Jul 252012
 
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Hidden Economy vs Shadow Banking?

Social democrats understand that luck plays a key role in determining everyone’s life chances and experiences. The lottery of life, where you are born, your access to intelligent networks, and being in the right-place-at-the-right-time, all have a significant chance of determining the life expectancy and outcomes of your life than any other factor. Social democrats see these as random factors that often impact on our lives but which few individuals can readily control. These random factors can make us incredibly rich or incredibly poor, regardless of the effort that we put in to mitigate where we start from. Social democrats recognises that life, therefore, is often a series of random events, some positive and some negative, that are best moderated through collective action, and about which we should all be vigilant lest the role of the dice lead to divisive extremes and moral cruelty.

Social conservatives, on the other hand, predominantly look for a narrative explanation of why things are like they are. Social conservatives cannot accept randomness. For a social conservative the unfairness of life is explained from one of a number of set and originating stories. From a moral perspective, from a historical perspective, or even from a providential/divine perspective. The world is as it is, so the social conservatives think, and we should do as much as possible to maintain the ‘natural’ order of this world and respect the original forces that often (according to myth) pro-generated the world we are now part of. The debate about gay marriage is an excellent example in which ancient religious traditions and mythology provide the reference points against which choices and beliefs are held in the present.

The poor are poor, according to the social conservatives, because they are feckless shaggers who have too many babies – as Louise Casey, the Prime Minister’s families advisor recently claimed. It is time for the state to intervene, Casey told the Daily Telegraph: “There are plenty of people who have large families and function incredibly well, and good luck to them, it must be lovely. The issue for me, out of the families that I have met, they are not functioning, lovely families.” Miss Casey went on to warn that the state must start telling mothers with large families to take “responsibility” and stop getting pregnant.

Likewise, the ill are ill, according to the social conservatives, because they don’t have the moral fibre to maintain their bodily integrity. The widespread anxiety in our media about the obesity epidemic focuses almost exclusively on individual moral virtues, and does little to challenge the monopoly of junk food and convenience food industries that dominate British towns and cities. As the Welcome Trust points out, there are clear links between obesity and ill health, but Michael Gove insists that the right people to review (again) the standard of food in schools are people from the fast food industry themselves. According to the Daily Mail, the Secretary of State for Education “enjoyed a holiday at a Moroccan villa with a top chef who was later commissioned to carry out a Government review into school dinners.”

Which brings us to the Olympics, were questions are being asked about the role that major convenience food brands have in sponsoring the London 2012 games. CNN asks “Olympic sponsorship – must it be so unhealthy?” According to CNN “the media has, until now, been slow to pick up what health campaigners have understood for some time: there is public unease at some of the world’s biggest junk food manufacturers using the Olympics to heavily promote their unhealthy products at every opportunity, and especially to children. In fact, one might expect sentiment against the company to fall further, now the torch relay — with its super-sized Coca-Cola trucks and brightly dressed assistants handing out free Coke samples and merchandise to children and their parents — has passed through Britain’s streets.”

Then, of course, it’s the turn of the rich to claim that they have achieved their wealth through merit, good stewardship and entrepreneurial zeal. There is not much to add that hasn’t already been publicly aired in recent months, except to offer a reminder that, as Jonathan Freedland pointed out in The Guardian last year, “free-wheeling capitalists should be particularly alarmed… Gargantuan executive pay is sapping enterprise: people who might have been risk-taking entrepreneurs have no reason to start their own businesses when they are so comfortably looked after at corporate HQ. And of course such winner-takes-all rewards warp the wider economy.”

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Lord Turner Slams Rip-Off Banking

Lord Turner, chairman of the Financial Services Authority, rightly points out that the public have lost trust in the whole ‘rip-off’ culture of British banks. Reported in the Daily Mail, Lord Turner says millions have lost trust in the financial services industry. He said people were “angry with banks and bankers” and added: “They doubt banks’ values, and they doubt whether banks have their interests at heart.”

Which makes Tony Blair’s untimely thoughts on the financial crisis make him seem increasingly out of touch, with both the facts and popular sentiment. Mr Blair, who was interviewed by the Daily Telegraph, pleads “don’t take 30 years of liberalisation, beginning under Mrs Thatcher, and say this is what caused the financial crisis.” Okay, so the extreme suggestion that hanging bankers from the lampposts is something we can agree on as a bad idea. At last Tony and I agree on something these days. But the fact that no bankers, regulators or politicians have stood in a dock, in a court, or even before an officer of the law, to account for their actions, is astonishing. Just remember that bankers have cost the UK £1.2 trillion.

One thing that we are learning from the banking crisis is that moral certitude and accountability is clearly measured in different ways for different people. It’s a question of doing as the bankers say, and not doing as they do. Daniel Kahneman points out in his book Thinking Fast and Slow, that “our predilection for causal thinking exposes us to serious mistakes in evaluating the randomness of truly random events” (Kahneman 2011, p.115). For Kahneman it isn’t enough for us to seek the simplest answer that comes to mind first, and which feels comfortable with our prejudices. If we want to make lasting change, we have to come up with a diagnosis that is determined by a more rigorous thought process and mindset. The more that we acknowledge that we are subject to forces that are random and unfair, the greater likelihood we have of developing some longer-term and sustainable solutions, and the less likely we are to rely on social myths and fairy stories about why poor people are poor, ill people are ill, and rich people are rich.

Jul 242012
 
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Cuts to Council Tax Benefit

If you haven’t been reading the more arcane periodicals of local government finance and administration, you probably have no idea what is about to sweep the country. The biggest change and cut in local taxation since the Council Tax was brought in to replace the combustible and unpopular Poll Tax. The axing of Council Tax benefit, in it’s present form, is about to take place from April 2013. To be replaced with Local Council Tax Support based on rules decided on by local councils.

According to documents posted on Parliament UK website Council Tax Benefit is described as “a national benefit with policy and rules set by central Government but it is administered by local authorities in England, Scotland and Wales. Administration is linked to the Council Tax billing arrangements and usually takes the form of a reduction to the Council Tax a person would otherwise be liable to pay.”

However, and according to Brent Council “The Government is abolishing the Council Tax Benefit scheme and is asking councils to replace it with their own locally run service called Council Tax Support.” The effect of which is that “every single council will have their own local Council Tax Support scheme, with its own eligibility criteria.”

In addition, and according to South Gloucestershire Council, “under the existing council tax benefit scheme, the council generally receives 100% funding from the government to cover the cost of the scheme.” However, under the new localised schemes councils will receive from government a “maximum of 90% grant toward what is paid out.”

Writing in The Guardian Poly Toynbee give a succinct summary of a complicated piece of legislation: “Here’s the background: on average, households pay £1,000 a year in council tax. Until now, households on low incomes were exempt or paid only according to their means, so 5.9m households received council tax benefit. From next April, the benefit is cut by 10%, which is bad enough; but then insanity takes over. Each local authority will be given the sum that was handed out in benefit in their area (less 10%) to disperse as they please. They must keep paying the full benefit to pensioners and “the vulnerable”. Each council must choose who is “vulnerable”, as the government refuses to provide its own definition. Half of the recipients are pensioners, so protecting them means all other low-income households bear the whole cut, averaging 20%. People who live in areas with a lot of pensioners or a lot of the “vulnerable” will suffer the biggest cuts, as much as 30% or more. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) says low-income households in Haringey, north London, lose £38 a week.”

Toynbee adds: “300 councils must each devise their own criteria. Each becomes a mini DWP, establishing its own means test without having access to people’s earnings. Each must divide its benefit pot between varying numbers of claimants each year. Miserly authorities can keep much of it for other purposes. Each decides who is “vulnerable” or whether to include disability living allowance, child benefit or personal savings in declaring who is eligible for how much.”

Figures seen by Rutland & Melton Labour Party suggest that for Rutland County Council this will mean deep cuts in benefits to people who are already struggling. The present cost of Council Tax Benefit for Rutland is £1.87m each year. This is paid to 1,929 Council Tax Benefit claimants. Figures released by the government for 2013 onwards give a cut of £435,000. Leaving Rutland Council to administer locally a budget of £1.44m. While pensioners entitlement to Council Tax Benefit will be ring-fenced, the savings forced on Rutland Council are going to be made up elsewhere – by cutting the claims of working age people. As 58% of claimants for Council Tax in Rutland are pensioners, this is going to mean some sever cuts of twenty or thirty percent for people in part-time jobs and on low pay.

So, if a major business is forced to close or restructure the effect is going to be devastating, not only for the people who lose their jobs, but also for the people who depend on support from the state for their Council Tax payments. It means that a local council can suddenly be swamped by claims for Council Tax Support. Claims that it has to find from its existing budget. As more people claim Council Tax Support, the less there is to go around for others. As Toynbee points out “It is, in effect, a tontine, a lottery.” And it is the working poor who are going to pay the highest price.

Rutland County Council are starting an eight week period of consultation about how these changes are going to be managed. Other councils will be consulting on these changes in the next few weeks.

Jul 222012
 
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Part-Time Workers Looking for Full-Time Work

The Department of Work and Pensions has announced that Melton will be one of fifteen local authorities who will trial the Universal Credit. In the press release the Minister for Welfare Reform Lord Freud said “Local authority led pilots will provide a unique opportunity for councils to shape the development of Universal Credit.” And that “all the recommended local authorities offer very exciting ideas on how they might help people with their claims for Universal Credit and progress into work.”

The aim of the Universal Credit is to reduce the complexity and cost of administering a range of different social benefits between national and local government agencies. At present benefits are claimed from government for Job Seekers Allowance, but Housing Benefit from the local council.

However, critics argue that the introduction of a national IT system to administer all benefits will drive up costs and become much more complex. John Seddon started a petition in August 2011 calling for “Iain Duncan Smith to ‘rethink the centralised, IT- dominated service design for the delivery of Universal Credit. Evidence from a significant number of housing benefit offices demonstrates that local, face-to-face processing of benefits is cheaper and faster than distant automated telephone and online processing.”

The new system means that local councils will have to administer the benefits systems from their own budgets, based on local rules they set themselves. Tom Clark, writing in The Guardian, points out that “ministers came up with a cost-cutting wheeze to lump council tax rebates outside the new system, and ask every town hall to devise their own rules.”

The Telegraph reported as recently as 13th July 2012 that the “technology underpinning the Universal Credit – the Government’s answer to simplifying the benefits system – has been rushed through in an attempt unveil the new welfare plans by 2013.” According to the report “the All Party Group on Taxation found that the Universal Credit, a single payment intended to replace several different benefits, is reliant on a new HMRC up-to-date “real time” information to track earnings.”

Little is known about how this trial will be conducted in Melton, what will happen to people who are affected by the changes it brings, and what difference it will make to the overall budget of Melton Borough Council.

Rob Watson, Rutland & Melton Labour’s on-line campaign spokesman said “While it is agreed that changes to the benefits systems are easier to bring in when unemployment is falling, the trend in long-term unemployment is continuing to rise. Little is known about how the Universal Credit system will impact on families and households who have a mixture of benefits and low-paid work. The lack of social housing has driven-up the housing benefit bill, with money going direct to private landlords. It is unclear how this system will work and why Melton has been selected as a test-bed.”

Jul 212012
 
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Lawson – Worst of the 1980s

It’s a bit rich that former chancellor Lord Lawson is telling the BBC that George Osborne should focus on the economy and jobs. But then again he knows a lot about mass unemployment, financial deregulation and the sell-off of state assets. Having caused the bust of the early 1990’s with his give-away budgets and interest rate policy that over-valued the pound – ultimately leading to the ERM fiasco. The Guardian reports Lord Lawson saying “I do think it might be sensible to give up the formal role and focus exclusively on his job as chancellor of the exchequer, which is a tremendously important job.” Now that is an understatement!

Jul 202012
 
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The graph shows net debt and net borrowing over the past 35 years. It spikes suddenly after 2007

Today’s news from the Office for National Statistics that George Osborne is borrowing half a billion pounds more for June 2012 than in June 2011 shows that his plan of fiscal tightening, or austerity, isn’t working. As reported in the Daily Mail “the Chancellor came under fresh pressure today as figures revealed that Government borrowing surged in June to £14.4billion.” Acording to the Mail “economists had predicted that the deficit – the difference between tax receipts and spending – would be £13.9billion. But revised figures show that in June total Government spending stood at £52.4 billion with tax revenues of £40.9 billion. Spending had only dipped by one per cent and tax returns had increased by 3.6 per cent.”

The Telegraph reports comments from James Knightly, an economist at ING, who said: “It is clear that the recession is leading to a worsening of the UK’s underlying fiscal position and raises more question marks over the effectiveness of the government’s austerity measures.”

David Blanchflower, former member of the Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England has been a constant critic of Cameron and Osborne’s lack of economic understanding, said on Twitter today “The reality now is that Osborne politically can’t change the economics because he then has to admit Ed Balls called it right we all lose.” Speaking to Sky News, Labour’s shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, Rachel Reeves, described the figures as “another damaging blow” and accused the coalition of “choking off the recovery”. Reeve”s points out that unless the Chancellor takes urgent action to boost the economy now he will end up borrowing billions more to pay for economic failure and cause long-term damage too,” she said.

And the reason that the IMF thinks that the growth stall is significant? Jonathan Portes, writing in The Guardian points out that the “IMF estimates that for every 1% growth shortfall now, structural unemployment – the unemployment that won’t go away when the economy recovers – increases by about 40,000 people.” Portes points out that
“A non-technical summary of Thursday’s International Monetary Fund report on the UK economy would be that we are up the creek – “recovery has stalled” – and that we should use any available paddle to head as fast as possible in the opposite direction. “Demand support is needed. Additional monetary stimulus … credit easing measures … increased government spending on public investment.” Stop pretending we’re on track, and throw the kitchen sink at the economy.”

It’s clear that Osborne’s plan is failing day by day, and that it is communities up and down the country who are going to be paying the long-term price for a blinkered and discredited Chancellor who confuses ideology with pragmatic, practical reality.

Jul 202012
 
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The State Always Steps In When Things Go Wrong

How do we know that we are getting value for money from the commercial contracts that are signed to deliver public services? There is a growing weight of evidence that many of the contracts that national and local government give out to companies are actually costing us more than if they were done in-house. According to Steve Richard’s in The Independent “the deeply embedded assumption that a slick, efficient, agile, selfless private sector delivers high-quality services for the public is being challenged once more in darkly comic circumstances.” Steve is of course referring to the G4S security shambles, were the Army and Police are stepping in to cover for a private company who can’t deliver what they promised.

Commercial contracts are negotiated and awarded every day by local authorities and public bodies up and down the country. But can we be sure that we are getting value for money when so much of these contracts are surrounded in secrecy? How much of a contract goes on management fees? Ten per cent? Twenty Percent? Fifty Percent? We will never know because private companies aren’t obliged to reveal this information to the local councils who award the bids.

Changing the law is going to be difficult, but it would help of we ended the sealed-bid process, in which companies bids are discussed in private and the details of the competing bids are never revealed. But if it is public money that is being paid to provide a public service, then why should this process not be transparent? Local councils have to provide open accounts for the services that they run, so why not companies bidding for public work?

The coalition government has introduced a new duty on local authorities to consider the ‘social benefit’ of the contracts that they award. According to the Local Government Lawyer website the new duty, which was made into law in 2012, places an obligation on local authorities to consider “how what is being proposed to be procured might improve the economic, social and environmental well-being of the relevant area.” But what is meant by ‘social benefit’? Who is going to decide the best way to compare social benefits between different contracts? When times are tough will it be the bottom-line that takes over?

Every organisation who makes a bid for funding to provide public work, be it bin collections, support for job seekers, building schools and hospitals, or even providing security for the Olympics, should expect, therefore, that their bids are made public. It is easy to do this online now, all at the same time. Rather than deciding these bids in the back rooms, with lawyers pouring over them, they should be put out to public consultation and scrutiny. All the details, costs and expected profits of the contract bid should be included in the published documentation so that we, the taxpayer, can make our own minds up about what is value for money and what is waste.

As Steve Richards points out “Instead of focusing on the arduously unglamorous task of making the public sector more efficient and adaptable, ministers, like their New Labour predecessors, prefer still the deceptive swagger of the incompetent entrepreneur.” Commercial confidentiality is all too often a shield used by incompetent businesses to rip-off the taxpayer. In the end, like G4S, these incompetent businesses know that government will always have to be ready to step-in if they get it wrong. The risk is all on the taxpayer, and the benefits are all for the companies. The balance is clearly wrong.

Jul 192012
 
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Osborne Out of His Depth?

With each announcement of financial news it is becoming clear that the austerity plan irrationally beloved by the coalition is failing. Now the IMF is calling on George Osborne to go to Plan B to save the British economy from it’s present stall. According to the Daily Telegraph “The IMF said that the British economy may not be able to cope with the scale of austerity planned for 2013-14. It argued in its latest staff report on the UK that the Government has room to relax its deficit cutting programme with targeted tax cuts and increased infrastructure spending should it prove necessary.”

According to The Guardian the IMF report makes clear that “the coalition’s austerity has exacerbated the weakness, wiping 2.5% off GDP since 2010.” But as the Daily Mail points out “Ministers rejected calls for a plan B to revive the economy in June, after leading economists warned the Chancellor was not doing enough to promote growth.” The Mail points out that “Forty-seven economists wrote a letter to the Observer newspaper demanding changes to the Coalition’s economic policy, claiming the UK’s finances are too unstable to withstand the spending cuts.” But that “The Treasury and senior Cabinet ministers said at the time that there was no need for a change of course and put the blame squarely on Labour’s shoulders for leaving the country with a record deficit.”

How much longer can the coalition go on blaming anyone and everyone other than their own failed policies. Remember in May 2010 the British economy, according to The Guardian, was bounding back from recession with growth in the first quarter of 2010 rising at 0.3% – more than the UK economy has grown for the last twelve months. It’s time that Osborne got a new job – but based on this record, would you employ him?

Jul 162012
 
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Midland Main Line Electrification To Go Ahead

It’s good to see the Coalition getting behind a major investment in Britain’s Railways, particularly at a time when the economy needs a significant boost. These proposals have, however, been around for some time. In 2009 Network Rail consulted on the proposal to electrify the East Midland Mainline. In October 2009 Network Rail announced plans to electrify the route. The Leicester Mercury quoted Network Rail saying the “work would pay for itself over 60 years in cheaper running costs and maintenance”.

But the plans where put back in favour of the West Coast Mainline improvements.

As a regular traveler on the East Midlands network the improvements will be welcome, however, after spending a few days in the North West last week, and traveling between Wigan and Liverpool, I sometimes feel that things can be much worse. Yes trains between Birmingham and Stanstead Airport are not frequent enough, and they finish far too early in the evening. They are not the ramshackle and rickety trains that pile in to Liverpool Lime Street.

This investment is welcome, but much more is needed, and it’s about time that passengers started to feel the benefit in reduced costs, more flexible ticketing, and more interconnected services.

Jun 282012
 
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Rogue Trading?

Barclays Bank has received a record fine after trying to fix key interest rates. According to The Independent “Investigators from the US and the UK discovered that Barclays traders routinely manipulated one of the world’s most important interest rates, affecting everything from mortgage rates to the value of complex financial derivatives, all in the hope of increasing their trading profits and their own yearly bonuses.”

The Daily Mail reports that a series of emails examined by the Financial Services Authority “show how bonus-hungry traders promised each other bottles of Bollinger champagne to fix the figures that affect millions of homeowners and small firms.”
The Telegraph highlights the record fine handed out to Barclays Bank which was “fined a record £290 million for repeatedly distorting basic financial data which are used to set interest rates on millions of loans and other transactions around the world.”

At a time when many ordinary families and business are struggling, to find that the market has been rigged in this way is appalling. It’s time for a Royal Commission into Banking Practice to get to the bottom of this shady industry.

Jun 262012
 

Does Mervyn King Have a Clue?

The world around us is facing economic upheaval and uncertainty. Major European economies are being tossed around on the choppy waters of the financial markets as if they are nothing more than fishing boats caught in an extended winter storm. Despite all the effort to prove otherwise, austerity is providing no safe harbour for these battered economies, despite the many claims. The lack of growth across Europe has always been the real problem, but the fiscal conservatives are in perpetual denial. They are locked into a form of handbag economics that pays lip-service to household moralism but which misses the bigger picture and the greater dangers.

[The Governor of the Bank of England is today reported saying he doesn’t know when the recovery will take place. According to the Daily Mail King is reported saying “I don’t think we’re halfway through it”. If King doesn’t know perhaps it is time for him to move aside and make way for someone who isn’t so out of touch and has a better sense of what is going on?]

Times are getting harder for most people. Our cities are rapidly hollowing out. Our high streets are becoming ghostly, deathly even. There is little evidence that any recovery will start soon, and even if it did there is little chance that it will have an impact soon. Money is being stuffed into the banks, but the real economy is withering and atrophying. The jobs market is getting tighter, with more people dependent on part-time work. There is little evidence that companies are investing in people. The rate of company failure is constant and seemingly inexorable, while the rate of new business ventures is sluggish and anemic. It is a sensible question to ask, but would you invest in the British economy at this time given such an uncertain outlook? The ‘animal spirits’ of business entrepreneurialism are well and truly quelled and tamed. It’s batton-down-the-hatches time.

Almost in the same instant the government seems hell-bent on alienating young people. First came the cuts in Educational Maintenance Allowance, then the hike in fees for Higher Education, now comes the proposal from the Prime Minister to take away the Housing Benefits of anyone under twenty-five. Just when support from the state is most needed, all the talk is about withdrawing help and punishing people who need it most. The one lifeline that many people have when they are trying to get established is that they can move to a new part of the country and find work, safe in the knowledge that they have a cushion in housing benefit. It’s not the fault of young people entering the housing market that rents are extortionate and that affordable social housing is restricted. The locked-up housing market is impossible to enter unless parents make significant financial investments in their offspring. Further locking-in privilege and reducing the ability of ordinary working people to stand on their own.

Lets not fool ourselves into thinking that British social benefits are generous. They are restrictive, slow and inflexible. The great bulk of spending on social benefits goes to supporting pensioners, but it is the young who are getting it in the neck and are taking the blame. Before they have even started out they are having their hands tied behind their backs. The Tories often argue that it is unreasonable to leave our children with debt. What they don’t comprehend is that there is an even worse burden. Leaving our children in poverty now for the sake of not taking on any debt. Starving people of investment now is not virtuous, it is cruel and immoral.

At the same time the British banking system trundles on as if nothing has changed. There is little indication that the banking practices of the past have been revised or moderated. The big banks are still refusing to lend to small businesses and families as they try to manage exorbitant fees and restrictive credit ratings. The banks are unchallenged and unaccountable. The City of London remains the political force that sucks the life out of the British political class. Money and privilege are concentrated in super-conglomerates that cross international boundaries and don’t answer to anyone but themselves. Much of the practices of banking are corrupt and immoral, but we have internalised the promise of extended wealth and riches and turned-off our moral compass because we wanted to make a fast-buck. As Charles Ferguson argues “the new elite has obtained much of its extreme wealth not through superior productivity, but mainly via forced transfers from the rest of the world’s population”.

It’s time for two things to happen. Firstly, the Governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King should be sacked and removed from his job. His complicity with the Conservative Party, now and in the run-up to the election in 2010, has been breathtaking. This is not a banker with an independent, evidence-based view, but a banker with an ideological axe to grind. It’s time that he went. The second thing that needs to happen is the establishment of a Royal Commission into Banking Practices. It is a scandal that no-one has gone to prison for crimes committed in the run-up to the financial crash of 2008. Evidence gathered through the commission should lead to criminal prosecution of those shady people, hanging in the background and never answerable to the public, parliament and the courts, but who have taken this country to its knees. The stated aim of the Royal Commission should include wiping out restrictive and class-based practices that keep the banking system in the hands of small cliques and oligarchs. How we establish a new democratic structure for finance and investment in this country will determine the kind of nation that we need to be.

Competing against China, India and the emerging economies will require an ethical standard that goes beyond our immediate short-term interest. We have to be fully integrated with a modern, ethical, equitable and fair Europe. Protectionism and isolation wont save us, but ethical sustainability will. And we have to practice what we preach. Universal welfare services for all, providing support and investment for the poor rather than blame and abuse from millionaires. A fair taxation system with everyone making a contribution according to their ability to pay. We laugh at Greece with it’s embedded patronage systems, but British society is more riddled with patronage and class-based division than at any other time in our history. It’s time we started to polarise this debate and make some clear choices, before something worse comes along that we will all regret for generations.