Friday 22 January 2010

Osborne and the banks

If you believe, as I do, that the banks are now the key issue in politics - not just sitting on wads of money but actively hoovering up the money in the world out of productive enterprise - then Obama's plan to break them up has to be an exciting move. It isn't very clear what he means by 'break them up', but since he says he wants to limit their size, I hope this will go beyond splitting domestic banking rom investment banking. We'll have to see.

The disappointment in all this is George Osborne. His rather evasive interview on the Today programme this morning made it clear that is certainly isn't in favour of breaking up the banks in any meaningful sense. They will remain monopolistic vacuum cleaners under his Chancellorship. But the real question is whether he will follow Obama into tackling risky trading.

In fact, as it turns out, his position is that he will wait for the rest of the world to do it. The answer is therefore a coded No.

This is a huge wasted opportunity. The combination of Osborne and Cable could push the Brown government into following the Americans. As it is, we may have to wait for the next crash but one.

Thursday 14 January 2010

Why schools were closed

My son’s primary school is a wonderful institution, but I must admit I am beside myself with rage that it was closed again yesterday, after a few flurries of snow. And I am much calmer about it than some other parents, whose jobs and lives are less flexible than mine.

What is galling about this is the way the public sector under New Labour has come to treat us. A £50 fine per day if our child doesn’t attend school for what they consider an adequate reason. A £100 fine if we don’t get our tax return in on time. Fines for bin abuse – is there such a term? – and goodness knows what else.

Yet the moment there is a small amount of discomfort or risk, in this case of slipping over – or of the school not having the requisite number of staff – and the public sector abandons their responsibilities entirely.

I am aware also that the school was not actually being lazy, in this case – though I can think of local institutions where there is really no other explanation. They were responding to the limitations in their public liability insurance policies. In fact, what has been happening is not so much that people are becoming more risk averse – as politicians will endlessly tell you – it is that insurers are forcing their clients to become so. The health and safety industry – a huge and labyrinthine priesthood – is now, in effect, the cheerleader for the insurance industry.

This is a central political issue, or it ought to be. At stake is the way we live our lives, and whether the public sector can succeed in sloughing off their own risks onto us. We are witnessing, not the elimination of risk (that’s impossible), but the privatisation of it. And if we don’t want our institutions to become meaningless empty shells, we need to do something about it.

Sunday 10 January 2010

The meaning of health and safety

I looked at the front pages of all the Sunday papers this morning in the newsagent, as I tend to, and it struck me how many of the stories were about health and safety regulations.

There was the story about parents having to accompany their teenage children to the loo in Glasgow cafes (unlikely, that one). There was the lead story in the Sunday Telegraph warning us that clearing the ice outside your house can open you up to legal action. Not to mention all the stuff about gritting being banned for similar health and safety considerations.

Before I dismissed the whole lot as the kind of nonsense you get in Sunday papers, I wondered whether – actually – this might not be the key issue after all.

I don’t mean to suggest that we need no safety regulations. But there is something about the health and safety regime which has been constructed by New Labour, on the foundations of the regime built by the Major government – a mixture of American contract culture and Taylorist checklists – which is actually corroding some of the social networks which actually keep us safe.

The ruling about not clearing ice is a good example, set out by the professional body of health and safety officials. The actual effect of this kind of regulation is to make us less safe. The actual effect of much of the safe-guarding regime is to corrode the informal ways that neighbourhoods actually watch over children. It corrodes the way that frontline staff take responsibility and initiative, by chopping their jobs into tiny slithers, and subsuming them into intractable and controlling software.

So this isn’t just a story of how successive governments corrode social capital. It is the core story of why Blair and Brown invested such huge sums in public services, and yet rendered them so intractable, so elephantine, so narrowly focussed on symptoms rather than causes, and – over the long-term, therefore – so hugely ineffective and wasteful. That is the issue, really. No other issue is more important for the future of the nation.