The successes so far and the progress to be made on paying London workers a living wage:
By Liam Finn
A friend of mine is working on a construction site in Malaysia.
He’s on a year abroad from his civil engineering degree, a course he loathes. His stated aim was “to live one or two rungs above the poverty line”.
That changed last week. In his words, he had his “life put into perspective”. Andrew – not his real name – is happy for this story to be published.
I was taking the second of two alternating 12-hour shifts. The work involved sitting under ninety tonnes of concrete blocks and checking dials once an hour for 48 hours. It is dull.
The shift started at 5 am. My alarm was set for 3:30. I had a difficult cycle to work in the dark.
I was feeling sorry for myself.
Abdul, my colleague, had already worked for over twelve hours, setting up the equipment. He would be completing the remainder of the test, and so be working for around fifty hours in total. He was tired but still gave me a warm welcome.
Abdul started chatting.
He told me about his family back in Pakistan. He came to Malaysia to work because he was able to earn more money. This struck me because the pay is so poor here compared to that expected in the UK.
Abdul had to leave his young family in Pakistan. He has three boys aged ten, five, and two. He told me how he works hard here to provide an education and “bright future” for his children. He had considered trying to bring his family to Malaysia but that that would mean them learning and studying in a different language. He feels that it is more important to learn in their first language.
I was inspired by Abdul’s attitude. I told him that the education he is providing for his children and the careers they will obtain will bring will keep him looked after in his old age. He was visibly brimming with pride at the thought.
I asked Abdul how often he goes back to Pakistan. He simply replied “twice”. I assumed that he meant “twice a year” but was embarrassed when he told me he had returned only twice during his five-year stay in Malaysia. This means that he has been absent for almost the entirety of his middle child’s life and his youngest must have been conceived during one of his visits back to Pakistan.
The relative insignificance of my earlier complaints was now striking.
Abdul had unwittingly put into perspective how much I was missing my family after two months and how much I was looking forward to going home for Christmas after just six months. A whole year would be too long.
Abdul made me realise how fortunate I was to be able to afford to go home. I wondered what things he could have bought with the money it would cost for my own flight.
He had made me appreciate that I had received a good standard of education – free of charge. Coincidentally, I received my student loan instalment later that day: a lump sum of money that most people my age in the UK would spend on clothes, a new phone or booking a summer holiday.
Abdul’s story had made me realise how worthless these things actually are.
The unfairness of multinational companies’ tax avoidance and suggestions for the way forward:
Liam’s investigation into the technology and innovation promises made by the Tories and Lib Dems, including green tech:
“Cable announces plans to boost fairness for workers” declared the Government press release this week. It announces Vince’s latest Sweetex to disguise the sour taste of Tory government: a consultation process over zero-hours contracts (ZHCs) and a tasking of the Low Pay Commission to review the National Minimum Wage (NMW).
Widespread support exists for action on both zero-hours contracts and the minimum wage. Whatever benefits ZHCs offer in “flexibility” for small businesses and students can be preserved without multi-national corporations leaving breadwinners wondering whether they can feed their families. Whatever arguments are made of businesses going bust from having to pay workers an extra £1.26 per hour are the same rebutted claims aired against the introduction of NMW in 1998.
Yet potential successes will be insufficient when stacked against the unfairness created for workers by this Government and its predecessors.
First on the list for the Coalition was what should be one of the most basic rights – not to be unfairly dismissed. Last year, it raised the generally-required period of employment from one to two years before employees obtain protection from being unfairly sacked. This returned us to the 1990s, when the European Court of Justice held that the two-year period discriminated against women, being less likely than men to continue in the same employment for such time. The real question is why the fairness of a dismissal depends upon it occurring 729 or 730 days after starting the job.
Not content with that reduction of rights, Cable’s colleagues battled the House of Lords to allow employees to flog their right not to be unfairly dismissed. Employees can now trade their protection for shares in the company for which they work, but only up to a maximum of £50,000 and following a deliberately difficult safeguarding procedure demanded by the Lords. For the vast majority of employees who won’t convert their rights into shares, considerable fees to seek justice in employment tribunals await.
At the end of September, the Government’s latest assault on workers’ rights takes effect, when legislation laying down basic wage and working conditions requirements for agricultural workers ends. The Agricultural Wages Board – the sole survivor of its type – escaped previous Tory designs for its demise. Now farmers can sack and re-hire those workers whose contractual pay was set under the old regime. The Government itself estimates that the Board’s abolition will save £0.8m in administration costs over a decade, compared to the £259m of lost wages it will cause for some of the poorest workers in society.
These measures come on top of an already-weak system of protection for the British labour force.
Our law draws a distinction between “employees” and “workers” – so muddled and inconsistent that there is no agreed definition for what constitutes an “employee” and thus who is entitled to rights ranging from unfair dismissal protection, to continued employment after company takeovers, to payment for redundancy or paternal leave. Our protection for agency workers – who exist in larger numbers in the UK than anywhere in Europe – is restricted to those working for at least three months, and so excludes between one-third to one-half of those who need it. Our notoriously-hostile trade union legislation is designed to make going on strike a minefield of hurdles and pitfalls.
If Vince Cable is truly committed to “measures to inject more fairness into the workforce”, action on zero-hours contracts and the minimum wage is nothing more than the start. A raising of the minimum wage to a living wage would allow employers to enjoy the bureaucracy-free post-Agricultural Wages Board world whilst preventing an increase in poverty. A qualifying period of six months for unfair dismissal protection would meet the fetish for flexibility whilst safeguarding employees. A rebuttable presumption of employee status for a range of workers from cleaners to construction workers would increase certainty and reduce employers’ scope for creating sham arrangements.
Only then can Cable claim the pursuit of fairness for workers.
By Liam Finn
The Government is preparing to launch an attack against Syria – exactly ten years after the UK invited the country to shop for arms in London.
The invitation for Syria to attend the 2003 Defence & Security Equipment International exhibition (DSEi) – an arms fair held every two years at ExCeL in London Docklands – was rejected. Invitees to DSEi 2013 will not be announced until 10 September, the day the fair begins.
DSEi is the world’s largest arms fair, with 1,400 exhibitors from 50 countries. Describing itself as “the must-attend event of 2013”, it hosts sales pitches for military equipment, including tanks, planes, and warships. Countries regularly invited include Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Egypt.
The DSEi invitation appears to be just one of a series of potentially reckless acts taken in relation to Syria and arms trading.
Preparations for a military response to last week’s alleged chemical murder of civilians by the Syrian regime come a year after the UK withdrew licences to supply chemicals to Syria. The licences were granted as recently as January 2012, even though the civil war had begun the previous year. Despite arguing that the specific chemicals had “legitimate commercial uses”, the Business Secretary, Vince Cable, acknowledged that “they could also be used as precursor chemicals in the manufacture of chemical weapons” instead of their intended use for making aluminium showers and windows.
Parliamentary reports have revealed other exports to Syria authorised by the Government. A licence to export “sporting gun ammunition” was withdrawn having been originally granted despite “pre-existing concerns” about the country. One report details a further seven licences for exports of equipment, including bullet-proof vehicles. The Government insists these are for a UK company, commercial use, or the protection of foreigners and civilians.
Military action against Syria will be the latest in a series of attacks by the UK against a State to which it has previously encouraged or authorised arms exports. Colonel Gaddafi’s regime was encouraged to buy British equipment and invited to attend DSEi before a no-fly zone was implemented above Libya in 2011. The sale of arms to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq before the first Gulf War resulted in a huge scandal in the 1990s. British-made ships and helicopters were used by Argentina in the Falklands War.
By Liam Finn
Revelations published this weekend mean it’s time to allow Charles Windsor to stand for Parliament – for the good of the country, the monarchy, and himself.
The Sunday Times has revealed that Mr Windsor has been planting moles in government departments. The newspaper reports that his office was “reluctant to disclose details” of why his employees had been working at the Cabinet Office and Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) without ministers’ knowledge.
The news is just the latest example of Charles’ political meddling.
Since the 2010 election, Mr Windsor has held 53 meetings with ministers behind closed doors. An eight-year legal battle has been fought to force release of his letters to government members. A proposed development at Chelsea Barracks was stopped in 2009 after Charles wrote in private to the ruler of Qatar (whose company was in charge of the project) – anyone else would have had to object using the democratic planning system.
Charles is by no means the only member of his family to be politically-active. His brother, Andrew, has also been accused of lobbying, having been forced to step down from his trade ambassador role in 2011. His mother’s opposition to Scottish independence is well-known. The BBC apologised last autumn for having revealed Elizabeth’s involvement in the Abu Hamza row.
As things stand, the only way of avoiding a constitutional crisis is for Charles to stand for election as an MP.
One reason for its “popularity” is the myth that the Windsors are above politics, that they are not politicians. But the more revelations are published about Charles’ interference, the more that people will see that he is a politician – a career lobbyist exercising real power. In theory, we can get rid of ordinary politicians; with Charles, we have no such “privilege”.
Another reason for the monarchy’s survival is the belief that the Windsors have no power. Charles has been asked for permission over some laws. The biggest threat will come when Charles becomes King and inherits the monarch’s power to veto laws passed by Parliament. Although convention dictates that the monarch’s powers to dissolve Parliament, appoint ministers, and wage war are exercised only on “the advice” of (her) government, there is no legal obstacle to Charles acting alone. These problems wouldn’t exist if he were elected.
It would also benefit the country for Charles to stand for election.
We could choose to support his crusade against modern architecture, or his defence of alternative medicine. We could benefit from what his private office calls his “unique perspective”, superior to that of any other parliamentary candidate not born of the Windsor womb. We could see him outwit expert opponents in debates and committees with his “important insights, perspectives and knowledge built over 40 years of experience”.
Above all, Charles himself would benefit from seeking a parliamentary seat.
He would be able to speak out on any issue he wished, instead of having his “head shot off all the time” by those who object to him meddling behind the scenes. And why shouldn’t he be able to campaign on issues he cares about? Freedom of expression is a fundamental human right. To deprive him of such a right is cruel. What he should be deprived of is the opportunity to interfere with governmental decisions in a way to which those who do not share Windsor DNA cannot.
So there it is. It’s in everyone’s interests for Charles Windsor to seek election to Parliament. If he’s as popular and intelligent as he’s made out to be, he’ll walk it.
By Chloe Cornish
Great Ayton: welcome to Tory heartland. Dyed in the wool, splashed in the ink, partially-strangled, this constituency is blue through-and-through, like ripe stilton.
William Hague, the Foreign Secretary and former Conservative Party leader, has represented the village as part of the Richmond constituency since 1989. It’s what you call a safe seat. Even my father – a dissenter to his last platelet, so incandescent with underrepresentation that ballot papers turn to ashes between his fingers – consents that Hague is “alright”. One of my earliest memories is of meeting Mr and Mrs Hague with a plastic gardening cloche over my head (I was being an alien – let’s leave it there). Even if I wouldn’t vote Tory (mostly down to my grudge against the Rt Hon MP for failing to comment positively on said innovative use of transparent, air-tight dome), 95% of the people that I like and respect in my community would.
But Hague’s Conservative government (apologies to Clegg and co, I appreciate your efforts but let’s be realistic) has brought some bad news to Great Ayton.
Firstly, funding cuts to our local authority cost us our library. Because it was something that people actually really, really liked, wanted, and needed, a team of 60 or so volunteers has magnificently held back the tide of de-civilisation by re-opening it as ‘The Discovery Centre’, manning it themselves. Things went quiet. We went back to eating Petch’s pies and Suggitt’s ice cream and playing cricket.
Until last week, when the quiet was disturbed. 600 households received a leaflet through their letterbox inviting them to comment on a proposed development of 110 houses off Station Road. No planning application has yet been submitted. Rather the developers, Gladman, want to take public consultation into account before launching any formal plans.
That’s friendly, right? To talk to the nice folks about whether or not they’d like some ‘affordable’ housing and a new playground? Don’t we need ‘sustainable’ new living spaces? These are all very valid points, if only someone could explain what is meant by ‘sustainable’ and ‘affordable’.
The site that Gladman has indicated is currently lived and worked on by a well-respected farming family, Mark and Cath Phalp. They’ve been tenants of the land for nigh-on a quarter of a century, and recently opened a small, but thriving, farm shop, selling theirs and other local produce to Aytonians who have generally walked there. That’s a very good example of small businesses affording sustainable economic growth, the sort that Vince Cable and George Osborne applaud.
The kicker is that the Phalps got that leaflet the same as everybody else. No-one had consulted them about whether they’d be happy to give up their life’s work.
Gladman, the friendly developers, had dealt directly with the landowners. Presumably they got the job because their “approach can get consents fast – think 15 months, not 10 years”. Gladman are a good bet for a landowner looking to make several million pounds off its land: they don’t take a fee until consent is won and the land is sold.
But surely they wouldn’t do this unless they had local backing? That’s what Parish and District Councils are for, isn’t it? Being irritating and sinking planning applications?
No longer. What’s striking is the developers’ ability to bypass local government. Gladman admits that, whatever the result of the ‘consultation’ process, “in all likelihood we would continue to progress… wherever we go, nobody wants development.” The company’s website clearly states its success at overturning planning application refusals on appeal. Our local authority already has a site allocated for development in Great Ayton, chosen carefully and at great cost as part of the Local Development Framework. Councillors were dismayed as to why the company had proceeded without consulting either the Parish or District Council.
Decisions like this are increasingly being plucked out of the hands of local authorities by the current government. In December, it emerged that local authorities could lose the right to block large-scale gas fracking projects because they are “nationally significant” bits of infrastructure. And in July, new guidelines quietly took away local councils’ rights to investigate fracking-related issues, such as seismic activity, flaring and venting.
Something of not inconsiderable magnitude is going on at a politically microscopic level. Democratic processes are supposed to empower people. All that palaver with planning applications is supposed to let us have a say over what happens to the places we live and work. The Conservative manifesto makes a big deal of the ‘Big Society’ – “a massive transfer of power from Whitehall to local communities.” This a wildly amusing joke. We’re seeing a loss of local authority authority. The supposition is that central government knows best. “It’s in the national interests, so be quiet and let us frack you over.” “We are all in this together”, wrote David Cameron in a Telegraph article urging the country to get behind fracking in order to reap its economic benefits. We have little choice in the matter.
But then again, there are elections. Will William Hague’s constituents be so keen to put him back in power if he lets huge fracking housing developments gobble up their beloved picture postcard villages? The Tories are alienating their rural strongholds. We may be all in this together Mr C, but would you be first to the shovels if a sea of shale gas was found underneath Chipping Norton? Maybe you would. Who am I to say? I could be entirely wrong about all of this, stamping my wellies and steaming up my libertarian goggles for no good reason.
Frankly, I hope I am wrong.
By Liam Finn
The Homeless World Cup will kick off tomorrow in Poznań, Poland.
The seven-day annual tournament – first held in 2003 – will see 48 countries competing, including teams from England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Sixteen countries will field women’s teams.
Founders Mel Young and Harald Schmied established the Homeless World Cup in 2001 as an organisation to “change the lives of homeless people through football”. It has 70 partners around the world working with people suffering from homelessness and exclusion.
UK housing and homelessness charity Shelter reports that more than 81,000 households in England were classed as homeless in the past year – an increase of 5%. It lists the causes of homelessness as poverty, unemployment, the housing market, or individual or family factors, including family breakdown, mental health issues, or alcohol and drug misuse.
The tournament, billed by the Homeless World Cup organisation as a “street football event with unique rules”, will have 15-minute matches played by four-a-side teams. Rolling substitutions allow up to eight players to appear for each team in a single match. If the match is a draw at the end of normal time, a sudden death shoot-out is held.
Players must be at least 16-years-old and be appearing in the tournament for the first time. They must have been homeless in the past year or have been in drug or alcohol rehabilitation following homelessness in the past two years.
The organisation’s research claims that over 70% of players experience a significant life change, such as recovering from addiction, or securing employment or training.
Scotland is looking to win the World Cup for the third time, having beaten Poland 9-3 in the 2007 final and Mexico 4-3 in 2011. Speaking before last year’s tournament, Scotland captain, Mark Stack, said: “It’s not only about the football; it’s about the experience.
“All the other teams, obviously, they’ve been in the same kind of predicament as yourself – homeless, drugs, drink – all that kind of stuff. So you can identify with people, people that have struggled like yourself.
“My life’s not been easy. Nobody’s life is easy, but I was on heroin for 18 years. Mostly my life was in and out of prison and I just knew something had to give, I had to try something else apart from the same things I was doing.
“I heard about Street Soccer. I went there a couple of days a week… and I found out about the Homeless World Cup through that.
“I could never, ever have believed that I would have been in this position because I could never see an end to my life – I just wanted to die… You just don’t feel as if you’ve any self-worth.
“But now I’m nearly three years clean and I’m in Mexico City playing football.”
The draw for the tournament will take place tonight at 17:00 BST.
By Liam Finn
What do Vampire Weekend have to do to get a hit single?
Look at the main stage of festivals and they’re there. Look at the Top 40 and they’re pretty much AWOL.
Thankfully, the British album-buying public – all seven or so of them remaining – has come to the rescue. Modern Vampires of the City, released in May, went to Number 3 in the album charts, mimicking the performance of 2010’s Contra.
And there’s a reason for the album reaching the chart’s heights: it’s brilliant. Admittedly, Modern Vampires – as with Contra – isn’t as accessible as the New York quartet’s instantly-catchy debut. But even more than the Vampires’ second album, this record taunts you to repeat, and repeat, and repeat, until the conversion is complete.
Back to the question of singles. How did Diane Young only get to Number 50 when it was released as a double A-side with Step? Drums masquerading as a machine gun; gimmicky pitch-shifting; a video in which a guest at the Last Supper smokes weed out of a saxophone.
Even God can’t inspire chart success. Ya Hey’s title might be a divinely-derived play on the Outkast song, but apparently no number of yodelling Smurfs is sufficient. What if the album’s second track, Unbelievers, is released as a single? Any song with a chorus even more beautiful than that of Giving up the gun should be record of the year. It will take more than the disbelief in the lyrics for it to get lucky.
The album has everything. As well as that incredible chorus on Unbelievers, guitarist and keyboardist Rostam Batmanglij weaves singer Ezra Koenig’s poetry into the most perfect melodies, whether conjuring up the album cover’s skyline on Obvious Bicycle or the terrifying Hudson. And there’s so much musicality. Koenig’s singing is distinct on each song, beating all syllables-per-minute records on Worship You, but reaching a falsetto on Step and Hannah Hunt. Textures vary from thin, heartbeat drums to polyphonic harpsichord backings.
Even without comparisons to its predecessors, Modern Vampires is dark. Mr Reaper emerges from the lyrics and production on the Hudson requiem. Koenig has admitted that Diane Young is a pun on premature death. You can’t escape his warning of “a headstone right in front of you” on Don’t Lie. Nor does he want you to.
Yet if the sombre imagery leaves Vampire Weekend’s debut sounding positively juvenile, it’s for the best. The first album remains a classic, but this successor is the work of a group refusing to regurgitate past glories. Modern Vampires throws off the shackles of lazy comparisons to Graceland and confirms that Vampire Weekend are one of the best bands of our generation.