Tuesday, 31 January 2012
Labour leader - Ed Miliband - was in Scotland yesterday for a short while speaking up for the anti-independence campaign.
Ed's core message was that the fight for social justice would be side-tracked and held back by independence - which was a diversion from the real issues of the day.
If you like - that working people in Glasgow and Manchester have everything in common with each other - they share the same basic goals - so why not try and achieve them together.
Ed told his audience that the way to avoid a repeat of the bank bonus story was to have a "decisive shift in rules and behaviour" - and a proper debate about "responsible capitalism" and executive pay for those at the top.
Before going on to add:
"I say let us confront the real divide in our society. Not between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom, but between the haves and the have-nots."
Now I find this all very fascinating.
Because I haven't heard the Labour leader - or anyone in the Labour party - say a cross word about the £500,000 'golden goodbye' payment made to the former boss of Unite - Derek Simpson.
How anyone can bang on about people at the top lining their pockets - while ignoring an enormous scandal right inside the UK's biggest trade union - is beyond me.
Maybe it has something to do with the fact that Unite is Labour's largest donor - having given the Labour party £5 million of their members' money - since the 2010 general election.
Or maybe it's because Unite - along with the GMB and Unison - ensured that Ed Miliband became Labour leader - through the votes of a tiny percentage of trade union activists.
But whatever the reason it doesn't sound very convincing to me - because attacking the boss of the Royal Bank of Scotland over his £963,000 bonus payment - requires no courage or leadership.
Yet calling a spade a spade does when it comes to Unite and Derek Simpson - though the Labour leader has still to tell the country - what he thinks of the scandal.
Here a couple of previous posts from the blog site - which explain the background to Unite, Derek Simpson - and the former union leader's 'golden goodbye'.
Golden Goodbyes (November 28th 2011)
The latest edition of Private Eye reports on the ongoing row within Unite - Labour's biggest trade union donor of course - over the 'golden goodbye' paid to its former general secretary - Derek Simpson.
Funny how the subject is never brought up elsewhere in the news - or in the House of Commons - where Labour MPs queue up to denounce greedy bankers.
Unite's 'defence' of this extraordinary payment - is both ridiculous and insulting to ordinary union members.
More than a year after the row erupted - no one seems willing to explain who authorised over £500,000 of the members' money to be paid to one individual - and why.
Thousands of members of Unite, Britain's biggest union, are annoyed at its lawyers' decision to drop attempts to recover £361,347 paid to former joint-general secretary Derek Simpson as part of a controversial 'severance payment'.
Simpson left the union last year, pocketing a total farewell package off £519,659 (Eyes 1295 & 1296). With m'learned friends claiming the case was too 'finely balanced' to justify further action, irate members are none the wiser about how Simpson was able to pocket such a huge 'severance' payment when he had voluntarily resigned.
The union is sticking to the line that the payment was properly authorised in March 2008 by a meeting of the Amicus section of the general and purposes finance committee, chaired by one Steve Davidson. A promised affidavit by Davidson to that effect has yet to be produced.
Should it fail to appear, along with the record showing which union officer authorised the payment and when it left the union's bank account, disgruntled members are preparing to take their case to court and lodge a complaint with the trade union certification officer.
If such a complaint is upheld, the union's trustees - one of whom is Len McCluskey - could face removal from office - and Simpson could yet be forced to pay the money back."
Union Fat Cats (July 20th 2011)
Unite members will be shocked to learn that their hard-earned union contributions were used - to fund a £500,000 'golden goodbye' payment to former general secretary - Derek Simpson.
Simpson - a controversial character - received the severance package when he stepped down as Unite boss last year.
In one of the most lame statements of recent times the new boss of Unite - Len McCluskey - said that the payment was 'inappropriate' - and that it was made by a regime with 'lower standards of transparency and probity'.
Well that takes the biscuit for complacency.
Because presumably Derek Simpson was not able just to write a cheque to himself for over £500,000 - surely some committee of the union (unions are obsessed with committees) must have known about and approved the payment.
In which case what exactly was it for - how was it calculated - and who gave the green light to proceed?
Now if this were News International or News of the World - Labour MPs in particular would be jumping about and down - displaying their outrage and contempt - demanding straight answers to straight questions.
So you would think that one or two - especially those with links to Unite - would be standing up for the interests of ordinary union members.
Not so far.
Ozzy Osbourne was bang on form in his Ask Dr Ozzy column this week.
Here are two examples of his words of wisdom and practical advice - to Sunday Times readers.
Now I didn't know that the former 'mad man of rock' - was so in touch with his feminine side.
But it sounds like Ozzy was a real tower of strength - in the delivery room.
Dear Dr Ozzy
If I take a bath in saltwater a few hours before a party, will it help me tto fit into my little black dress? (I've read it works like reverese osmosis, removing water from the body.)
I wouldn't know, I don't wear many little black dresses. I used to wear a chainmail suit on stage, though, and I had the opposite problem. It would fit perfectly well when I put it on, but when I worked up a sweat, it would shrink. By the end of the night I felt I'd been strung up with piano wire. So count yourself lucky.
Dear Dr Ozzy
My doctor's asked if I want to listen to music while giving birth. Will this do me or my baby any good. I'm thinking of going 'natural' (no drugs).
When Sharon gave birth to Kelly, I thought I was trapped in a scene from The Exorcist. I don't care if they play you Bridge Over Troubled water on infinite loop: an all-natural birth will hurt. You're a brave woman, Lisa. Best of Luck.
More bad news for Scottish Labour as it looks forward to the next round of council elections - which take place of course in May 2012.
A Labour councillor in Glasgow - Irfan Rabbani - has jumped ship to the SNP and piles the pressure on in one of the few remaining councils - where Labour has an overall majority.
I don't know Councillor Rabbani - but apparently he has represented Pollokshields in the south of the city since 2007.
Apparently 49-year-old Rabbani told the BBC that he would not be standing in the local elections in May - although he would be campaigning for other SNP candidates in Glasgow.
Now what I'd be interested to know is why someone like Councillor Rabbani - has decided to ditch the Labour party - after being a member for 20 years.
Maybe it's down to political in-fighting - maybe not.
But whatever the reason Councillor Rabbani owes his constituents - and the voters of Glasgow - a proper explanation.
After all - we've been paying his salary for years - so it's the least the good people of Glasgow can expect.
I read a letter in one of the newspapers the other day.
From a member of the clergy in England who was keen to point out that - contrary to popular opinion - religious ministers are not badly off.
Because as well as receiving a stipend (a salary to you and me) - they get a range of 'fringe' benefits including:
An exemption from council tax
An exemption from water rates
Refunded energy bills
In the reverend's own estimation this all added up to over £35,000 a year - after tax.
Which is a lot more that the average before tax salary in the UK - which stands at around £25,000.
Now what churches do with their own property is up to them - but I didn't realise that ministers of the cloth were so heavily subsidised by the public purse.
I wonder if this applies to all faiths - or just the chosen few?
So it seems that while 'God will provide' - he gets more than a little help from the public purse.
Sir Patrick Moore is one of a dying breed - the great English eccentric.
For many years the great man presented the BBC's 'The Sky at Night' programme - speaking far too quickly and excitedly for the medium he worked in - but that didn't matter a bit.
Even if you didn't understand what he was talking about half the time - it was still fascinating to watch and listen to a man wearing a monocle for a while - no one else had worn a monocle on TV for years.
And to be fair to Sir Patrick he kept the flag flying for all things to do with space and astronomy - through good times and bad - until the subjects became sexy and popular again.
Nowadays Sir Patrick is well into his 80s and others like Professor Brian Cox have rocketed by the eccentric astronomer - presenting new TV programmes with the benefit of computer graphics and images beyond the reach of earlier generations.
But I imagine Professor Cox tips his hat to his famous and elderly predecessor - who for some reason still possesses that most magical of things - star quality in front of the camera.
I enjoyed Sir Patrick's quote in the Sunday Times last week - describing his morning routine:
"I get up, drink my usual four coffees, have a look at the obituaries in The Times and, if I'm not in them, I'll get on with the day's work."
Now how can that not make you smile?
Writing about regular space flights to Mars earlier reminded me of one of my favourite songs - which fired my imagination when I was young - 'Rocket Man' by Elton John.
I remember first hearing the song on the radio - as a young teenager - and it seemed to capture the spirit of the age - incredible mystery and glamour brought down to earth by prosaic charm.
I might have got things out of order - but if I recall correctly, a while later David Bowie brought out his space anthem - which told the tragic tale of Major Tom in 'Space Oddity'.
And by the looks of things that's a good metaphor for the chances of one Newt Gingrich becoming the next President of America - because as I write - they seem to be floating off deep into outer space.
Here are the words and a You Tube link to Rocket Man.
Rocket Man by Elton John
She packed my bags last night pre-flight
Zero hour nine a.m.
And I'm gonna be high as a kite by then
I miss the earth so much I miss my wife
It's lonely out in space
On such a timeless flight
And I think it's gonna be a long long time
Till touch down brings me round again to find
I'm not the man they think I am at home
Oh no no no I'm a rocket man
Rocket man burning out his fuse up here alone
Mars ain't the kind of place to raise your kids
In fact it's cold as hell
And there's no one there to raise them if you did
And all this science I don't understand
It's just my job five days a week
A rocket man, a rocket man
And I think it's gonna be a long long time...
Newt Gingrich is trying to boost his flagging campaign to win the Republican party nomination - by proposing a permanent space colony on the moon - and regular trips to the fourth planet in our little solar system - Mars.
The appeal of his idea - crazy or otherwise - is obvious as the contest between Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney moves to Florida - where America's space industry has been based for years - at Cape Canaveral.
Florida lost thousands of jobs when America's space shuttle stopped flying - and the prospect of another space race to Mars might be attractive to some Republican voters - as they weigh up whether to plump for Romney or Gingrich.
Now I'm as keen on space as the next person - the case get to the moon and back under former President John Kennedy was inspirational to people growing up in the 1960s - like me.
But I have to say I doubt the wisdom of building a permanent space station on the moon - or flying back and forwards to Mars on a regular basis.
What exactly would we - or America be trying to achieve?
Now I can understand the argument that political leaders setting spectacular, ambitious goals - can have a galvanising effect.
In theory this might unleash a whole new wave of technological advances - that we can only dream of now.
And to some degree President Kennedy's bold declaration in the 1960s that America would send a man to the moon - had that effect fifty years ago.
Yet I'm very doubtful that a shuttle to Mars is the best way to boost employment and economic growth - not in the present climate anyhow.
Surely there are better ways achieve these goals - which are likely to be much better value for money while impacting more practically on the lives of ordinary Americans.
So I'm afarid to say it Newt - but it sounds like a crackpot idea to me - which might appeal to men of a certain age - while turning off more practical women voters big time.
In any event we'll find out soon enough - because Florida's Republican voters go to the polls tomorrow.
Monday, 30 January 2012
The Bank of Scotland produced a report the other day - on the cost of buying a house as opposed to renting.
The main conclusion of the report is that the cost of buying a home has fallen.
Not just because prices have dropped - but because mortgage rates are now much lower too - having fallen to an average of 3.63% in 20011 from 5.75% in 2008.
What this means is that only 20% of income - on average - in Scotland is now spent on mortage payments, well down on the long-term average of 30%.
In other words that in households with a mortage - people are 10% better off than they were a few years ago - and those with a bigger mortage are better off still.
So when people start to bang on about this group or that group being worst affected by these harsh economic times - just remember that to see the big picture - the true picture - you have to factor back in mortgage costs.
Because the reality is that while the fall in interest rates has been bad for people with a fixed income - or who rely on savings - the ill winds of the recession have blown some good in the direction of people with mortgages.
Here's a previous post on the subject - from the blog site archive.
£20 Billion Windfall (January 5th 2012)
I read something the other day - a claim by an organisation know as the Family and Parenting Institute (FPI) - of which I know very little.
Presumably it does what it says on the tin - seeks to speak up for families with children - because the FPI claims that average income of households with children will drop between 2011 and 2016.
By 4.2% would you believe or around £1,250 a year - depending on the exact income of the household in question.
But I say - so what - what does that have to do with the price of mince?
Because unless you factor in other things - such as how much some households have benefited from our artificially low mortgage rates - then the FPI's claim is completely meaningless.
I know some folks - some with others without children - who are saving hundreds of pounds every month necause of low interest rates - worth many thosuands of pounds a year.
So spare me all this special pleading from special interest groups - as ever they are concerned with their own narrow agenda - and have no time for the big picture.
And the big picture means big savings - not for everyone - but for those paying mortage interest when rates dropped like a stone - and the bigger the mortage the bigger some people's windfall.
Here's what I had to say on the issue in 2011 - no doubt the £20 billion figure now needs to be revised - in an upwards direction.
'All in this together' (September 15th 2011)
When people start urging us to take the view that 'we are all in this together' - it's time to stop and think.
Who's 'we'? - will do for a start.
The fact is that not everyone in the UK has been doing badly in these hard economic times - in fact people who are in a secure job and who have been paying a mortgage off - are doing very nicely thank you very much!
Compared to lots of other people anyway.
And just to demonstrate this point here's something I wrote back in March 2011 - arguing for a 'windfall tax' on the £20 billion that mortgage payers have saved in recent years - as a result of artificially low interest rates.
Now the people who are not part of this £20 billion windfall are - typically - the less well off and those on fixed incomes who rely on their savings - which produce little or no interest these days - to help pay the bills.
So why don't we hear any of this at the TUC conference - where delegates are good at telling everyone else what to do - but seldom come up with practical ideas for resolving problems.
A special windfall tax would recoup just some of the £20 billion that mortage payers have gained - simply through sheer luck - and it would seem to embrace the 'were all in this together approach'.
Which the present government and the trade unions both espouse - when it suits their own argument of course.
I imagine most union leaders are paying mortgages - because most live in private housing - and most will have benefited hugely out of the artifically low interest rates - we have witnessed in recent times.
Ironically the one union leader who would escape a special 'windfall tax' on mortgages - would be Bob Crow - who has been living in subsidised social housing in London for years.
But a windfall tax on mortgages would be redistribute income between the 'haves' and 'have nots'.
A windfall tax would be progressive because it would tax 'unearned income' - and would be likely to affect the majority of delegates this year's TUC.
In other words - a real life demonstration of solidarity - that we really are 'all in this together'.
Windfall Tax On Mortgages (March 4th 2011)
I read a remarkable statistic the other day - which made me stop and think.
The Financial Services Authority (FSA) has apparently calculated that the UK's artifically low interest rates in recent years - have meant an unexpected windfall of £20 billion to the nation's mortgage payers.
Yet another example of the old saying - 'It's an ill wind that blows nobody any good'.
In this case £20 billion to the good - and the bigger the mortgage - the bigger the killing people have made - without any effort or risk.
While those who can't afford or no longer need a mortgage (e.g. low paid workers and pensioners) - have lost out big time, comparatively speaking.
So I have a suggestion for the government and our policy makers.
Bring in a special windfall tax on mortgages which claws back some of this £20 billion - and use the money to reintroduce the 10p tax rate to help the low paid.
Low paid workers will spend the money - because they don't have a lot to start with - and that will help to boost the economy.
Readers will remember that the 10p tax rate was abolished by the 'man with a moral compass' - Gordon Brown - in one of his worst decisions as Prime Minister.
But here's a chance to right a great wrong - help the lower paid - boost our flagging economy - and with money that has simply fallen into people's laps by sheer luck - nothing else.
The Sunday Herald ran an excellent article yesterday - written by Paul Hutcheon - which seemed to catch Glasgow City Council with its 'fingers in the cookie jar'.
Because it seems that until the Sunday Herald stepped in and started asking a some awkward questions - the council was about to spend £12,000 of public money - on 'gongs' for councillors.
According to the newspaper the medals were the responsibility of the Lord Provost's office - Labour's Bob Winter - but after the Sunday Herald's intervention the plan was pulled at the last minute.
So the good citizens of Glasgow have the Sunday Herald to thank for this outbreak of common sense - and the saving it will make to the public purse.
What puzzles me is why any of the 17 councillors involved thought it was a good idea in the first place - why didn't someone stand up long before now and say that it was a terrible waste of public money.
After all councillors are paid these days - they're not undertaking voluntary work - and many enjoy significant salaries in Glasgow.
So I think we can safely say there will be no more medal ceremonies in Glasgow - until we get to the Commonwealth Games in 2014.
Council cancels 'crass' plan to award £700 gold medals to city's bailies
Glasgow Lord Provost Bob Winter has suffered a major embarrassment over a "crass" plan to give expensive gold medals to city councillors.
Up until Friday at one o'clock, the city council was ready to spend up to £12,000 to give its 17 bailies an award for their special "contribution" to civic life.
However, after the Sunday Herald learned of the proposal, council leader Gordon Matheson blocked the move.
In common with all councils, the administration in Glasgow has had to cut spending as a result of the UK's economic difficulties.
Since 2009, around £32.7 million has been spent on voluntary early retirement deals for nearly 2000 employees.
Other budgets have also been trimmed as the council faces up to the challenge of balancing its books.
A further £42m has to be cut in the next financial year, 2012-13, some of which may come from not replacing departing staff.
However, despite the radical savings exercise, the local authority has still found enough money to fund medals for its senior politicians.
The council confirmed to this newspaper last week that bailies would benefit from the medals.
The medals were the responsibility of Winter's office and could have involved paying up to £750 per award.
A council spokesperson said on Thursday: "It has been the custom to issue bailies' medals in recognition of their extra contribution to civic life.
"This is a practice that was already established in the days of the Corporation of the City of Glasgow and that continued through Glasgow District Council to the current city council. The cost of the medals is dependent on the carat value and price of gold. All Bailies will be offered this token to mark their five-year term of office."
However, following a hastily-arranged telephone call between Matheson and Winter on Friday, the previous statement was ditched.
A revised spokesperson's quote stated: "After discussions between the Leader of the Council and the Lord Provost, it has been agreed that the tradition of awarding bailies' medals should be reviewed and there are no plans to buy new medals."
Bailies support Glasgow's lord provost in fulfilling various civic duties, such as attending functions and dinners.
The ceremonial role is unpaid but the bailies are allowed to make use of the authority's chauffeur car service for official events.
The last time the council bought medals for its bailies, at least 10 years ago, the medals cost £352 each.
The rising cost of gold means that the bill for medals in 2012 would likely have doubled since the last splurge.
Glasgow's bailies include Labour councillors Gerry Leonard, Jean McFadden, Liz Cameron and Hanzala Malik, who doubles up as a MSP for the city. Other post-holders include the SNP's Iris Gibson and Phil Greene and Liberal Democrat Margot Clark.
The row has echoes of the Scottish Parliament's decision in 1999 to give medals to MSPs.
Yesterday's papers reported that Michelle Mone - one of Scotland's most successful entrepreneurs - will take her multi-million pound lingerie empire south of the border - if the a majority of Scots vote for independence in a future referendum.
Now Michelle is no dumb blonde - but what a dumb thing to say.
The debate has hardly begun - yet Michelle's mind is already made up and if the rest of the country doesn't agree with her - then it's knickers to Scotland after all this time.
Apparently Michelle believes that an independent Scotland could not sustain itself - and that business taxes and the cost of living will both rise - if Scotland doesn't remain part of the UK.
Now Michelle strikes me as an establishment sort of person and lo and behold it turns out that Michelle was awarded an OBE in 2010 - for her contribution to business.
Which is fine by me - but it does let you know where she's coming from - at one level.
Michelle also had a pop at Holyrood MSP - claiming that they could not be trusted to make Scotland PLC a success.
"MSPs have never run a business in their life. Would you trust them to run Scotland as a business? No, is the answer. Why would you trust these guys, all they do is fight in parliament with their big egos. I would never trust any of them. It's too much of a gamble."
Well all of that is very interesting - but if all of it or, indeed, any of it is accurate - then it applies equally to the Westminster Parliament as well.
And of the the two biggest scandals in the past five years - the current mess of the UK economy and MPs' expenses - it's the Westminster Parliament that's been in the driving seat.
All I would say is that if you're going to accuse politicians of being unable to run a whelk stall - then at least have some evidence to back up your arguments.
Otherwise it's all just pants - and hot air.
Not for the first time - or last I imagine - a politician has said something completely barmy - something that made me laugh, but also to question the calibre of people we have running the country.
David Lammy - a former education minister and Labour MP for Tottenham - is claiming that Labour's decision to tighten up the law on smacking children - was partly to blame for last summer's riots.
Which started in London and spread quickly - to other English towns and cities.
In an interview with LBC Radio, Lammy said:
"Many of my constituents came up to me after the riots and blamed the Labour government, saying: 'You guys stopped us being able to smack our children.'
"I have to say when this was first raised with me I was pretty disparaging. But I started to listen. These parents are scared to smack their children and paranoid that social workers will get involved and take their children away."
Lammy admitted to smacking his three- and five-year-old sons - and argued that working-class parents should be able to physically discipline their children - to prevent them from joining gangs and getting involved in knife crime.
Now I imagine these comments are designed to help publicise a book David Lammy has written - 'Out of the Ashes: After the Riots' - because why else would an otherwise intelligent man speak such drivel.
Smacking young children - in certain circumstances - is a quite different issue from beating a child and the difference between the two is obvious - or should be.
And as a parent myself - I can't see for the life of me how a smack would deter a young teenager from joining a gang - or carrying a knife.
Seems that some people will do anything to draw attention to themselves.
But as far as pathetic excuses go - that's the most ridiculous one I've heard in a long, long time.
So the RBS chief - Stephen Hester - will have to get by on his £1.2 million salary having finally bowed to the inevitable yesterday - by foregoing his planned £963,000 bonus payment.
In the past few days just about everybody who was anybody have queued up to give Stephen Hester a good kicking - trying to outdo each other with their moral outrage.
Yet the fact is that this kind of thing is going on all the time - without everyone kicking up a great fuss.
Just the other week an independent board - similar to the one that runs RBS on behalf of the great British public - handed out a 'golden goodbye' worth over £500,000 to the boss of regeneration agency - GERA -in Glasgow.
See post dated 17 January 2012 - 'Death Wish 2012'.
At least £208,000 of that 'golden goodbye' payment was complete discretionary - and much of the total came from funds that were earmarked to build a new school in Dalmarnock - one of the most deprived areas of Glasgow.
All of the money involved was public money - and the decision to be so generous with these funds was effectively taken by three Labour councillors - who formed a majority on the independent board.
Now why would that not cause just as much - or even more - controversy than the Stephen Hester affair?
Because the two decisions are very similar.
The scale of the money involved is even greater - given the relative size of GERA compared to RBS - and while the two independent boards were, strictly speaking, entitled to do what they did - the arrogance involved is quite breathtaking.
I would have some time for people trying to turn the whole issue into a political football - if they were at least consistent in their concerns about the use of public money - and their condemnation of other people's behaviour.
Because as I see it there's little to choose between GERA and RBS - though only RBS has caught the imagination of the national press and media.
Death Wish 2012 (January 17th 2012)
A regular reader has been in touch regarding the post on the extraordinary generosity of Glasgow City Council - 'Death Wish 2012' - dated yesterday.
A number of interesting points and questions arise which I thought I'd share with other readers - as follows:
1 How is it possible for a person to receive both voluntary and compulsory redundancy - at the same time?
2 How is it possible for money that was earmarked for use under one budget heading (the redevelopment of a school in Dalmarnock) to be spent on such a completely different purpose - i.e. part of a 'golden goodbye' package?
3 What was the original source of the funds and did the source of the funds place any conditions on their use?
4 Was Glasgow City Council consulted about the use of these funds and if so, how did this take place?
5 Given all the competing demands for resources in these tough economic times how did the Board of GERA (and Glasgow City Council if involved) justify - on 'best value grounds' its decision to boost the CEO's pension pot with a discretionary award of an extra £208,000?
Now I suspect that many of these points will need to be raised with Glasgow City Council and other public bodies - because a weakness of the current FOI legislation is that it does not apply to all publicly funded bodies.
Just like other arm's length bodies Glasgow City Council has set up - Cordia for example - these agencies are normally constituted as private companies - which means they operate outside the scope of the current FOI regime.
Notwithstanding the fact they are almost wholly funded - with public money.
The weakness of the current FOI legislation was a point made very strongly by the outgoing Scottish Information Commissioner - Kevin Dunion - in evidence he gave recently to the Scottish Parliament.
So I hope some intrepid journalists at the Sunday Herald and elsewhere keep pursuing these points - after all the public deserve an answer.