Gordon’s example to us all

Last night I read a BBC article on Gordon Brown’s earnings since he stopped being Prime Minister a few years ago.  I felt a lump coming to my throat as I read the story.  Ex-PMs typically have lucrative post-government careers with lecture tours and the like.  Gordon Brown has similarly earned 1.4 million pounds in lecture fees and book royalties, but then given it all away.

In the run up to the General Election in 2010 I wrote how I gradually warmed to Gordon Brown during the campaign as it became increasingly clear that he was a man of true integrity.  This is another indication of that integrity, and utterly amazing to see in the modern world.

Of course he was not pretty like David Cameron or Nick Clegg, nor could he control his irritation when faced with objectionable, if popular, views.  In short, not a showman, nor a celebrity, not slick, not ‘political – just a genuinely good man.

It is sad that that is not sufficient to impress the 21st-century voter.

Lies vs. facts: the 26k benefits ceiling

In the UK the government is proposing a ceiling on benefits of £26,000. This sounds a large figure, indeed it is the median income, so seems reasonable that someone out of work should not receive more than the average working person. The press is, of course, polarised on the issue, as is the Church of England.

I was particularly interested in the coverage in last Wednesday’s Daily Mail, partly as this was where the former Archbishop of Canterbury chose to issue a statement about the issue, and partly because I was on a BA flight and it is one of the free newspapers! This issue of the Mail contained an article, “The hard workers who are proud not to claim”1, detailing the circumstances of three different working and tax-paying households living below or close to the proposed £26,000 limit, who can’t understand why they are working and paying taxes to support others to live on more than them.

I wondered about the truth behind these stories.  As you might imagine, the Mail’s stories were, to be generous, disingenuous, and most probably misleading, both to their readers and those they interviewed. When you work out the actual figures and facts behind the stories, things turn out rather differently then they were projected.

The issue of the proposed £26,000 benefits ceiling was particularly hot in the news after the House of Lords made radical amendments to the bill. The opposition in the Lords to proposed benefits reforms comes not just from the Labour benches, but includes some LibDems and Conservatives, and, vocally, several Church of England bishops2.

Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, weighed into this debate chastising his fellow bishops in the Lords, on the grounds that the weight that the national debt lays on our children is a major moral issue and the runaway benefits bill is a crucial part of controlling this.

There are of course differing views on how fast and how radically we should be attempting to cut national debt and how this should be accomplished. What is notable is that Carey chose to make this statement in the Daily Mail. My guess is he chose the Mail, rather than, say, the Times or the Telegraph (let alone the Independent or Guardian, who might have published it alongside contrary views), is that the Mail is much more a paper for ordinary Middle England folk, the ‘squeezed middle’, who feel they are paying the bulk of the taxes that fund the burgeoning benefits budget.

Whilst the ‘quality’ newspapers push their own particular viewpoint, they do follow a certain journalistic ethic, and normally within their articles you find the full facts, as they know them. Now, this is sometimes very deeply buried, to the point of disinformation, but is at least present; the careful reader can see the counter arguments through the opinion.

The Mail has no such scruples; it is unashamedly a newspaper of persuasion not information.

Given this, however much the Mail is targeting a particular demographic, Carey’s choice seemed misguided or naive.

In particular, in the same copy as Carey’s statement, there was the article describing the three households, all in tight economic circumstances, but who are working, paying tax to fund benefits, but not on benefits themselves. This is, in fact, excellent journalism, cold figures are hard to comprehend, real examples can convey the truth better than abstractions.

One household was a single woman, Rachel, living on her own; the second, Lauren and David, an engaged couple with a baby living with one of their parents; and the third, Emma and Darren, a married couple with two small twins, living in a rented house. They all had net incomes below or close to the proposed £26,000 benefits cap, and in each case the description ends with a personal statement, which expresses their frustration that, while they manage to cope on their income, why should people need £26,000 when not in work:

I don’t understand why people would need to claim more than £26,000 in benefits if I can live comfortably on this“, Rachel

It’s crazy that people say they can’t live of £26,000. People need to make sacrifices like the rest of us have.“, Lauren

“It makes us very angry that my husband works so hard and pays tax on his income, which goes to pay the benefits bills of all those people who don’t work and who receive more money than us.“, Emma

What the Mail reporters clearly failed to tell any of these families is what they would be receiving on benefits if they were suddenly made redundant and out of work.

Just to see I put each of these people’s circumstances into the government benefits calculator and a housing benefit calculator3.

Rachel, lives alone with £16,000 gross income and £13,000 net income. She describes rent (£500) and bills taking up most of her income, but leaving her with £250 a month for “recreational and leisure activities“, allowing her to “live comfortably“. If she lost her job her benefits including housing benefit to contribute to rent would total £9,774 per annum (£53.45 job seekers allowance, £19.38 council tax rebate4, £115.30 housing benefit). That is just what she describes as her basic bills with none of her recreation or leisure. I’m sure if asked whether she would be happy to live on this, her answer would be different.

Lauren and David fare worst; they have a gross salary of £33,000, with a net income of £27,560 (including child benefit and child tax credits). If they were both to lose their job, they would take home a total of £200.61 a week, around £10,500 per annum5. It was Lauren who said, “People need to make sacrifices like the rest of us have“. If the Mail reporter had explained to her that she would have to cope on 2/5 of their current take-home money would she feel the same?

It is the last family however, that does appear to highlight anomalies in the benefits system. Darren works in public transport and has a gross pay of precisely £26,000, leaving Emma and Darren with a take home pay of £21,608 (including child benefit). If Darren lost his job (or found himself unable to work as he has a medical condition) and both of them registered as job seekers (although Emma is currently looking after the children at home) then they would receive a total of £24,295 a year (just over £15,000 of this is basic benefit, the rest council tax relief6 and housing benefit), more than their current take home pay.

The reason for this disparity is that Emma and Darren do not attempt to claim benefits: “We are proud that we’re not on benefits, although sometimes it can be really hard“. In fact they would be eligible for substantial housing benefits7, which would presumably make all the difference for them and their children.

The shame of being on welfare runs deep, and, assuming Emma and Darren are Mail readers, no doubt fanned by the constant stories of welfare scroungers and the ‘feckless’. They quite rightly want to instil an ethic of hard work into their children, but do not feel able to claim benefits, which they will have contributed to through tax and national insurance throughout their previous working lives, in order to help as they bring up those same children now.

Interestingly, they are happy to accept child benefit (and I assume child tax credit, although not explicitly mentioned), and when the children are of school age will not send them to a fee-paying school, but happy to send them to a state school, effectively an educational ‘benefit’ of around £16,000 a year, let alone insist on paying for hospital and doctors fees for delivery of the twins and subsequent medical care.

The difference is that these benefits, allowances, and services are universal, and so seen as ‘rights’ as a taxpayer, even if, as in the case of this family, you are a net beneficiary.

This very much strengthens the case for maintaining child benefit as a non-means tested benefit. In general, many benefits are not claimed, whether through pride, principles or ignorance. The one exception is child benefit, which is both universally accepted and well targeted8.

Maybe if appraised of the full facts each of the people interviewed by the Mail might still feel the same, particularly Emma and Darren. Maybe too Mail readers would feel the same if presented with the truth. But clearly the Mail does not trust its readers to make up their own minds if given the full facts, and sadly Lord Carey has leant his weight behind this deliberate disinformation; unintentionally, but very persuasively helping to mislead the public.

  1. “The hard workers who are proud not to claim”, Daily Mail, Wednesday, January 25, 2012, p. 7.[back]
  2. Whether they should be in the second house in the first place is another issue![back]
  3. I used the Tonbridge & Malling Bourough Council’s web site as this has an online housing benefit calculator.  While currently housing benefit is similar across the country, this may change in the future with government plans for ‘localising support‘, the potential impact of which has been under-reported.[back]
  4. For Rachel on a one bedroom flat I estimated a council tax bill of £1000.[back]
  5. This figure is particularly low as  they live with parents.  While the government makes strong statements about family values, there are equally strong disincentives to support close family.  If Lauren and David were out of work, but with friends rather than parents, they would be able to pay rent to contribute to household costs, which they could then claim against housing benefit.  Furthermore, if a grown-up child receives cash support from parents, it is regarded as income for the calculation of benefits.[back]
  6. For Emma and Darren I estimated an annual council tax bill of £1500.[back]
  7. Housing benefit is perhaps the greatest cause of anomalies in the systems. Even Boris Johnson was against a cap in housing benefit, as the proposed, albeit apparently high, limit would still make large areas of London (not just the fancy bits!) no go areas for anyone on an average wage including nurses, transport workers, etc.. The situation gets even more complicated with those with a mortgage, as mortgage interest is deemed a cost for benefits calculation when you are out of work, but not when you have a job.[back]
  8. More broadly there is a minority suggestion (I believe only the Green Party in the UK support this) to replace all tax allowances and basic benefits, with a universal wage or ‘basic income‘, effectively an amount for every adult and child, deemed high enough for basic survival (probably close to current basic benefit levels). Indeed the amount you gain through the personal tax allowance, the amount you can earn without paying tax, is very close to a single person’s job seekers allowance, so this is very nearly a ‘zero sum’ for tax payers without children.[back]

Wikipedia blackout and why SOPA winging gets up my nose

Nobody on the web can be unaware of the Wikipedia blackout, and if they haven’t heard of SOPA or PIPA before will have now.  Few who understand the issues would deny that SOPA and PIPA are misguided and ill-informed, even Apple and other software giants abandoned it, and Obama’s recent statement has effectively scuppered SOPA in its current form.  However, at the risk of apparently annoying everyone, am I the only person who finds some of the anti-SOPA rhetoric at best naive and at times simply arrogant?

Wikipedia Blackout screenshot

The ignorance behind SOPA and a raft of similar legislation and court cases across the world is deeply worrying.  Only recently I posted about the recent NLA case in the UK, that creates potential copyright issues when linking on the web reminiscent of the Shetland Times case nearly 15 years ago.

However, that is no excuse for blinkered views on the other side.

I got particularly fed up a few days ago reading an article “Lockdown: The coming war on general-purpose computing1  by copyright ativist Cory Doctorow based on a keynote he gave at the Chaos Computer Congress.  The argument was that attempts to limit the internet destroyed the very essence of  the computer as a general purpose device and were therefore fundamentally wrong.  I know that Sweden has just recognised Kopimism as a religion, but still an argument that relies on the inviolate nature of computation leaves one wondering.

The article also argued that elected members of Parliament and Congress are by their nature layfolk, and so quite reasonably not expert in every area:

And yet those people who are experts in policy and politics, not technical disciplines, still manage to pass good rules that make sense.

Doctorow has trust in the nature of elected democracy for every area from biochemistry to urban planning, but not information technology, which, he asserts, is in some sense special.

Now even as a computer person I find this hard to swallow, but what would a geneticist, physicist, or even a financier using the Black-Scholes model make of this?

Furthermore, Congress is chastised for finding unemployment more important than copyright, and the UN for giving first regard to health and economics — of course, any reasonable person is expected to understand this is utter foolishness.  From what parallel universe does this kind of thinking emerge?

Of course, Doctorow takes an extreme position, but the Electronic Freedom Foundation’s position statement, which Wikipedia points to, offers no alternative proposals and employs scaremongering arguments more reminiscent of the tabloid press, in particular the claim that:

venture capitalists have said en masse they won’t invest in online startups if PIPA and SOPA pass

This turns out to be a Google sponsored report2 and refers to “digital content intermediaries (DCIs)“, those “search, hosting, and distribution services for digital content“, not startups in general.

When this is the quality of argument being mustered against SOPA and PIPA is there any wonder that Congress is influenced more by the barons of the entertainment industry?

Obviously some, such as Doctorow and more fundamental anti-copyright activists, would wish to see a completely unregulated net.  Indeed, this is starting to be the case de facto in some areas, where covers are distributed pretty freely on YouTube without apparently leading to a collapse in the music industry, and offering new bands much easier ways to make an initial name for themselves.  Maybe in 20 years time Hollywood will have withered and we will live off a diet of YouTube videos :-/

I suspect most of those opposing SOPA and PIPA do not share this vision, indeed Google has been paying 1/2 million per patent in recent acquisitions!

I guess the idealist position sees a world of individual freedom, but it is not clear that is where things are heading.  In many areas online distribution has already resulted in a shift of power from the traditional producers, the different record companies and book publishers (often relatively large companies themselves), to often one mega-corporation in each sector: Amazon, Apple iTunes. For the latter this was in no small part driven by the need for the music industry to react to widespread filesharing.  To be honest, however bad the legislation, I would rather trust myself to elected representatives, than unaccountable multinational corporations3.

If we do not wish to see poor legislation passed we need to offer better alternatives, both in terms of the law of the net and how we reward and fund the creative industries.  Maybe the BBC model is best, high quality entertainment funded by the public purse and then distributed freely.  However, I don’t see the US Congress nationalising Hollywood in the near future.

Of course copyright and IP is only part of a bigger picture where the net is challenging traditional notions of national borders and sovereignty.  In the UK we have seen recent cases where Twitter was used to undermine court injunctions.  The injunctions were in place to protect a few celebrities, so were ‘fair game’ anyway, and so elicited little public sympathy.  However, the Leveson Inquiry has heard evidence from the editor of the Express defending his paper’s suggestion that the McCann’s may have killed their own daughter; we expect and enforce (the Expresss paid £500,000 after a libel case) standards in the print media, would we expect less if the Express hosted a parallel new website in the Cayman Islands?

Whether it is privacy, malware or child pornography, we do expect and need to think of ways to limit the excess of the web whilst preserving its strengths.  Maybe the solution is more international agreements, hopefull not yet more extra-terratorial laws from the US4.

Could this day without Wikipedia be not just a call to protest, but also an opportunity to envision what a better future might be.

  1. blanked out today, see Google cache[back]
  2. By Booz&Co, which I thought at first was a wind-up, but appears to be a real company![back]
  3. As I write this, I am reminded of the  corporation-controlled world of Rollerball and other dystopian SciFi.[back]
  4. How come there is more protest over plans to shut out overseas web sites than there is over unmanned drones performing extra-judicial executions each week.[back]

The Great Apple Apartheid

In days gone by boarding houses and shops had notices saying “Irish and Blacks not welcome“.  These days are happily long past, but today Apple effectively says “poor and rural users not welcome“.

This is a story about Apple and the way its delivery policies exacerbate the digital divide and make the poor poorer.  To be fair, similar stories can be told about other software vendors, and it is hardly news that success in business is often at the expense of the weak and vulnerable.  However, Apple’s decision to deliver Lion predominantly via App store is an iconic example of a growing problem.

I had been using Lion for a little over a week, not downloaded from App Store, but pre-installed on a brand new MacBook Air.  However, whenever I plugged in my iPhone and tried to sync a message appeared saying the iTunes library was created with a newer version of iTunes and so iTunes needed to be updated.  Each time I tried to initiate the update as requested, it started  a long slow download dialogue, but some time later told me that the update had failed.

This at first seemed all a little odd on a brand new machine, but I think the reason is as follows:

  1. When I first initialised the new Air I chose to have it sync data with a Time Machine backup from my previous machine.
  2. The iTunes on the old machine was totally up-to-date due to regular updates.
  3. Apple dealers do not bother to update machines before they are delivered.
  4. The hotel WiFi connection did not have sufficient throughput for a successful update.

From an engineering point of view, the fragility of the iTunes library format is worrying; many will recall the way HyperCard was able to transfer stacks back and forth between versions without loss.  Anyway the paucity of engineering in recent software is a different story!

It is the fact that the hotel WiFi was in sufficient for the update that concerns me here.  It was fast enough to browse the web, without apparent delay, to check email etc.  Part of the problem was that the hotel did offer two levels of service, one (more expensive!) aimed more at heavy multimedia use, so maybe that would have been sufficient.  The essential update for the brand new machine consisted of 1.46 gigabytes of data, so perhaps not surprising the poor connection faltered.

I have been concerned for several years at the ever increasing size of regular software updates, which have increased from 100 Mbytes to now often several Gbytes1.  Usually these happen in the background and I have reasonable broadband at home, so they don’t cause me any problems personally, but I wonder about those with less good broadband, or those whose telephone exchanges do not support broadband at all.  In the UK, this is mainly those outside major urban areas, who are out of reach of cable and fibre super-broadband and reliant on old BT copper lines.  Thinking more broadly across the world, how many in less developed countries or regions will be able to regularly update software?

Of course old versions may well run better on old computers, but without updates it is not just that users cannot benefit from new features, but more critically they are missing essential security updates leaving the vulnerable to attack.

And this is not just a problem for those directly affected, but for us all, as it creates a fertile ground for bot armies to launch denial of service attacks and other forms of cybercrime or cyberterrorism.   Each compromised machine is a future cyberwarrior or cybergangster.

However, the decision of Apple to launch Lion predominantly via App Store has significantly upped the stakes.   Those with slower broadband connections may be able to manage updates, but the full operating system is an order of magnitude larger.  Of course those with slower connections tend to be the poorer, more vulnerable, more marginalised; those without jobs, in rural areas, the elderly.  It is as if Apple has put up a big notice:

To the poor and weak
we don’t want you

To be fair, Lion is (one feels grudgingly) also made available on USB drives, but at more than twice the price of the direct download2.  So this is not entirely shutting the door on the poor, but only letting them in if they pay extra.  A tax on poverty.

Of course, this is not a deliberate act of aggression against the weak, just the normal course of business.  The cheapest and easiest way to deliver software, and one that incidentally ensures that all revenue goes to Apple, is through direct online sales.  The USB option adds complexity and cost to the distribution systems and Apple seem to be pricing to discourage use.  This, like so many other ways in which the poor pay more, is just an ‘accident’ of the market economy.

But for a company that prides itself in design, surely things could be done more creatively?

One way would be to split software into two parts.  One small part would be the ‘key’, essential to run it, but very small,  The second part would constitute the bulk of the software, but be unusable without the ‘key’.   The ‘key’ would then be sold solely on the App store, but would be small enough for anyone to download.  The rest would be also made available online, but for free download and with a licence that allows third party distribution (and of course be suitably signed/encrypted to prevent tampering).  Institutions or cybercafes could download it to local networks, entrepreneurs could sell copies on DVD or USB, but competition would mean this would be likely to end up far cheaper than Apple’s USB premium, close to the cost of the medium, with a small margin.

Of course the same method could be used for any software, not just Lion, and indeed even for software updates.

I’m sure Apple could think of alternative, maybe better, solutions.  The problem is just that Apple’s designers, despite inordinate consideration for the appearance and appeal of their products, have simply not thought beyond the kind of users they meet in the malls of Cupertino.

  1. Note, this is not an inevitable consequence of increasing complexity and (itself lamentable) code bloat.  In the past software updates were often delivered as ‘deltas’, the changes between old and new.  It seems that now an ‘update’ is in fact complete copies of entire major components.[back]
  2. At the tiem of wrting tjis Mac OSX LIon is available for  app store for $29.99, but USB thumb drive version is $69.99[back]

trouble in the City – wise as serpents

It is wonderful to see the conflict over the St Paul’s protest camp resolved at last, but I am left with the sad image of many in the City gloating over this dispute.

I usually find that incompetence and coincidence are better explanations than intrigue and conspiracy, but one wonders here whether there has not been some careful PR management in the background.  Certainly, the effect of the last weeks has been to divert the attention of media and public away from the real issues of the protest: the contrast between growing poverty in the country and increasing wealth in the finance industry, so that even the news of obscene corporate pay rises during the period was sidelined.

Perhaps more significant in the long term has been the weakening of the position of St Paul’s staff who have often been a gentle but persistent critic of the City, long before the protesters camped and will continue to be long after the camp is dissolved and they return to their normal lives or the next cause.

Jesus said “be as wise as serpents, yet harmless as the dove“, but it seems this time the real serpents have won on wisdom.  I just hope that during the coming months the spotlight can shift to where it belongs, and public and press focus on the increasing injustice and disparity not just in the City of London, but across the country and world.

Private schools and open data

Just read short article “Private schools aren’t doing as well right-wingers like to think” by Rob Cowen @bobbiecowman1.  Rob analyses the data on recent GCSE results and finds that independent schools have been falling behind comprehensive schools in the last couple of years.  He uses this to refute the belief that GCSE standards are dropping, although equally it calls into question David Cameron’s recent suggestion that independent schools such as Eton should be given public money to start ‘Free Schools’2.

However, this is also a wonderful example of the way open data can be used to challenge unsupported views including official ones or ‘common knowledge’.  Of course, during the recent voting reform referendum, David Cameron expressed his disinterest in data and statistics compared with gut feelings, so the availability of data is only half the battle!

Graph shwoing comprehensive vs independent school performance

  1. Thanks to Laura Cowen @lauracowen for re-tweeting this.[back]
  2. See BBC News: Cameron: ‘Eton should set up a state school’[back]

Do teachers need a 2:2

Those in the UK will have seen recent news1 that the Education Secretary Michael Grove is planning to remove remove funding for teacher training from those who do not achieve a 2:2 or better. A report on the proposals suggests this will reduce numbers of trainee science teachers by 25% and language teachers by a third.

An Independent article on this lists various high profile figures who got third class degrees (albeit all from prestigious universities), who would therefore not be eligible – including Carol Vorderman, who is the Conservative Party’s ‘maths guru’2.

The proposed policy and the reporting of it raise three questions for me.

First is the perennial problem that the reporting only tells half the story.  Who are these one third of language trainees and one quarter of science trainees who currently do not have 2:2 degrees? Are they recent graduates who have simply not done well in their courses and treating teaching as an easy option? Are they those that maybe made poor choices in their selected courses, but nonetheless have broader talents after careful assessment by the teaching course admissions teams? Or are they mature students who did not do well in university, or maybe never went, but have been admitted based on their experience and achievements since (as we would do for any advanced degree, such as an MSc)?  If it were the first of these, then I think most parents and educators would agree with the government line, but I very much doubt this is the case.  However, with only part of the story how are we to know?  I guess I could read the full report, or maybe the THES has a more complete story, but how many parents reading about this are likely to do so?

Second is the implicit assumption that degree level study in a particular subject is likely to make you a good teacher in that subject.  Certainly in my own first subject, mathematics, many of the brightest mathematicians are unlikely to be good school teachers. In general in the sciences, I would far prefer a teacher who has a really deep understanding of GCSE and A level Physics to one who has a hazy (albeit sufficient to get 2:2 or even 2:1 degree) knowledge at degree-level. I certainly want teachers who have the interest and excitement in their topic to keep up-to-date beyond the minimum needed for their courses, but a broad ‘James Gleik’ style popular science, is probably more useful than third year courses in a Physics degree.

Finally the focus on degree classification, suggests that Michael Gove has a belief in a cross-discipline, cross-department, and cross-institutional absolute grading that appears risible to anyone working in Higher Education. Does he really believe that a 2:2 from Oxford is the same as a 2:2 at every UK institution? If so then I seriously doubt his ability to be hold the education portfolio in government.

To be fair this is a real problem in the Higher Education system as it is hard for those not ‘in the know’ to judge the meaning of grades, especially as it is not simply a matter of institution, often particular parts of an institution (notably music, arts and design schools) have a different profile to the institution as a whole. Indeed we have the same problem within the university system when judging grades from other countries. This has not been helped by gradual ‘grade inflation’ across the education sector from GCSE to degrees, driven in no small part by government targets and independent ‘league tables’ that use crude measures largely unrelated to real educational success. Institutions feel under constant pressure to create rules that meet various metrics to the detriment of real academic judgement3.

If the government is seriously worried about the standard of teachers entering the profession, then shift funding of courses towards measures of real success and motivation – perhaps percentage of students who subsequently obtain public-sector teaching jobs. If the funding moves the selection will follow suit!

… and maybe at the same time this should apply across the sector.  A few weeks ago I was at the graduation at LIPA, which is still managing near 100% graduate employment despite the recession and severe cuts across the arts.  Not that employment is the only measure of success, but if metrics are to be used, then at least make them real ones. Or better still drop the metrics, targets and league tables and let students both at school and university simply learn.

  1. Hit headlines about a week ago in the UK, just catching up after holiday![back]
  2. Reforms of teacher training will bring mass shortages, report finds“, Richard Garner, The Independent, Thursday, 11 August 2011, p14-15.[back]
  3. In fact, I came very close to resigning earlier in the summer over this issue.[back]

morning newspaper: MPs and Elgin Marbles

I usually only read the newspaper when travelling and either do the ‘free mineral water with newspaper’ deal (usually the Telegraph, maybe the only way they can sell newspapers), or whatever they have in the hotel or plane.

The front-page news today is the Israeli attack on the Gaza aid convoy, which needs no further comment.

of MPs

However, I also got yesterday’s Independent when I arrived at the Holiday Inn near midnight.  One of the main stories then was still the ‘outing’ and resignation of David Laws.  The key issue here (at least in principle) was not that nature of his personal relationships, but that he had not disclosed that the flat on which he was claiming rent belonged to his partner.

I was glad to see Mark Pack’s commentary in today’s Independent take a robust view of this, noting that while Laws may have broken rules (still to be determined), there had been no financial gain involved, and indeed the arrangement had saved the taxpayer money.  Pack’s contempt of the Telegraph was perhaps not unexpected in a column in a rival newspaper, but echoed my own feelings.

I was happily abroad during the height of the MPs expense ‘scandal’ last year, but was appalled at the coverage, not least because my travels take me to countries in Europe which would give anything to have the high standards of public office we take for granted in the UK.  In the end a handful of MPs may (still sub judice) have abused the system, but the vast majority were simply trying to do their job.

A short while ago I happened on the web on a page detailing the expenses of a Cardiff (now ex) MP Julie Morgan, when MPs expenses came under the spotlight, she rechecked her previous claims and indeed, with more careful checking, it turned out that the claims she had made on her mortgage did not match the actual expenditure.  Over the five years of the last parliament she had accidentally over-claimed in two years to the total of £800 … but in the other three years had under-claimed to the tune of £1900.  The rules meant she could not retrospectively be paid for the under-claimed years, but did pay back the £800 for the over-claims.  Despite being £1100 out of pocket, one of the lowest claiming MPs and indeed paying significant amount of her own salary to help maintain her constituency office, on the books she will part of the statistics of the large number of MPs who repaid expenses and so appear to have been doing wrong.  Crazy!

and of Marbles

Back to today’s newspaper and deeper into the Independent a very old story that is entering a new phase: the fight for the return of treasures from around the world displayed in British Museums.  The most well know is of course the Elgin Marbles (maybe Germany may claim them as security for Greece’s Euro-bailout), but others include African treasures taken during punitive raids by British soldiers in the 19th Century.

The issues seem clear-cut for a Liberal-minded Independent reader, but maybe things are more complicated; certainly some of the items, including the bronze ‘Birmingham Buddha’ would not have survived to the present day if they had not been removed – if only the Victorian adventurers had also removed some of the giant Buddha statues destroyed by the Taliban in the 1990s.

I wonder how far repatriation should go, what is the statute of limitations for national treasure?  Maybe as the Birmingham Buddha travels back to India, several hundred shiploads of railtrack and steam trains will be repatriated to the UK, offloaded at Felixstowe docks and moved overland to form a mountainous sculpture of piled steel in the centre of Birmingham.

Having just been in Italy, I am sure there are many Italian artefacts in British museums, but then in Rome there are a number of Egyptian obelisk’s removed by the Romans 2000 years ago.  However, I would be surprised if, in turn, the Egyptians had not taken artefacts from other parts of the ancient world.  For that matter, what about the work done by the Israelites in Egypt before the Exodus?  If not for the fear it might be taken seriously I might suggest Israel could claim this.

In fact, these treasures are often more symbolic of the greater rape of natural resources and human labour that still continues today in many parts of the world today.  Indeed being brought up in the shadow of the South Wales coal valleys, I am well aware that the benefits of natural resources rarely go to the countries where they are found nor the labourers who mine them.

One of the key arguments against repatriation of ancient artefacts is that the curatorial standards are higher where they are presently.  Indeed the pillage of Iraqi sites after the fall of Saddam could be seen as overwhelming evidence that institutions such as the British Museum do the whole world a service.  Repatriation of artefacts to less secure countries would put at risk our shared global heritage; after all who knows what civilisation the UK and US will decide to decimate next.

update: (im)migration Holyrood vs Westminster

Since post last week on migration Holyrood vs Westminster, found link on the BBC website to the  the BBC News ‘Reality Check’ on immigration that showed net outflow of non-EU.  That is migration is out of the country not in!  Also Mark Easton’s blog @ the BBC, which gives more info.  Bottom line is that the outflow is even greater then the figure of 8000 given on BBC News.

warming to Gordon

Yesterday, my postal vote went off and lacking a Plaid Cymru candidate far from my homeland I made do with the best of the rest. This is perhaps the most exciting election in the UK for many years as it seems likely that one result will be a change in the voting system, so that in future elections I will not feel I need to vote ‘tactically’, but more for the people, parties and policies that I most deeply support.

While this did not take me to the Labour fold at this election, one of the most surprising things about the general election campaign has been that throughout it, not withstanding gaffs along the way, I have found myself warming to Gordon Brown

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