright House, a shop that provides “high-quality, branded products to credit-constrained customers, through affordable weekly payments. Our bespoke credit management processes enable our customers to get the goods they need, in a way they can afford”. It’s basically a high-interest hire purchase shop; the front page of their website today advertises a “representative APR of 64.7%”:

Bright House high-interest hire purchase

British Heart Foundation charity shop:

British Heart Foundation charity shop

Charity shops do great work, and I love poking around them for CDs and books. But when most of your high street is charity shops, it’s difficult to believe the triumphant cries of “recovery!” from the millionaires in government.

Birmingham’s “garden tax” Nazi binmen furore: solved

Here in Birmingham (UK, not Al’A-Bama), tensions run high as Blighty gears up to a general election. Our City Council has long been profligate with cash and recently starved of money by the central government’s austerity policy, so has stopped collecting garden waste for free, and started charging £35 a year for fortnightly collections.

The problem

Thanks to advances in our understanding of quantum physics from the Large Hadron Collider, scientists have discovered that grass cuttings, plant prunings and vegetable matter will, when left in a pile and thereafter ignored, naturally decompose and add what boffins call “nutrients” into the soil. This process, known to Nobel-prizewinners as “composting”, is cheaper and easier than going out in a car and buying big plastic bags full of compost to spread on your garden.

However, “composting” is a concept so revolutionary that news of it has yet to filter out to the horticulturally-minded public who can’t afford the new £3 per month charge to collect garden waste, so naturally they throw it onto the street to rot.

Rotting matter can attract pests and vermin, and this has led to an epidemic of opportunist parliamentary wannabes berating the council for such eyesores on social media:

Why anyone should want to “put an end to” eccentric middle-aged druids in rainbow clothing kneeling in prayer to grass cuttings is beyond me; each to their own, I say. A more sinister turn of events has occurred with the local newspaper reporting that that the ex-Lord Mayor has likened council binmen to The Gestapo.

It’s getting nasty. People need to chill out.

The solution

I have a solution to the problem. The council should make it legal, or even compulsory, for residents to grow marijuana in their gardens. For the vast majority of people, their ganja harvest would far out-strip their domestic consumption, but instead of dumping the waste for Druid-Lady to mourn, they could sell it to real stoners. I’m pretty sure that a binbag full of homegrown would fetch a lot more than £35, enabling the gardeners to pay the council to take their waste and making them a tidy profit, too.

Truly, the Green Shoots of Economic Recovery™ for Birmingham’s Hard-Working Families™.

Pass the bong, please, Binman Bormann.

Thoughts on monetising user data

Aral Balkan asked me to “cut to the chase, Bruce: do you find anything wrong with the business models of Facebook & Google (monetising data)?”

It’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about, but it needs more than 140 characters, so here goes. Note that these are my personal opinions. I work for Opera, which has business relationships with Google, Facebook, and its own advertising arm of the business.

But I also use Google and Facebook services privately so have my own views as a user; again, these are my opinions, not those of my employers.

I work on the web, but at home on my own, so I use Facebook and Twitter a lot. Not only is it useful for discussing work, but it’s my “watercooler”. I don’t mind that the personal stuff I write is publicly available, although I keep my location secret and no longer put the names of my kids online. (Facebook stuff isn’t public. I only really use it as it’s where non-geek real-life friends are.)

I don’t much mind that Google tracks my searching habits around the Web (although I would pay money not to have to watch Treehouse Woman again on YouTube, because she’s too shinyhappy, and puts her coffee down on a wooden surface without using a coaster).

The annoyance I find is offset by the fact that I understand why they do this; it’s how they make money to support the services I use for free, which are primarily Search, Gmail and YouTube. (I get no benefit from Google+.)

In short – I understand that “I am the product being sold”, and am OK with that. Similarly, I’m fine with getting tailored money-off vouchers for products that I use, sent to me by supermarkets who know what I use because they monitor it. I opt in, because I see value in that. You may not; that’s fine.

As long as the companys’ privacy settings are both clear, and honoured by the company, I don’t see this data gathering and data mining as inherently intrusive. I’m not sure that all companies privacy settings are sufficiently clear, however; I read a case study some years ago in which a good-sized sample of people were asked what privacy settings they had on their social networking, and it was compared with the actual setting – very few matched. The Facebook Android app permissions are certainly opaque.

Perhaps companies that do monetize data could make their privacy settings more transparent, and be even more obvious that the price of free is your data. But I think the latter is pretty obvious to those who give it a little thought; we can’t always handhold stupid people. There should certainly be a simple method to delete all one’s data and history from public view, and which will be removed from the company’s server/ archive within a defined period of time.

What annoys me most is when people or organisations use my data without my permission. For example, a few years ago, my wife had a minor car accident. Somewhere in the chain of insurance company, loss adjusters and repairs garage, our phone number was given to an unauthorised third party and occasionally I receive a phone call from a call centre trying to sell me “no win, no fee” ambulance-chasing legal services.

But beyond annoyance, what alarms me is secretive State intrusion into my life through my digital tracks. I assume that all companies – whether a supermarket loyalty scheme or a social network – regularly comply with warrants from law-enforcement agencies going about their legitimate work.

Let’s assume that the social networks and search engines, as they claim, don’t just hand over all their data to the governmental snoops. It then seems to me that, unless they’ve been fantastically lax with their security – which is certainly possible, but unlikely, given that it’s their core cash-generating asset – they can’t be blamed for the actions of the government.

We know from Edward Snowden that some companies’ data is just wholesale hacked by NSA, GCHQ and other state bodies. The legality of this is being debated in courts at the moment. The morality of this is clear (to me): it’s wrong. “If you’ve nothing to hide, you’ve nothing to fear” is the refrain of the KGB, the Gestapo and every despot across the globe.

Government intrusion isn’t new. When I was a teenager, I joined a communist party. My letters from them were always opened (and no others). Presumably, this was done actually by the UK Post Office on police orders – that is, complete collusion, even thought there was no warrant or reason to fear an idealistic but naive 17 year old. It’s also long been rumoured that the voting slips of all UK communist voters were cross-referenced against their counterfoils and the names of communist voters given to Special Branch and MI5.

In short, to answer Aral’s question: I don’t feel that commercial organisations using data that I’ve opted to provide them, for the purposes they said they’ll use if for, is wrong. It’s part of modern capitalism, which contains plenty I have to hold my nose about, but that’s a much longer blog post which I can’t be bothered to write.

The worrisome aspect is states illegally stealing our data from those companies, and putting us under constant surveillance, justified by keeping us safe from this year’s bogeymen.

But those same social networks and web companies allow us to share information on what they’re doing and organise in order to protest against it. The tension between individual liberty (I believe privacy is an integral part of liberty) and state control is not new. The threat may be greater because of technology, but the platform to fight it from is greater, too.

(I invited Aral to respond to this but as yet there’s no reply.)

News from a parallel universe

It’s been reported the United States of Yemen has killed 14 unarmed civilians attending a wedding party in America’s rural Al’a-Baama province.

Yemeni officials would not corroborate the reports, but it’s known that they have been using unmanned drones to bomb targets in America, United Kingdom and France, killing many civilians and children.

Yemen, along with Pakistan, Afghanistan and other permanent members of the UN Security Council, accuses America of causing instability in the Middle East and around the world, tolerating extremists who advocate invasion of other nations to export their state religion, “Capitalism”.

America is regarded as a failing state by Yemen. America’s President, Barack Obama, is the first from its sizeable black minority that was, until the 1960s, segregated from its white majority and which still makes up a disproportionate number of its prison population (which is the highest incarceration rate in the world).

A Yemeni government official noted that President Obama is dangerously weak, and unable to control the huge numbers of weapons circulating unchecked inside the country. There are regular reports of massacres in schools in the country but the government is unable or unwilling to intervene.

Analysts report that the growing influence of fundamentalist Christianist preachers – many closely linked to members of the ruling elite – has systemetically eroded the rights of women and gay people. The concentration of the nation’s wealth into the hands of a few oligarchical dynasties has left a large minority without access even to healthcare.

There were furious anti-Yemeni riots in America’s capital, Washington DC. American security experts have argued that drones have on numerous occasions have directly played into the Christianists’ favor, turning peaceful tribal communities into vengeful killers.

Reporter Bruce Lawson is a citizen of the UK, but was born in Yemen.

UK ISPs confirm central database of filter opt-ins

After convincing my Member of Parliament, John Hemming, of the folly of Cameron’s plan to censor the web in the UK (sorry, I mean filter the web), he’s been doing some digging with the ISPs, writing to them to ask whether they plan to store your opt-ins privately on your router, or centrally.

He’s published the answers to his emails to BT, Sky and Virgin. BT were evasive, and TalkTalk didn’t formally respond, but it’s pretty clear they’ll store them in a centralised database. What could possibly go wrong with the government having access to a list of all those who want to see porn or “extremist” sites? It’s not like we live in a surveillance society, is it?

John and I would like to publish a fuller list. If you are a customer of an ISP that’s not on the list, please email them and ask them if they plan to store your opt-ins on a centralised database, what categories they intend to filter (eg, porn, extremism, alcohol, drugs) and how they will categorise them (eg, who will decide whether BNP/ EDL sites are “extremist”?) and paste it into a comment below. Please include the date and time the reply was sent, and who signed it (so we can double-check before publishing on John’s blog).


We need a war on authoritarianism

It was with incredulity that I read the reports of that David Miranda, partner of the Guardian journalist who worked on the Snowden leaks, was detained by UK agents for 9 hours under anti-terrorism legislation. (In what sense is Snowden related to terrorism, anyway?)

It felt like when I was back in my teens, when the government attempted to ban books and every CND or anti-fascist march I went on (most weekends) would be surrounded by police photographing all the marchers, and every newsletter I received from the British Communist Party was mysteriously opened in transit.

The Thatcher years were dark times for real liberals – the neocons were economic “liberals” but social authoritarians (see Section 28 as an example), and I hoped that the UK was getting better when Blair came to power. Ha!

I used to switch voting between the Labour and Liberal parties, in order to ensure the Tories stayed out. Eventually, I decided I couldn’t vote Labour again while those who supported introducing ID cards were in its hierarchy. For people my age (who grew up in the 70s, just 20 years after the end of WW2), a representative of the state murmuring “papers, please” in a film was a short-cut for Soviet or Nazi state. I’ve always been proud that in the UK, if I’m lawfully going about my business, no-one has a right to ask me to prove who I am. (Of course, if I had been a young black man, the Sus law would have been my nemesis).

But now we have a government made of a coalition of the Liberal Party and the Conservatives that seems to me even more authoritarian. The Conservatives constantly bang on about “rolling back the state”, but that is a smokescreen for ideological dismantling of state benefits, of planning regulations and of redistribution of wealth. The state increasingly meddles in the lives of people in the UK, even though the government promised

We will implement a full programme of measures to reverse the substantial erosion of civil liberties and roll back state intrusion. The Coalition: our programme for government (section 3) (PDF, 475K)

Yet they want to censor the Web (probably the UK’s greatest contribution to the modern world) and set up centralised databases of who wishes to view certain types of material with no transparency or accountability, and without a Parliamentary debate. They snoop on us via information provided by the outrageous US PRISM surveillance system. People are hounded for expressing unpleasant views on social networking. They use anti-terrorism legislation to intimidate a journalist. I’m too scared to go on protests because of heavy-handed policing – Ian Tomlinson was killed by the Metropolitan Police.

I used to mock Americans who were programmed to believe their government was corrupt and intrusive. Of course, that can lead to weirdos in the mountains with huge caches of legal guns, or the absurdities of an American friend of mine who told me once that she had no moral obligation to pay any tax while bemoaning the fact that there is no NHS in the USA.

But I’m starting to feel that the Americans who are healthily suspicious of government have a point. Just as any company in a capitalist economy tends to monopoly (the imperative to maximise profit and marketshare inexorably points that way), it seems that, without proper check and balances, all government tends towards authoritarianism.

It’s obvious that in the UK we no longer have the correct checks and balances. “They” do as they please, because we – and “they” – have forgotten that they work for us, and are not our masters. This doesn’t feel as the UK should. We, the people, need to declare a war on authoritarianism.