Thursday, 31 October 2019

Grenfell victimisation

The first stage of the Grenfell Inquiry confirmed much of what we knew already: that the building refurbishment breached fire regulations which themselves are probably lax compared with countries such as the USA and the emergency response was brave but lacking in common sense.  So nothing much surprising, even though it took over 2 years. Indeed, the fact that the second stage may not report until 2022 is depressing, not surprising. No wonder it takes us so long to build a railway or a nuclear power station.

Much ordure has been heaped on the head of the London Fire Brigade commissioner Dany Cotton, mainly for the "remarkable insensitivity" of her evidence, saying she would not change anything done on the night and comparing the incident with a spacecraft landing on the Shard, even though cladding fires have happened before including one at Lakanal House in south London which killed six people in 2009. One wonders why she didn't say that, in hindsight, more people might have been saved by changing from "stay put" much earlier, though that wasn't necessarily obvious at the time. Some have speculated that Cotton's stonewalling approach might have flowed from legal advice to try to avoid liability for the fire brigade. But it doesn't take the forensic legal mind of a retired judge to point out that, as the fire brigade belatedly switched from "stay put" to "evacuate" that doing so earlier might have helped.

Ms Cotton was also criticised for her "apparent lack of curiosity" when she arrived on site at 3am. Now I made a whole management career out of asking simple questions - the most revealing responses often flowed from questions I had thought almost too dumb to ask - but the situation on the ground at that time at Grenfell didn't really lend itself to detailed quizzing of her subordinates about what they were doing and why.

The issue of building regulations, practice, checking and inspection will surely prove to be more substantive and to hold out the prospect of saving lives in the future without resorting to last ditch efforts by emergency services working in life threatening conditions. But in the meantime the resentful cry has gone up about Ms Cotton's remuneration. "Grenfell fury at £234,000 boss's plan to retire at 50 with pension pot of £2M" said the Daily Mail, for example.

Now I'm not sure why the LFB commissioner earns £234k, a lot more than the prime minister. The job has scale, but limited complexity - there are a lot of fire stations and folk in them all charged with doing the same things. But she does earn £234k. "She should not get any pay off" said one Grenfell survivor, arguing that Ms Cotton should be stripped of her pension. Another described Ms Cotton's pension as "like winning the lottery".

Now one can argue that some public sector pension schemes are wildly generous, wholly unaffordable in the private sector. (Hypocrisy alert - I benefited through being a member of such a scheme for most of the first half of my career....) Ms Cotton can retire aged 50 on a full pension with 32 years service, 3 years of it as commissioner. And in the nature of final salary schemes folk like Ms Cotton who complete their career with a stratospheric salary get their whole pension based on that salary, even though their contributions were based on a much lower average salary across tgeir career. This form of subsidy by the people who stay in the same grade all their career has always struck me as a Robin Hood in reverse kind of stealing from the poor to give to the rich. ("Yes, but don't tell them" said one company pension manager when I made that remark many years ago). And I don't know whether Ms Cotton is benefiting from any added years enhancement if she retires early - I suspect not given the way I understand the fire brigade and police pensions schemes are set up. But if she is not, it's ever so simple. Pensions are just deferred pay. Ms Cotton has earned this benefit through her career and is entitled to now claim it. There appears to be no case that she has not done her job - she hasn't been suspended or investigated to my knowledge. If she was sacked I feel sure she would successfully claim unfair dismissal at an industrial tribunal. But even if she was culpable, she had worked through all her career to that point and earned her pay doing it.

So Dany Cotton should be allowed to retire in peace and reflect on her lack of sensitivity at her leisure while I reflect on just how unforgiving and vengeful our society has become, always looking for someone to blame, even if they were just doing their job.

In the meantime there are more important things to address. Building regulations and how we check compliance certainly. Public sector pension schemes - yes to that too, though politically difficult the current apartheid like divide with the private sector is unjustifiable.

I am left with one other uncomfortable and currently almost unsayable thought. How did such an apparently limited individual as Dany Cotton come to be commissioner of the London Fire Brigade? I accept that the Inquiry might not have revealed all her management competencies. But on what we saw? We need more women in high profile jobs throughout our society but maybe this one was over promoted - a comment that obviously you could equally make had she been male, but there is pressure to appoint women these days.

But she was put in the role and, if she wasn't up to it the LFB should look at its appointment process. As she was put in the role and presumably up to Grenfell was performing satisfactorily she is entitled to her pay, including the deferred pensionable element. After all there are plenty of women arguing currently that if you do the job the pay should be the same, however well you do it (though mostly these are female employees at the BBC.....)

Leave Dany Cotton alone with her no doubt uncomfortable thoughts and let's move on to the more important issues. Can someone give Sir Martin Moore-Bick a prod to hurry up? There I go, looking for someone to blame....

Friday, 25 October 2019

Hacked off by the Haka

The rugby world cup has been a great success, typhoons notwithstanding, particularly because of the Japanese hosts: both their organisation and their joyous, fast, entertaining play. But now we move on to the business end of the tournament with the expected big guns in the semi-finals.

I am hoping Wales and England will play well and win. I am rather more confident about Wales, though they haven't played that well yet. As ever, England will have to play a solid game through the whole match to beat the All Blacks who, not unreasonably, have been described as the most outstanding team in world sport in recent decades.

England's first problem with the All Blacks is one I share: what to do about the haka, their pre-match ritual inspired by Maori culture. I don't care for the haka, partly because it is clearly ridiculous - it must be almost demeaning to perform. It's not so much that the All Blacks perform their ritual,  which is clearly intended to be not only motivational but also confrontational and intimidating, more the range of problems that it has thrown up in terms of how opposition teams respond.

 I'm not the only one who feels this way, though I admit I'm in a minority. I've been reading two interesting histories of the haka. One you can read at gives a history of recent responses by other teams which have included teams going nose to nose with the All Blacks and the Tongans performing a kind of rival ritual at the same time. These pranks have usually not ended well as they seem to have motivated the All Blacks to even higher levels of performance. For example, in 1997 hooker Richard Cockerill, making his test debut for England, crossed the halfway line to go nose to nose with his opposite number during the haka. There was some pushing and shoving before the referee intervened. As the teams took their positions England captain Martin Johnson asked Cockerill "what the *** have you done?". New Zealand won 25-8. There are many other examples of teams confronting or ignoring the haka, only to motivate the All Blacks performing it.

During the Lions tour of 2005, coach Sir Clive Woodward did some research and formulated a response which was intended to both respect the haka and show the All Blacks his team were ready for battle. “It was based on getting an email from a Māori,” said Woodward. “It said the chief (O’Driscoll) should go out with one of the youngest players and he should then accept the challenge after the haka is done by picking up and throwing a piece of grass in the air as a mark of respect and friendship. That’s why we did it. We thought it was a nice idea.” He perhaps should have shared this idea with his opposite number, since the it is possible that the Kiwis did not think it was such a nice idea: this was the match in which, after less than one minute's play, O'Driscoll was picked up and slammed down on his neck by two New Zealand players. I hadn't been aware of this possible connection.

The haka does have a long history - when Wales played New Zealand for the first time in Cardiff in 1905 it was performed between the two national anthems, rather than immediately before the kick off. In a match to mark the centenary of the first game Wales persuaded New Zealand to recreate the original sequence. (It didn't change much, the All Blacks won 41-3).  Wales asked for the same change in 2006, citing consultation with two Maori chiefs that their national anthem was an appropriate response to the haka. Despite six weeks notice the New Zealanders resisted and, after a stand off, decided to perform their routine in their dressing room. The crowd, puzzled by the absence of the haka, booed and New Zealand won 45-10.

Before the 1991 World Cup semi final, Australian David Campese ignored the haka by practicing his kicking before going on to produce a great individual performance as the Aussies won 16-6. Other teams have gone into a pre-game huddle to blot out the noise and gurning. But this option seems to have been squashed as I understand World Rugby has decreed that opposition teams must "respect" the haka. This seems to me to be handing an instiutionalised advantage to the Kiwis. 

But in an interesting rugby blog called blitzdefence (sounds more gridiron,  know) I came across at  the writers said "It's time to end the haka" arguing that, while the haka has been performed for over a hundred years, a look at old videos shows it changed beyond recognition in the 1980s. For example, take a look at this rather comical you tube clip of the haka in 1973: 

By 2005 it's a lot more aggressive:

Moreover, until 1986 it was performed exclusively overseas, not in New Zealand. So much for tradition.

The problem is it leaves opponents, under instruction to "respect" the haka, a dilemma. Stand there and watch? Or turn your backs on them, risk censure and motivating the opposition further?

Blitzdefence argue that, in an era of professional sport, it is wrong to give the All Blacks special treatment by allowing them to perform their ritual immediately before kick off and not other teams whatever the supposed cultural significance. Oh yes, it is special treatment: the Aussies had Waltzing Matilda blasted out for a while before kick off until the 2003 World Cup where it was decreed teams could have only one song, i.e. their national anthem, apart from songs that are culturally important. Which turned out to just be the haka. (OK, so just sing it and stand still then!) 

Blitzdefence suggest it's time to give opposing teams the choice of whether the All Blacks can perform the haka before kick off or whether, if they want to perform it on the pitch, they must do so well before the national anthems, perhaps 20 minutes before kick off, i.e. while the teams are doing their warm up. I would add, if it's done while both teams are on the pitch, let them perform it at one end, facing the crowd, not adjacent to the half way line. 

The crowd can, of course, intervene: in 2012 the Twickenham crowd blotted out the haka with Swing Low Sweet Chariot.

That option isn't open to England tomorrow. Their best response will be to simply go out and win the game. At least I can't see Owen Farrell being intimidated.

But the haka has become a distraction. Shift it away from kick off and let's concentrate on the game.

P.S. England's "V" formation, boxing in the All Black's haka and making them look rather like a bunch of snooker reds waiting to be scattered, was perhaps the most effective opposition response to date. And I loved Owen Farrell's wry smirk. But I enjoyed the England performance in the match far more. This England team was confident enough to not be intimidated by the All Blacks reputation. It was one of the best English rugby performances I've seen. A shame the Welsh couldn't produce a good enough performance against South Africa.

Wednesday, 23 October 2019

Which useful idiot will win my prize?

There is a new candidate for my useful idiot of the decade award, which I had thought was a walkover for Margaret Beckett, the self confessed moron.

Mags, bless her, nominated Jeremy Corbyn even though she didn't want him as Labour leader because she thought there should be a candidate from the left in the leadership election even though he didn't have enough support to even get on the ballot paper. "At no point did I intend to vote for Jeremy myself.....nor advise anyone else to do it," she said. When MPs who "lent" their nominations to Mr Corbyn to "broaden the debate" were described as "morons" she didn't demur*. Beckett is one of the touted candidates for caretaker prime minister in the risible GNU (Government of National Unity) idea.

How could that be beaten?

Well Sir Oliver Letwin has stepped forward with his successful amendment to the Commons motion which allowed MPs to defer the decision on Brexit, even tough he supports Johnson's deal and subsequently voted for it. 

Letwin, of course, has form: he was the brains behind the poll tax which did for Margaret Thatcher and also behind the fixed term Parliament Act which means we can't get an election even though the current Parliament is moribund and discredited. Apparently when he was a teenager he was branded a "nice boy, but no common sense"**.

I guess which idiot wins my prize depends on whether Corbyn ever gets to be PM or whether Letwin's intervention proves fatal for Brexit. The latter seems somewhat more likely at the moment, though on current public mood even if this Parliament can't get Brexit done I think the bookies would favour Leave to win a second referendum (the EU seem to think that's what would happen) and Johnson would probably win a majority in a General election on a platform of getting the deal implemented. While Corbyn is long odds to be PM at the moment things can change and I hate to think how much damage he and his ilk would do to the economy in a 5 year term. Probably far more than any hit from Brexit, which I am currently feeling could be smaller than the musings of the dismal scientists that are economists.

* BBC website: Maraget Beckett: I was moron to nominate Jeremy Corbyn
** Dominic Lawson's account in the Daily Mail.

Sunday, 13 October 2019

Blame game put on hold - for now

The most encouraging development in the Brexit negotiations since, well the start really, has been the refusal of key players to provide details or engage in direct communications with audiences outside the negotiation since the meeting between Johnson and Varadkar. Varadkar's press conference after the meeting, which I heard live on the radio, was the first time I think I've ever heard him say anything sensible, because he declined to say anything very much. This sort of communications embargo is essential to allow any negotiations the space to operate. In that regard the timing of Boris Johnson's lawful second attempt at prorogation has proved to be well timed as you can bet mischievous elements in the Commons would have continued their determined attempts to undermine any prospect of a deal. The fact that this prorogation is presumably lawful as no-one took the PM to court, rather than because it follows any explicit "law" just shows how farcical the plot has become.

I've been particularly ascerbic about Junker and Varadkar but Donald Tusk has probably been the worst culprit for talking out instead of keeping shtum. Wolfgang Munchau noted a few days ago* that his tweets have been unhelpful: "You cannot simultaneously complain about politicians resorting to a blame game, and then blame the other side". He also believes that Tusk's persistent moralistic interventions has strengthened the Brexit camp in the UK. "The more you push, the bigger the push-back".

Meanwhile Christopher Meyer, a former ambassador to the US and Germany, argues strongly that the concept of "red lines" has been unhelpful in the negotiation, saying it's imprecise and not clear whether they represent a bottom line, a fall back position, or something in between**. He favours the simple modus operandi of having an opening position, fallback positions and a bottom line you won't go beyond, after which no deal is always better than a bad deal. But he notes that the last part of that has become politically toxic, even though without it the other side will assume you will do a deal at any price, giving them a huge advantage. He tells of how walking out of a negotiation with the Russians in the 1980s led to their team coming to Moscow airport to re-open negotiations as ultimately they didn't want no deal but the Brits were prepared for it. "From a purely negotiating point of view, the Benn Act is folly on stilts" he says, though he is hoping that the damage no deal would do to some EU regions will mean that Brussels can't, in the limit, afford no deal either.

My observation would be that, almost without exception, everyone who says no deal should be taken off the table actually wants to remain and it is, almost without exception, simply a ruse to to to prevent us leaving under any circumstances. Wanting to remain is a legitimate desire, but I just wish people would come clean about their motives. After all, can anyone name me a single prominent leave supporter who would not, under any circumstances, accept no deal?

Ironically then Munchau thinks the Benn extension bill makes the prospect of a majority in favour of a second referendum less likely because it takes the pressure is off. "This is the trouble with extensions. They resolve nothing".
It's going to be a long week in politics leading up to the unusual, outside of war, sitting of the Commons on a Saturday, the 19th of October, the date by which the Benn Act requires the PM to send his surrender letter, sorry extension request, to Brussels if there is no Parliamentary approval for a deal or no deal. After which we might all be in a tunnel but not of love - one with potential for resumption of litigation and court cases on a grand scale.

Alternatively there could be a breakthrough that leads to a deal which can also command a majority in the Commons. The odds must be against that as I can't quite see how Johnson gets enough of the Spartans, the DUP, the ex-Tory rebels and a handful of Labour MPs to vote with the rump of Tory MPs to win a vote. But first he has to get something from Brussels. May's red lines proved unhelpful because they weren't red or lines but the Brussels position has been totally inflexible and has paid no regard to the need for new and therefore unproven solutions to solve the Irish border issue. Even if Johnosn can keep no deal on the table Munchau isn't certain the EU will respond, saying the tragedy of the EU is that it will only offer real concessions in the Brexit negotiations when a no-deal Brexit looks certain. "At that point, it might be too late".

But at least they could then all resume the blame game.

There will be plenty of blame to place. Not just whether we've remained or left - and if left on what terms - but potentially a resumption of the Irish troubles and the break up of the United Kingdom. Would such a break up be a bad thing? a thought for another day.

*Eurointelligence blog 9 October

** "Swap red lines for no deal and, hey presto, a deal" Sunday Times 13 October

Thursday, 3 October 2019

Rotten to the core

I've commented before about there being five EU presidents, none of which (I think) we can get rid of. I admit one is the president of the European Central Bank, which doesn't really count from that point of view. People who know a thing or two have told me that the Commission is the EU's civil service and, since we can't get rid of civil servants in the UK through the ballot box, then I'm barking up the wrong tree. I had accepted that this was a fair point, until I read today an academic piece that attempts to properly kibosh my argument. Except that it doesn't.

Eponine Howarth of the LSE has published an article titled "Is the European Union governed by 'unelected bureaucrats'". Eponine has an LLB, i.e. a bachelor's degree in law, so will know a lot more stuff than me. She says the claim shows a "deep misunderstanding of European executive politics". (Guilty, though I've been in the Berlaymont many times and seen some of it for myself, which I think counts for something). While the EU Commission staff, some 33,000 of them, are indeed unelected and bureaucrats, Eponine points out that this is fewer civil servants than run a major city, like Paris or London and the UK nationally has 440,000 civil servants, all unelected, just like those of most other governments. She gives the example of Michel Barnier, the EU's lead Brexit negotiator, who is responsible to the Commission and to the 28 member state governments. She describes the main role of the Commission, lead by its president Jean-Claude Junker, as being to propose legislation, manage the implementation of policies and funds and represent the EU in bilateral or multilateral trade agreements. The European Commission is also “the guardian of the Treaties” and can take EU Member States that infringe EU law to the ECJ (European Court of Justice). The Commission acts under powers delegated by the member states represented in the European Council. If you are interested in the detail the article, referenced below*, is quite short.

But hold it right there, Eponine. The Commission's main role is to propose legislation (the italics are hers, not mine).  That is not the way the a national civil service works at all. Sure, they produce all sorts of position papers and float ideas which, via Sir Humphrey influence, they might manage to persuade ministers of the crown to adopt. And anyone who has read Ken Clarke's description of "the blob" will know how much power they can wield and how much inertia they can summon up when they dig their feet in. But fundamentally the ideas for legislation here come from election manifestos. 

Eponine undermines her own argument further by pointing out that, not only is agenda-setting delegated to the Commission, "the Commission .... has the ability to change the direction of the original policy outcome, despite following the broader policy directions imposed by the heads of state in the European Council." Yes the EU Council has to approve the resulting legislation, but the initiative is with the blob.She then describes the accountability mechanisms which I would simply comment don't seem to be very effective in changing anything very much.

The power to take member states to court also seems to me a complete confusion of roles, totally unrelated to the role of a civil service.

So don't kid yourself, the EU is indeed run (or at least driven) by unelected bureaucrats. 

The reason I was researching this was a piece in the weekend's newspapers about the incoming EU Commissioners, due to take their posts at the end of October. They include some strange characters**:

  • Ursula Von der Leyen, who is due to succeed Junker as president of the Commission, faces a grilling from the German parliament over allegations of mismanagement and misspending during the five and a half years she spent in her last job at their defence ministry. 
  • Laszlo Trocsanyi, a former Hungarian justice minister due to be in charge of the EU's further eastward expansion (eh?) had his candidacy vetoed by the EU's Parliament's legal affairs commitee last week. He was blocked because of concern that the law firm he founded had been granted contracts by the Hungarian state while he was in government together with his role in extraditions to Russia
  • Romanian Rovana Plumb, set to become transport commissioner, is under scrutiny because of loans she had taken and whether they could be repaid in an "open and transparent manner". But she was already notorious because of claims in the Romanian media that, in 2014, she "forgot" to declare her Audi Q7 car which had been registered in Bulgaria in an apparent attempt to avoid a special tax on 4x4s - which she had introduced herself as transport minister.
  • Sylvie Goulard, a former French defence minister and ally of President Macron. She is a suspect in a case involving fictitious jobs when she served as an MEP.
  • Dubravaka Suica, who has amassed a large property portfolio in her native Croatia, which she has dismissed as "fake news"
The Romanian government may replace Plumb but the Hungarian PM is reportedly ready to fight over Trocsanyi. But MEPs were angry that the legal affairs committee was told to hold a further hearing with these two candidates. While purportedly because of a "minor procedural error" they saw it as an attempt to pressure them to reconsider their verdict.

It's not all bad news for the candidate commissioners: Belgian authorities have dropped an investigation of corruption and money laundering into Didier Reynders, their country's commissioner nominee.

This bunch of candidates is all too typical of the third rate or plain dodgy politicians for whom member states use the EU as a route to put out to grass. And, while in principle member states can object, it doesn't get them far and they don't have a veto: look how far David Cameron got in 2014 trying to block Junker.

So I disagree, Eponine. These people hold huge influence over the future direction of the EU and individual member states can effectively be railroaded. They occupy positions that are quite unlike our civil servants, they are unelected and we can't get rid of them.

Of course, Remainers argue that the EU isn't perfect and they accept it needs reform. We've tried that for 20 years and failed. But we can get out of this inefficient, bureaucratic and arguably corrupt quasi- state: by removing ourselves rather than them.

One of the real problems with Brexit is that the Commission is driving things for the EU, not the member states. The commission has a vested interest in keeping the UK in the EU and in showing others that it's impossible to leave. Because that's what keeps them in the style they are accustomed to.

If I understand what people in the EU and Ireland are saying tonight about the latest UK attempt to get a sensible deal, decoded it means "you can't actually leave. You can sort of leave but not leave (i.e. stay in the single market and customs union). Or at least you can't really leave and also keep the United Kingdom intact". Because that's what it amounts to. If that is what they mean I say "just try us, chum".


** from "Bad start for the new EU chief as two of her team get the kibosh", Sunday Times 29 September 2019.