Migrants are People too

The EU and particularly France and the UK have a refugee problem which is rapidly getting out of control. Let’s say that in Calais the French and UK police manage to stop any migrants getting near the Channel tunnel. This will lead to a steady build up of more and more people squatting in and around Calais. The flow of refugees from Africa and the Middle East is accessing the EU far away in the South so stopping the flow at Calais is not going to stop the EU ingress.

However doing nothing will only make the flow increase. Apparently millions of people around the world are on the move filling refugee camps in the Middle East and elsewhere. It is like an unstoppable force of nature. Maybe not stoppable but it can be better managed like the rechanneling of a river. Taking in refugees at one end, preparing them for another life elsewhere and then letting them move on.

I can only tentatively suggest that Europe has to create accommodation for refugees, work with their existing skills and add to them through education and training to make them citizens that other countries will wish to take on. For example the UK is importing huge numbers of nurses from countries which can ill afford to lose them. If the UK created a surplus of nurses through refugee training, those countries might not lose out so badly.

As it is the current UK and French policies are counterproductive, absorbing huge resources of money and manpower and not solving the problem.


Scottish Independence – New Jobs

It is simplistic to argue that new jobs and  better employment prospects will automatically flow from independence. What should be easier will be the creation of the conditions for that improvement.

But it is a big task and will take a number of years. We actually rely on incomers (what a pejorative word!) in many walks of life from top surgeons to farm workers to skilled tradesmen to carers to the catering industry and many more. Does that mean that the indigenous population is genetically incapable of doing any of this. Of course not, but a cultural habit has grown over time which has meant many people, parents and children, lack the ambition and the skills  to be self-sufficient.

That requires a change over many areas of life starting with education and training and including our benefits and taxation system. Education must start with valuing the contribution that every child can make. Tony Blair’s mantra of 50% going to university set a disparaging tone for the other 50%. Why should a person with a degree be more valuable to society than a person without one? People should be judged by their contribution not their qualification.

Let’s hope that after Independence we have leaders who can rise to this challenge.

After Independence – What Jobs?

It is worrying when the Bank for International Settlements is suggesting that the world economy is more fragile than it was in 2007/8. I have always thought that politicians had really only pushed the problem further down the road and that nothing had actually been done to create a more stable and sustainable economic environment.

Radio 4 Today programme ran a piece about the Chinese developing a railway link from China through to Europe. This may or may not be a good thing for the West or China but it is is another signal of quite how enterprising Asia and in particular China are in grasping every opportunity to develop their economies.

The mantra by the Yes and the No campaigns has been about how it will be better for jobs in the future, either in an dependent Scotland or in the existing Union. Neither side specifies the type of jobs apart form vague murmurings about IT, Creativity, Inventiveness, Science and the like. But the West is lagging way behind the emerging economies in terms of those kind of jobs. Doubtless there will be niche markets and success stories, but we actually need to concentrate on the vast army of the poorly paid, the low skilled and the un- or under-employed. Our education system in Scotland and elsewhere in the UK is still not  fulfilling the needs of the up and coming generation. Many people, especially the young, are meandering from one unfulfilling  occupation to another, rudderless.

So what jobs will be there in the future. For a minority, there will be jobs requiring intellectual ability in Science, in Arts, in IT as well as the old professions of the Law, Education, etc. But to be really prosperous Scotland cannot afford a large group of citizens who are unable to contribute for all sorts of reasons, mostly not of their own making. One category is the jobs which cannot be readily automated and are labour intensive. These include the traditional trades of joiner, plumber, electrician, the caring professions, nurses, social care officers, home care workers, the entertainment and leisure industries such as catering, personal services such as hairdressers, public  transport particularly buses and no doubt others that I have not considered. But our education and training systems must provide young people with an enthusiasm for these kind of jobs as well as a good liberal education and it must become the norm for youngsters to expect to leave school to enter training for these kind of careers if they are not going into more academic further education. I have said elsewhere that the transition from school to the world of work is woefully inadequately catered for in our system and yet it is where most of our young people falter and often fail to grasp good opportunities.

Changing Scottish Society

It will be a slow process converting the society and the culture in Scotland to a more people kindly model. We have lived with an increasingly aggressive Anglo-American model for many years. The mantra of the market economy, of capitalism as the the only sure method of running a country has been around for centuries and it has largely seen off its rivals. But its recent direction of travel has turned it into a monster rather than a benign method of government. Linked to a failure of democracy where governments come and go with no more than a passing nod to the hopes and fears of the people they govern, we are beginning to see the “end of era”, not unlike the last days of Rome. Are we all asleep in the so called great Western Democracies?

So what are the changes we need to make in an independent Scotland. One starting point might be the tax system. We should create a system which makes everyone pay a reasonable and fair share of the costs of the country, so the more you have the more you pay. However rather than have the burden of many people living a lifetime on benefits the tax system should encourage more and more people into worthwhile employment. Every bit of earnings no matter how small should be a plus. Earn a shilling, be taxed a penny, earn a pound be taxed ten pence. And lose none of the state benefits until you reach the tipping point when you pay in tax the same as you receive in benefits  and after that you continue to pay more and more tax than your benefits. In effect your benefits become your personal allowance.

However the economy needs to provide opportunities for work over a broad front to accommodate as many of the nations talents as possible. It starts with education and then training. it continues with support for business across a wide spectrum. Let’s be creative, make things, trade things, not be frightened of failure, encourage inventiveness within a benign tax system for enterprise and business. Let entrepreneurs flourish and make money but be sure to pay a fair proportion of the tax burden. Let’s have politicians who govern according to the wishes of the voters. Wishful thinking no doubt but that does not mean in a new Scotland we should not aspire to it.



This was first written some two years ago but is still very relevant.

There is no real evidence that private companies are routinely any better at delivering a service than any other type of organisation. It follows that mimicking a private company in a public organisation such as the NHS does not of itself improve outcomes. Governments have for a long time been fixated on the idea that to emulate the private sector in public bodies would overnight make them more efficient. I would have thought by now somebody would have realised that in spite of many attempts the NHS has not achieved what successive government ministers have claimed for their reforms on taking up office. The internal market, the layers of bureaucracy and business managers have not radically altered the fundamentals of the NHS.
The same is true of the railways. The public purse is still having to subsidise the railway to much the same extent that British Rail was supported hardly fulfilling the extravagant claims made by a then Tory  government at the time of privatisation.
There is one thing in common, the eagerness of private companies to get involved. There is also an unusual lack of resistance from the chief executives of the public bodies being sold off. This may reflect the fact that very few  are ever made redundant but many do see their own remuneration soar to the stratosphere. Private companies do not take over state run enterprises for altruistic reasons. If they do not act in shareholder interest they are actually going against their own guiding principles. Of course some of their avaricious dreams do not materialise; the eastern railway service to Scotland was a case in point which has conveniently disappeared from the radar since re-nationalisation.
Who is facilitating this  process of privatisation? It has to be the central government, the owner of these public corporations. Individual members of governments and MPs in general seek a mandate at elections which has at core the benefit of all voters but how many voters see realistic improvements in the public services which are exclusively driven by the privatisation of the service. It is a small global elite of mega rich individuals who most benefit from these actions of governments. Of course it is true that many ordinary individuals have direct or indirect holding of shares in private companies. An example  oft quoted is pension schemes but one could argue that the erosion of pension benefits is as a result of the owners of private pension providers seeing too much of the pot slipping from their grasp and who have altered the playing field accordingly.

Why do governments so readily facilitate this handover to the private sector? Individuals in government may well be themselves members of the mega rich but there is also a sufficient number of MPs recruited from an ever narrowing strata of society with close ties to the mega rich to make it difficult for any stray MPs from other parts of society to resist the self-interest which immediately surrounds them as soon as they enter politics. They are drawn into the fold whose own preservation and advancement requires them to support the interests of this global fraternity of the elite mega rich.
David “the NHS is safe in my hands” Cameron has been able in just two or three years to enormously advance the grip that private companies have on public bodies from the NHS to schools the prison service and even our justice system. John Major privatised the railways in a conventional fashion in full public view. This time round, the introduction of the private sector has been more nuanced.  In full public view most people have not yet realised the extent to which the private sector have been given access to rich pickings in the NHS. Partly this is through the need for stealth in the face of possible public opposition but also because there are parts of the NHS that are not and never will be profitable. In other words this is best left to the public purse to fund. While Twitter in particular has been a mouthpiece for condemnation of the process, the mass of ordinary people seem unaware of what is going on and the mainstream media have been curiously quiet. The recently enacted Health Act has removed the obligation on the Secretary of State to provide health care for all the population, at the same time allowing private companies to tender for any part of the NHS they think might be profitable. This alone should have brought protesters onto every high street in the land.
What companies in the private sector benefit from this access whether covert or through direct sell-off? They are are mostly large multinationals. They are certainly not British owned specialist organisations. It follows that profits and in some cases expertise does not remain in Britain. When it had an empire, Britain exploited many countries around the world . Today Britain is heading towards the same situation as those colonies; dependent on the whims of global largely foreign companies for the health of its economy. For example, the British car industry was allowed to die and yet today we have a smaller but thriving car industry entirely foreign owned. Companies competing for NHS business fit the same profile. That type of company has the sole purpose of maximising profits.
Surely this process can be reversed. This might be quite difficult if private contracts are cleverly written but there is also no sign that Labour will put a stop to it when they return to power. By not offering something radical Labour under Milliband may well lose the next election and that will allow the present government to continue to give global companies more and more rich pickings from Britain’s public services. Nothing will actually be removed from public ownership but effective control will be in private hands. If this were to result in better services there might be room for tolerating the situation but there is absolutely no reason to be so hopeful. Similar inefficiencies and waste will mean an actual reduction in the services if overall costs are to be reduced as every private company needs to pay its board of directors extravagantly and make regular handsome dividend payments to shareholders.
Being pessimistic it is  probably too late to restore Britain’s public services to public ownership and provision.

The Case of IDS

When the Conservatives / Lib Dem coalition first came to power I thought at least that Ian Duncan Smith would know what he was talking about as he had given every impression of researching the benefits traps during the years in opposition. How wrong can one be???

The problem he is supposed to be solving is not the size of the benefits bill but the underlying reasons. Why do so many people, young people especially, find it impossible to earn a living wage? It is not only those out of work but also many in work who need state assistance. In the latter case the taxpayer is effectively subsidising private companies so that they need not pay their workers sufficient to live on, i.e. the taxpayer is actually subsidising the profits of these firms. Why are others unable to get jobs even though there are plenty available? Partly it is cultural. Political parties have raised expectations of the good life so high that some do not want to take on many of the menial jobs available which are now done by immigrants. It is also the climate of education. Tony Blair talked about 50% of school leavers going to university. Not once did he mention the other 50% and what they would be doing. And so schools have concentrated on the academic rather than the life skills.

There is a benefits gap. Earn above a threshold and you are no better off than if you did not work at all. That transition requires a granular tax and benefit regime which very gradually removes benefits and increases the tax take up to perhaps something near the average wage. It effectively means that however little you earn you always see something more for your efforts.

How can Ian Duncan Smith not see that by simply cutting the size of the benefits bill he is making miserable lives more miserable still and doing nothing to make Britain a better place?

Computing vs ICT

There has been a longstanding debate about what Computing should encompass in Scottish Schools.  However I do like David Muir’s analogy of the stroppy teenager of a subject.  But I am not certain that Computing can ever be a science in that it does not have a body of fundamental knowledge independent of other sciences.  It is a very important technology, perhaps the most important at the present time and thus deserves academic study.

Computing derives from two different but related needs, number crunching or heavy duty arithmetic and data processing, exploring and processing non numeric data to turn it into information.  These overlap.  Is a spreadsheet data processing or arithmetic…a bit of both?

It can be tackled at various levels of complexity; there is the simple model of a computer as a blackbox with simplified explanation of how it works; there is the logic of computer systems and there are algorithms of the structure of a computer and there are the physical bits that carry out the processes; there is programming and problem solving and several other aspects of the computer which offer a wide range of possible courses to students of all abilities and inclinations.

What it should not be is the teaching of the four basic computer packages, word processing etc.  Every student should be exposed to the uses which they can make of a computer in the course of lifelong learning and work, but it does not need a specialist computer teacher for that kind of course.  There are a range of other specialists in a school such as Business Studies teachers and librarians who are better equipped to teacher theses subjects.