Sunday 26 February 2012

Does conflict of interest for abortion providers matter?

There is always something precarious about joining a discussion on something somebody knows very little. So I will stay clear of talking about the controversial topic of abortion which has been in the news recently. 
There is something I can talk about though. And that is whether or not, as a matter of principle, it is right and proper for anybody who advises people on a particular course of action, to have a stake in the resulting choice. In other words, should advice always be impartial and, in turn, can it possibly be impartial if the person giving the advice has a financial interest in one outcome over another? 
The controversy about Marie Stopes raises exactly this question and Nadine Dorries has consistently questioned the propriety of their dual arrangement, delivering impartial advice as well as carrying out abortions in the UK. 
Perhaps we may find some guidance in this matter by looking at other fields and how they deal with potential conflicts of interest. Let us take the matter of auditing business accounts. Following the scandal of ENRON and its dubious accounting practices, we have come to expect auditors of business accounts to be independent of the company they are monitoring. This has been a fundamental and hard won lesson. 
Now, could there possibly be any parallels between independent auditing in companies and abortion advice? Of course, the decision of a woman about a pregnancy is infinitely more complex. The moral case of creating a robust framework which allows women to get the best advice society can provide on this matter however seems to share some features with conflicts of interest in other areas of life. 
And this is where some parallel can be drawn: if we do not allow the mundane world of business to conflate their day to day practice and credible oversight, why should we stop women from getting impartial advice? 
Perhaps it is time we look again at whether the current abortion law provides the best service women can get. 

Wednesday 22 February 2012

The Welsh Labour Government and corruption - no hear, no see, no speak

The Race Relations Charity AWEMA has been in the centre of the storm for weeks now. The accusations against its Chairman Naz Malik, its director (the Chairman’s daughter) and the board range from mis-use of public funds to complete lack of proper auditory oversight. The charity received more than £8 mio in the last years and has been the conduit for the Welsh Government through which funding to voluntary organisations is being channelled (the BBC broke the story a couple of months ago, you can read a summary HERE). 
The chairman of AWEMA, Naz Malik, admitted that he used public funds to pay off his personal credit cards, and its appears as if the board was not consulted when he granted himself and his daughter phenomenal pay rises which put them into the top 4% of earners in the UK. His daughter’s salary allegedly rose from about £20k to more than £50,000 in less than 4 years. The BBC reported that the board of the charity which is charged with approving the salaries of the staff, never even had a chance to vote on this. 
You would think the extraordinary story of mis-management of tax payer’s money would end there. But it is only starting. It always takes two to tango where public funds are concerned. The two in question here are AWEMA and the Welsh Government. And that is where the story becomes bizarre. 
The irregularities at AWEMA were by no means unknown to Carwyn Jones and the Labour Government in Cardiff. On the contrary, several alarm bells had been rung. In 2004, a report was commissioned by the Welsh Government (then called the Welsh Assembly Government) which clearly stated that AWEMA should not receive any public funds until proper auditory supervision has been established. Welsh First Minister was asked about this report recently in the chamber and he replied that he would not know whether this report was actually in the public domain, implying presumably that if it was not, it shouldn’t be taken too seriously. Assembly members then found the report duly filed in the Assembly library. 
No wonder Carwyn Jones wanted to wish the report away. The fact is that the problems with AWEMA were for all ministers to see in 2004 already, that was even before AWEMA received most of the £8 mio funding. Ministers were in a position to know very well what was going on at AWEMA if they only wanted! The question is now whether the Welsh Government will once again try to brush away any suggestions that it acted improperly or whether it has the courage to ask an independent commission to investigate who knew what and when. 
Oh, and in case you wondered why Carwyn Jones so desperately wants this affair to go away, here is a clue: the chairman at the centre of the row, Naz Malik, was until a few weeks ago a member of the Labour Party and a close friend of the First Minister. You can see them together on the campaign trail in 2011 HERE. Coincidence? 

Friday 17 February 2012

Cameron stumbles into the Scottish lair

Cameron had been warned. Do not underestimate the political skills of the greatest living politician! No, it's not Ed Milliband. It's Alex Salmond, the First Minister of Scotland. 
To recap: Salmond wants Scotland to have a referendum on independence. Since there is no stable majority amongst the Scottish people for outright independence, he proposed to field two questions at the same time. One about Scottish independence, the other one about Devo Max. It was up to Salmond to explain what exactly Devo Max might be, a serious political undertaking since it would leads everyone into the thicket of constitutional affairs. Not so anymore.
Yesterday, David Cameron joined the debate on Scottish independence with a speech in Edinburgh. I listened to it carefully and the speech seemed balanced and fair. He emphasised time and again that it would be up to the Scottish people to make the decision on independence. And then he made the mistake for which Alex Salmond will thank him for all time to come. Cameron mentioned that if the Scottish people decide against independence, they could still have Devo Max. 
Enter Salmond. The First Minister pointed out straight away that, for Cameron to lure Scottish voters away from outright independence, he would have to clarify what he meant by Devo Max. Noticed it? Yes, Salmond had managed to kick the ball into Cameron's side without any sweat. Now Cameron has the responsibility to define Devo Max, an option that Salmond actually favoured to put on the ballot paper in the first place. This will become the stick to beat the Prime Minister with all along to the referendum. 
Whatever Cameron says about independence now, the charge that he offered the Scottish people something that he cannot say what it is, will be ruthlessly brought by Salmond from now on. As I said, you underestimate the cunning of the Scottish First Minister at your peril. Salmond set a trap and Cameron walked right into it. 

Monday 13 February 2012

About the not so moderate LEFT

One often heard complaint about the public debate from left-wingers is that right-wing commentators have over the years undermined the fair-mindedness of public debate. The alleged viciousness and partisanship of Fox News is an example often cited by left commentators. 
There are two flaws with this view. First, it assumes that public debate has always been a civilised affair. Not quite so, as a brief look into the history of presidential campaigns in the US can tell. Deeply personal attacks bordering on insults and offence have been the conventional fare of many candidates for the highest, and presumably most dignified, office in the land since the 19th century. This is the more astonishing since the runner-up in the electoral college vote was to become the Vice President. Competitors for the highest office had to reconcile their differences and swallow their pride as they took office at the same time. Presumably what worked back then, cant be insurmountable now. 
Yet, there is also the claim that only rightwingers are to blame for the deterioration of public oratory decorum. This does not ring true either. Tune into any left wing radio channel (thousand of those are available on the web) in the US and you will encounter a shocking amount of personal hatred and vitriol poured over anybody who does not share their view. 
But you may also look closer to home and find some evidence that derogatory speech is not a preserve of the right wing media. Anybody remember the vilification of George Bush? He was called stupid amongst many other things, which are hardly examples of dignified debating practices! 
In fact a preferred tactic of the left wing commentators is to denigrate centre right views as loony or bereft of any logic while at the same time questioning their motives. So while Ed Milliband becomes the white knight of the righteous cause, Cameron is labelled a traitor to the lives of ordinary people and worse. 
It is a strategy that effectively denies others the legitimacy of their views by associating their convictions and beliefs with madness and lunacy. So pro-life views become obnoxious, while pro-choice views are the natural expression of reasonableness. 
While I do not have much sympathy for tendentious news and comments from the extreme right in the US, I equally do not think people like Polly Toynbee or George Monbiot are the pinnacle of reasonableness pointing the finger at others and, at the same time, calling centre-right politicians with legitimate views about gay marriage, or abortion ‘fruitcakes’ and worse. 
The quality of our public discourse relies on moderation from all sides. Questioning the motives of our political classes can only lead to political apathy from a population that is already tired of ideological trench warfare. 

Saturday 11 February 2012

Praying alone ....

A British court recently decided that payers at the start of the council meetings are illegal (see the BBC news item HERE). The reaction of religious figures was swift, their condemnation of the decision unequivocal. The court’s decision was based on the belief that Christian religious practices in the public may violate the rights of any atheist to enjoy ‘freedom from religion’. The case was brought to the attention of the court by the National Secular Society. 
While I am myself an atheist, I fundamentally disagree with the court’s decision. I think the court as well as the NSS operate with a profoundly mistaken notion of freedom ‘from religion’. Here is what I think went awry.
It seems to me that the court based its decision on a fundamentally flawed notion of how to best protect religious minorities in society. It advocates that their interests are best secured if they are to be insulated from the practices of other religious groups. the ‘freedom from’ argument. This is a widespread view which goes back to the idea of separation of public and private. Yet, it has a fundamental flaw. 
Our society is based on the tolerance of a wide range of social and religious practices. Tolerating other people’s views however can only happen in a social environment which permits people to observe other people in their commitments, to foster the respect and understanding we need to have even for those practices we disagree with. This requires a public arena that exposes us to other people’s beliefs and practices, rather than isolates us from anything that may run counter to our convictions. 
Mutual respect can only develop when we come to know more about other people’s strength of faith and convictions. Separating people and their lives in order to artificially prevent people from being challenged by other beliefs may make life easier for us in the short term. However it rests on the mistaken belief that there can be something like a conflict free world. And banishing religious practices into discrete ghettos of belief undermines, I believe, a free and vibrant society based on mutual engagement and debate. 
I have countless times been in situations where I had to negotiate tricky moments as some people rose to prayer and I had to ask myself how to react. Yet, each and every time I found it possible to navigate these situations in a way that showed respect to other people’s belief whilst at the same time upholding my own convictions. 
To encounter these situations is part of life, and shielding people from these sort of experiences infantilises us, and ill-prepares us for the conflict of beliefs that every healthy society experiences. 
In fact, I would argue, what we need is more public manifestations of religious belief, be they Muslim, Christian or Jewish. As an atheist I do not take offence by public displays of religious beliefs. On the contrary, it instills a sense of respect in me for their commitment. And let us not forget: it is the fundamentalists on all sides (including the secular fundamentalists) who believe that religious diversity is wrong. I think we can celebrate our faith (or lack of faith) in public while still respecting each others’ commitments. 

Wednesday 8 February 2012

Putin still says 'net' to Russian democracy

Russian Prime Minister Putin has gone on the offensive. After a couple weeks of dreadful international news about his re-election campaign, he decided it was time to burnish his reputation with the international media. So he picked up the pen and wrote a piece for The Guardian which brims with Western terminology. No one who reads the piece (you can read it HERE) can fail to notice that he is clearly out to please his Western detractors. His soothing words about Russian civil society, the need to fight corruption and his signal to be willing to grant more democratic powers to the regions, have been demanded by the Russian opposition for a long time. 
So far so good. But then he drops what, undoubtedly, he believes, is only a minor qualification of Russian democracy. He notes that Russia should never suffer the ‘circus of competing politicians to make unrealistic promises’ to the electorate. In other words, democracy yes, but only with the right candidates, presumably those who have been vetted by his stooges in the Kremlin. 
It is fascinating that Putin’s ‘net’ to political competition has more than faint echoes with some of the rhetoric of Western politicians. In times of crisis, politicians often advocate grand coalitions, compromises between former adversaries, and favour technocratic decision making over political squabbles. Yet, what would we loose if there was no political competition? 
Democracy is not simply the acclamation of a pre-ordained selected candidate. The essence of democratic politics is the struggle of ideas for support amongst the electorate. The willingness to grant people choice and the ability to express their preferences in a parliamentary election is at the heart of the democratic mandate. 
And choice in turn empowers people, who can reject as well as accept as they see fit. It is this fundamental liberty which resides in political choice that Putin’s minor qualification undermines. Without free choice between candidates, there can be no struggle for ideas, and without competition of ideas, society deprives itself of a critical mechanism to identify solutions which are at once workable and command majority support. 
Putin’s suggestion that political competition would lead to unrealistic promises, reveals the profound flaw at the core of Russian institutions: parliamentarians without real power are tempted to resort to irresponsible populism, and an electorate that is not trusted to exercise its popular mandate, refuses to engage in the public debate about the future of the country. The result is apathy and widespread resignation. 
But of course, there may just be one beneficiary of such a scenario: Putin himself. 

Tuesday 7 February 2012

Why Cameron's European policy is good for Europe

David Cameron’s veto on the European fiscal treaty in December last year has raised much debate. His recent wobble on this issue has prompted some commentators to accuse him of a U-turn, ultimately implying that his initial veto lacked purpose. 
A French contributor to the BBC programme Dateline London summed it up: ‘Sarkozy must be wondering what Cameron’s position actually is. It makes little sense. Either engage more closely with Europe or get out!’
I have articulated my view on the veto previously on these pages, so there is no need to repeat it here. However I do disagree fundamentally with the ‘either-or’ view that is often expressed in the media when it comes to Europe. 
First of all, let’s remember one thing: the British position has always been one of polite distance to the European project of further political integration. This is not a policy originating with Cameron’s coalition. Only months after his first election victory, Tony Blair noisily announced that he will take Britain to ‘the heart of Europe’, and promptly forgot about it. The best thing one can say about Blair’s engagement with Europe is that it was one of cautious engagement when it suited his domestic agenda. In fact, there is little evidence that much of what was going on in Europe was ever more than an annoyance to Blair. That was one of the reasons that his bid for the European Presidency failed. Britain under Blair was nowhere near the centre of Europe. 
And how could it be otherwise? The fact is that Europe is a two speed continent, and has been for some time: one part of Europe pursuing economic and political integration, while the other keeping its distance. 
So if Britain’s European policy has not changed much, why the call to ‘either join or get lost’ from some other European partners? Why the ire for ‘British intransigence’ when it came to the veto? 
The real threat to the European politicians who cannot wait to have powers transferred to an unaccountable bureaucracy in Brussels is that Cameron’s vision of Europe as an economic trade zone may gain track with some of the people across Europe who are tired of failed European institutions and backroom stitch ups for plum jobs for their clapped out national politicians. 
Just like Margaret Thatcher before him, Cameron has formulated an alternative vision that commands supreme legitimacy: the maintenance of national democracies combined in a free trading area across Europe. His insistence that such a Europe based on free trade and free markets is viable, forces Sarkozy, Merkel and others to articulate the advantages of their vision in much more detail. 
Without Cameron’s alternative vision, Europe would be driven by a political project that has little more to its name than the logic of the French-German relationship. For Britain this may never be sufficient as a basis of pan-European policy. And in that, Cameron is right. It is not a question of ‘in or out’. It is a question of what the ultimate purpose of Europe should be. Britain may continue to find a different answer to this question to other nations. 

Monday 6 February 2012

Is the Occupy movement finished?

Remember the media circus about the Occupy movement? As protesters camped outside St Paul's and the Church of England tore itself apart in debates about how to deal with them, capitalism was marching on. The outrage about bonuses and a banking sector unable to sustain long term economic growth in the Western world was supposed to power the protests, yet the demands of the campaigners drew heavy criticism from those who wished for a clearer alternative vision to be set out. 

While a lot of ink has already been spilled on the movement, much of what has been said was a form of reminiscing on supposed parallels to previous reform movements. Comparisons were even made with the civil rights movement in the US. The hyperbolism of these overdrawn similes fell quickly apart as the camp's protesters receded back into their ordinary lives. But the question remains: why didn't it take off as a social movement? 

In a recent book review in The Observer, Michael Sayeau points to a fascinating fact. While disenchantment with capitalism and the mismatch between economic and political power may have fueled the protesters' determination for reform, their social origin may be a clue to why their protest ultimately dissipated. Sayeau writes that the 'core constituency is overeducated, but underpaid and underemployed, despite having ticked all the boxes of late-capitalist ascent'. In other words, their grievance with the capitalist system centred on the impression that, while they were playing by the rules, others who were not reaped the rewards. 

The main impetus of the camps was hence the desire to re-constitute the meritocratic principles which lay at the heart of a capitalist market economy. Essentially, the thrust of their reform was correction, rather than revolution. As the US and other economies move to introduce the much needed changes to their banking system, re-establishing the linkage between individual effort and reward, the campaign was bound to diminish in its fervour. 

The contribution of the Occupy Movement to these reforms will simply be to have articulated the need for changes with a poignant rhetoric. So, despite some illusions of revolutionary grandeur amongst some campaigners to the contrary, the great advantage of a free market democracy over all its alternatives remains its ability to change for the better. 

Saturday 4 February 2012

Now for the 'living wage'?

Britain has had a minimum wage for more than a decade now. Since 1999, the minimum wage has increased from less than £4 to now more than £6. Although there was fierce resistance from the business community in 1999, the minimum wage has attracted little criticism since. 
However campaigners have now identified another target: the living wage. They argue that what everyone needs is a wage that covers all necessary expenses somebody may incur, including housing, heating, food etc. This represents a considerable shift in setting the wage from what is an appropriate pay for somebody’s labour to what is a minimum income to meet somebody’s needs. As opponents of the living wage argue, the problem is that the living wage takes its cue from the definition of individual needs. In other words, it severs the link between what somebody provides in terms of labour and what he or she is awarded as a payment for their work. 
Consider this: somebody working in a factory full time has a monthly take home pay of £1100. Legally, everyone else who does a similar work should be paid the same amount. Now let us assume the first person is a single mother with two children while the second person is a single male without dependents. For the campaigners in favour of a living wage, the single mother with children should be paid more than the single male simply because her needs are higher. 
What is wrong with this? Opponents of the living wage argue that the concept of paying somebody with respect to needs disrupts the link between work and reward. But there is another aspect to it that seems to undermine its presumed fairness. Paying somebody regardless of his or her efforts, calls into question the principle of individual merit. Paradoxically, meritocratic principles are often at the heart of those campaigning for more equality in society. As they point out, the pay of bankers and some company directors does not reflect their work. Anyone detected the inconsistency here? How can a living wage be squared with the clamour for a stronger meritocratic impetus in society? The answer is it cant. 
This is not only stumbling bloc for the living wage. The last decade has seen a significant shift from sharing the burden of education and public services across society to an increased privatisation of the costs for individuals. Students for example are supposed to invest in their education, hence pay more towards the gains they may reap in their future work life. Introducing a living wage does not just disrupt the link between effort and reward, it also runs counter to the way in which more and more people are asked to contribute to their personal development through financing education and training. 
Who would like to pay student fees, i.e. invest in their future, and then discover that others, who may not have made similar efforts, overtake them on the pay and reward scale? The living wage does not just undermine the link between pay and reward, it  is also patently unfair to those who behave responsibly in their lives. 

Punxsutawney Phil knows what's coming!

Forget the weatherman on your local channel. Here is the definite prognosis of the weather to come by a real expert!

Punxsutawney Phil  says that there will be another 6 more weeks of wintry weather!! You can believe it. He is infallible!

Wednesday 1 February 2012

Why bashing bankers is shortsighted

Michael Fallon revealed the real motivation behind the decision to strip Fred Goodwin of his honour. On the Today Programme he said that there was a 'persistent demand from the public that he should lose his knighthood'. Is this the way the government is making policy these days: decisions by public acclamation? Who shouts loudest and displays the greatest amount of moral indignation wins? 
Fred Goodwin clearly has a case to answer. But his decisions should be subject to questions of competence, not moral standing. He can be accused of taking the wrong decisions, perhaps out of a lack of expertise. Yet his moral integrity has never been questioned, nor should it be. After all, let us not forget that, apart from very few far sighted observers, Goodwin's decision to buy NatWest was praised by everyone at the time. Not least was it loudly applauded by the Treasury and the FSA back in the day. 
Now, Ed Milliband was 'outraged' and appalled that Fred Goodwin retained an honour awarded by Milliband's own government back in the day. This smacks of populism and his indignation looks synthetic. While the real problems with the banking sector are allowed to continue to fester, have you heard Ed Milliband talking about banking charges recently that puts ordinary people up and down the country out of pocket every day? Not a word! 
Stripping Fed Goodwin of his knighthood is bad politics by a political class with a distorted sense of what it means to lead. As John Humphreys said on the Today programme this morning, Fred Goodwin is being stripped of his knighthood for making a wrong decision, not for committing a crime. Milliband's moral outrage is a sign that increasingly the Labour leader makes political decisions with the benefit of hindsight. It wont take him far, nor anyone else who tries it, because the fundamental fact of modern society is that everyone who comes after us will know more than we ever do.