Friday, 28 September 2012

Church outlines moral compass for business

The common good and the dignity of the human person are two elements that must be at the centre of any business.
These were two of seven points drawn from Catholic Social Teaching (CST) by Archbishop Vincent Nichols in his excellent analysis of what is required to do business better in the future. The others being solidarity, subsidiarity, reciprocity, fraternity and sustainability.
The archbishop was addressing the Church sponsored conference, a Blueprint for Better Business. The conference drew together many major businesses from across the world, including Vodafone, Unilever McKinseys, Barclays, Tesco, Lloyds and BAE Systems.
Ethically, many will have problems with some of these companies but if the Church is to have an impact on the wider world then there has to be constructive engagement, even with those some may not like.
The common good and dignity of the human person were central themes, underlining why the Church has a role to play in guiding the world out of its present economic morass.
None of the participants though seemed to be able to define the common good beyond their own individual or company circumstances.
The CST definition refers to “the set of social conditions which allow people more easily to develop, individually and communally.”
The dignity of the human person was another concept that had many struggling.
There were good contributions from Nicola Smith, head of economic and social affairs at the TUC and Lord Maurice Glassman but more voices from the labour world would have made for a more rounded discussion.
Some representation from British business, which in many ways is more backward than those giving the representations, could also have been helpful.
For it is in the UK that we have seen the representatives of business lobbying government to make the situation of the individual in the workplace that much worse. They have pushed to make it easier to sack people, more difficult to get justice via employment tribunals and for the reduction of health and safety regulations: thereby making it more dangerous in the workplace. All of these moves fly in the face of human dignity and the common good.
Indeed, human dignity and the common good have over the past few years seemed to be the least of concerns when it comes to the operation of business. Job security has been reduced, many people have lost their jobs, especially those working in the public sector. Wage freezes if not reductions exist for those in work. Pensions are under attack.
Let’s also not forget that it was the finance sector of business that created this crisis in the first place.
This is a backward country when it comes to doing business. In Germany, employers and government regularly sit down with trade unions and discuss economic priorities. As Lord Glassman pointed out, in Germany, the trade unions agreed to take a pay cut in the boom years, helping set the country up to be in the relatively prosperous position it is in now, compared to the rest of Europe.
In Scandanavian countries like Sweden, governments talk to trade unions from across Europe, including British ones.
Meantime, in little England, the employers and their representatives in government continue with their own form of Jurassic class warfare seeking to actually get rid of trade unions. Almost every other developed country recognises trade unions as key stakeholders in running business and the economy.
The one element Archbishop Nichols could have added was reference to those elements of CST that underline the importance of trade unions to justice in the work place.
Importantly, the impact of climate change was also seen as a priority by Unilever, Vodafone and McKinsey. Again another example of differences between European and North American led business to their British counterparts – many of whom together with government seem to be living in the land of the climate change deniers.
The ethos of companies like Unilever and McKinseys seemed very much toward building long term enterprises where the common good is a major driving force. Dominic Barton, the managing director of McKinseys, emphasised the damage done by the short termist attitudes in business. The power of the shareholder looking for instant returns is often not for the common good. Instead the business should build a long term enterprise that is good for the people who work for it and the community it operates in. So it would seem there is some hope moving forward for progressive moral voices in the business world

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Lib Dem conference offers a study in dysfunctionality

The Liberal Democrat conference offers a wonderful study in dysfunctionality. All the liberal utterances about hitting the rich harder, state banks and fairer tax systems sound great but whereas in the past it was always understood that the Liberal Democrats could say these things because they would never be in government, now the opposite is true.
Now, the Liberal Democrats continue to say these things, knowing that nothing they do will make them happen, even though they are in government.
The reality of the Liberal Democrats in government is that they are simply propping up and prolonging one of the most right wing Conservative administrations seen in recent times.
It is a role that amounts to the ultimate betrayal of liberal values and the electorate - a situation that can only be remedied with a call from the conference for an end to the Coalition Government.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Why not tackle the real welfare scroungers?

The news that the Save the Children Fund has for the first time in its history set up a fund to deal with poverty in Britain should set alarm bells ringing.

This, along with the reported proliferation in food banks across the country, shows the gravity of the situation for all to see.

Some of those using food banks are on benefits and trying to struggle by, but many in low-paid jobs are enduring similar difficulties.

As benefits are cut and pay reduced, these families are increasingly turning to loan sharks and other unscrupulous lenders to help keep their heads above water.

This is a further example of government short-sightedness.

Forcing people into ever greater debt will have other effects in areas like health and education, which will have far bigger cost implications than the pennies shaved off the welfare budget.

Nineteenth-century notions of the deserving and undeserving poor lie at the centre of government thinking on welfare.

Charity has an important role to play in this construct, replacing the idea of a right to support as enshrined in the welfare state.

Supposed "charity" was doled out to hungry children on Victorian streets. In those days the worthies providing this form of support also wanted to deliver a lesson in moral rectitude, so deliberately burnt porridge was given to poor children so they wouldn't get a liking for it.

Today's welfare debate is so one-sided, it is basically about taking money away from the poor to allegedly to deal with the deficit.

Other forms of welfare recipient, though, are treated differently.

The biggest welfare beneficiaries are the bankers. They have caused this crisis, but the taxpayer is simply expected keep giving when it comes to providing welfare support to these scroungers.

Every few months there is a bit more quantitative easing - printing money - which is handed to the banks who shore up their balance sheets, without passing the money on to businesses to get the country moving again with jobs.

Then there are the companies that ministers fawn over for providing lots of low-paid jobs in Britain.

These companies receive welfare in the form of tax credits to those on low pay.

The state effectively makes up the difference so these companies can pay starvation wages.

This is a subsidy to unscrupulous firms that does not seem to get the same opprobrium from government as, say, the individual on housing benefit struggling to survive.

Other welfare recipients include the utility companies that take care of water, electricity and gas.

They effectively operate private monopolies in these sectors, so are able to put up prices at will in order to make profits for their shareholders.

If there were no shareholders, then these energy sources would be cheaper for people to access.

And when considering welfare scroungers, it would be careless to forget the privatised railways.

Another private monopoly that amounts to a licence to print money for those which hold the different franchises.

These companies seem to operate in their own bubble, insulated from the suffering of everyone else.

Note that while thousands lose their jobs or struggle away under pay freezes, the train operating companies impose 3 per cent above-inflation fare increases.

There are ways that these things could be changed. Among its recommendations the Save the Children Fund suggests the introduction of a living wage.

This in reality would be a higher minimum wage. It would force those employers who at present take state subsidy in the form of tax credits to employees to pay proper wages.

A higher proportion of servicing the deficit should be coming from taxing those best able to pay.

This means taking more tax from wealthy individuals and companies - the banks and private utility companies, as well as individuals with mighty fortunes.

The private monopolies that exist in the utilities and the railways should be broken up.

These changes would really cut welfare costs and make life a lot easier for the mass of working people.

In the name of austerity, those least responsible for the present crisis are being asked to pay for it. This is not for the common good of the country, but the benefit of a rich powerful elite. It has to stop.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

The systematic institutionalisation of repression

UK Border Agency's withdrawal of London Metropolitan University's licence to teach foreign students is the latest example of the extended tentacles of the security state at work.

The London Met recently had its licence to teach and recruit students from beyond the EU revoked, leaving thousands of students in limbo.

Students, lecturers and activists are in uproar at the decision, and the university has vowed to take legal action.
But this decision reaches beyond the university. Many have questioned where it will leave the higher education sector as a whole, sending out such a negative message to students overseas who may be considering studying here. This at a time when fewer home students are going to university due to the rise in fees.
But what has drawn less attention is the fact that it was the UKBA - a security arm of government - that took such a significant decision for education and the British economy.
This was an extraordinary action, marking a further extension of the security state's power.
The security state has been steadily growing over recent years. Its foundations were laid during the Troubles in the north of Ireland.
Liberties were repeatedly taken away on the basis of security, starting with the Prevention of Terrorism Act in 1974.
More followed with the loss of the right to silence and the encroachment of security agencies into almost every element of daily life.
These agencies saw their meal ticket come under threat with peace in Ireland but, with the advent of the September 11 2001 terror attacks, the expansion of the security state was to resurge at a new pace.
Those with an interest in security have great power to persuade the public of unseen threats, as seen prior to the Olympics.
Missiles were stationed on roofs of nearby blocks of flats. The paras were deployed. Near where I live the police constructed a huge compound ready for all the people who would be arrested during the Games.
The courts, we were told, would sit round the clock - just like after last year's riots. In the event few people were actually arrested at the Games, and these were mostly for ticket touting.
Much of the terror hype was generated by public and private entities that stood to profit from such extensive security provision.
The failure of private security firm G4S to provide the requisite security resulted in the army being brought in.
Yet G4S has been one of the private companies to profit from the growth of the security state. The company runs prisons and has recently entered the market for providing a variety of services to police forces.
The role of ever-greater numbers of private companies in the prisons sector is disturbing. Companies come to areas promising to bring long-term employment with a new jail.
These companies are profiting from incarceration and they seem to have little interest in rehabilitation.
Increased private-sector involvement in prisons has also accompanied an increase in inmates being used as a cheap labour source.
And there are other areas where the security state is looking to grow. One is the growing pressure to expand the role of drones in British air space.
These drones may be used to practise military models intended to kill in other countries or for surveillance. What unites them all is a lack of regulation.
Such potential loss of liberty at the altar of security is "justified" on commercial grounds. The mantra is that this is an expanding sector where Britain can lead the way.
It is worrying how easily people can now be persuaded to give up basic liberties in the name of security.
"Better safe than sorry" or "if you have nothing to hide, you've nothing to fear" are two of the well-worn justifications.
Yet there are a multitude of examples of injustices resulting from this type of naive mindset - the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four, to name just two.
Then there are those who've been detained without trial over the past 10 years due to post-September 11 anti-terror and immigration laws.
The expansion of the security state should cause every citizen concern.
It is a particularly dangerous mix where state bodies act in collusion with privateers whose only motivation is making profit.
It is time we all woke up to this ongoing loss of liberty. So next time someone justifies taking away a liberty on the basis of security, ask whose security and why

Sunday, 9 September 2012

First woman general secretary of TUC to lead battle against government

The first woman to become general secretary of the Trade Union Congress (TUC) has pledged to “lead the intellectual battle against the government’s self defeating austerity programme and win support for a credible alternative.”

Bold words from Frances O'Grady that will be tested when on 20 October, the TUC hopes to see hundreds of thousands of workers take to the streets to join its march and rally for “ a future that works. This will follow up the 500,000 plus demonstration against the cuts organised by the TUC last year.

Before that, the granddaughter of a founding member of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union will take over from present general secretary Brendan Barber at the TUC’s Congress in Brighton.

Ms O’Grady’s forbears were among those who followed that well-trod migrant path from Ireland to Britain.

She is a champion of migrant workers pointing out that their impact is sometimes underestimated.
"Many people bring their own very strong traditions to Britain. Those who have the guts to come over the water and start a new life here have often got the guts to organise their fellow workers," she said. A path that she has clearly pursued herself.
After doing a range of jobs, from working in shops or kitchens to the voluntary sector, she became a T&G rep. She then got a job at the union head office in Smith Square, Westminster. She later went onto the TUC, working on the organising side of union work. She later became deputy general secretary, a position she has held for the past nine years. "What always drove me was the basic issue of standing up for each other and looking after each other but also that bigger vision of a more equal society where power and wealth are more fairly distributed,” said Ms O’Grady, who is keen to take up the fight against what she sees as an unjust government.

“I will lead the argument for fundamental reform of the parts of the financial and banking system which took the country to the brink of disaster, including through the creation of a state investment bank to help the real economy, not least manufacturing and construction, get back on its feet,” said Ms O’Grady. “I'll also be stepping up the pressure for an ambitious employment programme that gives people dignity and time for a family life outside of work- not just dead-end jobs.”

The TUC will be also coordinating nationwide action for a living wage. “A living wage would help lift children out of poverty and give ordinary people a fair reward for the wealth that they produce. That means an end to greed at the top and putting the brake on those businesses that try to outsource their moral responsibility. Big business must be held to account for the treatment of workers down their supply chains, at home and abroad. There must be an end to remuneration committee closed shops by allowing ordinary workers a say over top pay. And British workplaces must be re-unionised to introduce a measure of power sharing and democracy into our economic life,” said Ms O’Grady.

The first woman general secretary is outraged that the burden for crisis created largely in the banking institutions of the City of London should effectively being paid for by some of the poorest families in the land. “Working families face a triple whammy of shrinking pay packets, rising bills and cuts in vital public services. This is the biggest squeeze in living standards since the 1920s. At 2.5 million, unemployment is high and a generation of young people face a very uncertain future. And to rub salt into the wound the government is planning to strip away basic employment rights by making it easier to sack workers and price ordinary people out of justice by introducing charges for employment tribunals,” said Ms O’Grady. “But it's now clear that all this sacrifice is in vain. The Chancellor's plan to reduce the deficit has patently failed. The government is set to borrow £158 billion more than it planned over the life of this parliament because the tax take is down, the benefits bill is up and the economy is tanking. Tax cuts for the rich have not delivered the trickle down effect that the government promised. Corporations are sitting on a mountain of cash pile but refuse to invest while demand is low. Inequality continues to grow with the concentration of wealth at the top actually escalating over the last year. The lessons are clear. You can't make a country richer by making its people poorer. The government should stop cutting and start investing in building affordable homes, greening our infrastructure and putting people back to work. But more than this we need a radical rethink of our economy and the obscene imbalance of wealth and power that many economists now agree led to the financial crash in the first place.”

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Cameron rearranges the deckchairs on his Titanic

So David Cameron has rearranged the deckchairs on his Titanic. The big question though come the next election, will be why any voter should believe a word that either of the coalition parties says. First, there was the Lib Dems going back on their manifesto commitment on tuition fees, now it seems the Tories are set to do a similar volte face on the third runway at Heathrow. Not to mention the NHS reforms that were not mentioned in either parties manifesto. Given these betrayals, it can only be a matter of time before this coalition vessel sinks beneath the waves of growing voter discontent?