Monday, October 20, 2014

As Soon As This Pub Closes...

One of the many reasons why we have never had a real Revolution in this Country since 1649 despite the weird and wonderful selling newspapers outside Tesco's.

Hat tip singer Alex Glasgow who also sang one my favourites "When The Boat Comes In". Brilliant.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

"Council's bullying and sexist culture contributed to Rotherham scandal"

This is I think the most important finding from the enquiry by Profesor Jay into the disgusting and shameful findings her report uncovered.

"A bullying and sexist culture promoted by the former leader of Rotherham council made it difficult for staff to raise concerns about child sexual exploitation, MPs have been told.

Roger Stone resigned as Rotherham’s Labour council leader in the wake of the Jay Report, which brought to light that 1,400 children in Rotherham had been sexually exploited over a 16-year period.
Stone said when he stepped down: “I believe it is only right that I, as leader, take responsibility on behalf of the council for the historic failings that are described so clearly in the report and it is my intention to do so.”

Professor Alexis Jay, the author of the report and former chief inspector of social work in Scotland, has now singled him out for criticism during her evidence to the House of Commons communities and local government committee inquiry yesterday.

She said that “sexist bullying” designed to put down and undermine women was a feature of the council’s “extremely traditional, male-dominated administration” during a number of years.

“The behaviour of senior people is absolutely critical in determining the ethos and the culture of an organisation. Staff will take their cue from that,” she said. “I don’t think this was an appropriate climate in which to be discussing an issue of such social sensitivity as child sexual exploitation.”

Labour MP Simon Danczuk asked Prof Jay about a letter sent to the committee by Martin Kimber, the authority’s chief executive, in which he is said to have written: “There have been challenges largely associated with the dominance of a particular personality within the council, who at times could be very direct.”

Professor Jay said she assumed that Mr Kimber “was referring to the then leader of the council”. Stone led the authority for 11 years until his resignation when Prof Jay released her report in August.
Rotherham’s new council leader, Paul Lakin, told MPs that he agreed with Professor Jay’s comments, acknowledging that a “bullying culture did exist” at a senior level. He referred to his predecessor as “remote”, and said that Labour councillors had no access to the leader’s office because “you couldn’t even get through the door to see his secretary”.

Lakin said Stone initially resisted his request to commission an independent inquiry after reports in The Times revealed the widespread grooming of girls in the town".

Bob Geldof opens NAPF Conference 2014: Make a difference

Last week I went for the first time to the National Association of Pension Funds (NAPF) Annual conference in Liverpool. 

The opening speaker was someone who was pretty influential in my teenage years for his music and who later became a respected world figure for doing more than anyone else to feed millions of starving people in Africa, Sir Bob Geldof. 

To honest, I was just a little sceptical beforehand about how much an ageing rock star had to offer the British pension fund industry, but I was and I think others present, were pleasantly surprised.

He started by saying that "...after 40 years in rock and roll I end up talking to a bunch of pension geeks!"

He was a little rambling at times, talked about the risk of international war and Putin Russian adventurism, but also gave a convincing argument about how Africa is the home of some of the world's fastest growing economies.  Also that there is a business case for pension funds to invest in Africa, not for charity but as long term investors seeking returns.

Interesting start to an interesting conference, on which I will post more later. 

Saturday, October 18, 2014

TUC March 18 October: Britain Needs a Pay Rise #Oct18

Picture collage from today's TUC "Britain Needs A Pay Rise" March in central London. I was in between my branch (UNISON Greater London Housing Associations) and the London Regional banner. The March was I think a fantastic success. UNISON did the TUC proud.  At the rally I also joined up with West Ham Labour Party comrades.

I met with many London and national trade union and Labour colleagues and discussed a number of issues including the Union busting attempt by Catalyst Housing Association to attack their workers' human rights.

The key message of the March was of course that workers are currently facing the biggest squeeze on incomes in recorded history. Wages have fallen in real terms every year since 2010. No wonder they are angry and we have seen a rise in support for far right racist parties such as UKIP.

When we marched past the opulent Ritz Hotel and then the busy Fortnum and Masons in Mayfair, one of the most expensive and wealthy areas in the world,  I thought not only does Britain deserve a pay rise but we evidently can afford it. In fact the risk to social cohesion from mass poverty, unaffordable housing and food banks is such that it is in the long term interests of the wealthy that we get a pay rise. If nothing changes, people will not continue to march peacefully for ever.

More pictures from today on my Facebook page here.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Red Brick on Lyons Review

Lyons does 90% of the job

For housing development nerds the Lyons Housing Commission report, published today, is a cracking read. Commissioned by the Labour Party, and launched by Ed Miliband, it is a serious review of all the problems and challenges facing the Party if it is to achieve its ambition in Government of building 200,000 homes a year by 2020....(click here)

Union Busting at Catalyst Housing Association


"In a move reminiscent of American style union busting, Catalyst Housing Association has responded to a request by UNISON to meet the Chief Executive and discuss bullying of stewards, and their very poor industrial relations record, by issuing a letter confirming that they intend to derecognise the union.

This is despite Chief Executive, Rod Cahill, only a few weeks ago at a housing fringe meeting at the Labour Party conference telling the fringe that Catalyst does recognise trade unions. This fringe included leading Labour Party figures.

However, Mr Cahill also stated at this meeting that Housing Associations are private bodies and not accountable to anyone but themselves.

It is a fundamental human right enshrined in international law for all workers to have freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining. Any employer, especially a registered charity such as Catalyst that refuses to recognise a trade union does not respect human rights; any employer that does not respect human rights should not be given access to public funds or contracts.

UNISON Regional full time officer Colin Inniss said "I have been trying for several weeks to meet up with Mr Cahill to discuss complaints about bullying in Catalyst. A day after I chase a response we get this letter announcing that they are terminating the recognition agreement, without even the courtesy of a meeting to explain why they are thinking of doing this!

 Housing Association Branch Secretary John Gray said "To be clear, Unison is the biggest union by far in the social housing sector. Unison is a moderate and sensible union but we will not tolerate union busting in this country. We always want to talk with employers if there is a problem and resolve things whenever possible. This is an attack on human rights. It will also be seen as an attack on the whole trade union movement in this country. This has the potential to be an extremely prolonged and damaging dispute the likes of which has not been seen before in our sector.

I call the Board of Catalyst to step in and withdraw this union termination letter and facilitate urgent talks with unison and management before this gets totally and utterly out of hand.

 For Further information or comment please contact: UNISON Regional Organiser, Colin Inniss or UNISON Housing Associations Branch Secretary , John Gray

Notes for Editors
1. UNISON’s represents over 60,000 members in the Community and Voluntary sector.
2. UNISON has recognition agreements with most of the G15 Housing Associations – London’s 15 largest housing associations.
3. Catalyst Housing Association own and manage over 21,000 properties in London and the South East
4. In 2013/14 Catalyst Chief Executive, Rod Cahill, received a pay increase of 9.7%; frontline staff received a 2% increase.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

God moves in mysterious ways: Craig joins Kippers

Great post by Forest Gate blogger Martin Warne about the former leader of the Christian Peoples Alliance, Alan Craig, who has joined the far right UKIP.

As Martin points out in his 2010 General election manifesto amongst the many "bonkers" and "unpleasant" things he said about gays and Muslims Craig also pledged to:-

"Strangers into citizens
We would tackle discrimination and embrace the talents of asylum seekers, as many successful asylum applicants are highly trained and dedicated individuals. It makes no sense to leave them on the scrapheap, unable to use their professional skills to provide for themselves, their families, or contribute to the British economy.
[Asylum] applicants will be treated as if they were British citizens with full access to state support and the right to work.
We will tackle the problem of illegal immigration by an amnesty that brings irregular workers into mainstream society, paying taxes.

A time of jubilee for the world
Aid will be given in grants and not loans and not tied to poor countries opening up their markets to powerful multinationals from rich countries.
We want the unpayable debts of the world’s poorest countries to be cancelled in full without strings attached.

I wonder how this will go down with his new mates in UKIP down the boozer on a Saturday night?

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Campaign to Save Member Nominated Trustees: Trying to keep the City honest!

I was recently interviewed on the telephone by a researcher for the campaign group for responsible investment ShareAction.

They are rightly concerned that there is a move towards getting rid of independent member nominated trustees of pension funds and replacing them with "professional advisers". This is my edited record of the interview.

Q. We’ve been asked by civil servants to provide any instances of proof where having a member nominated trustee on a board actually resulted in different outcomes, compared with not including MNTs.  What would you say to this?

MNTs are often the only people from outside the often ‘cosy club’ of providers, advisers and consultants who are actually independent. They can be the only people prepared to ask difficult questions and challenge things like fees and charges, whereas an adviser who is themselves on £100k plus a year would not.  And they are far most sensitive about fees and charges because - it’s their own money!

MNTs are also often the only ones to really bring up Environment, Social and Governance (ESG) issues.  Many employers and providers pay lip service to this and claim they think it’s important but ESG is never actually an agenda item and often is not brought up at meetings unless the MNT brings it up.

MNTs are very dependent on their advisers, they don’t actually run the schemes themselves after all.  But advisers don’t have a fiduciary duty, their duty is to their employer or their firm’s partners.  MNTs have a unique fiduciary duty to members and this is absolutely crucial.

Q. We’ve often heard the criticism that pensions are very complex and MNTs just don’t have the expertise to do the job properly.  What would you say to this?

‘Rubbish’. It’s not true at all.  The Pension’s Regulator actually over-complicates the system in some ways.  There are many actors in the system who benefit from this complexity, the more complicated it is the more there is a need for experts to advise.  The recent research into local government pension schemes which showed active management to be a waste of money is evidence of this.  When I was first involved in governing a pension scheme, in the early 90’s, we  had 2 or 3 investment funds – who did fixed income, equities and property for example.  Now schemes have 10-11 funds.  Its all got far too complicated and far too expensive.

If people can make money from complexity and being experts than they will, it’s just the way of capitalism and a reasonable response to systemic incentives.

Saying that, we do have to be honest that not all trustees are up to speed, we are carrying some deadwood in the system.  This is sometimes because they don't have the support or haven’t been given the training, or they haven’t been shown why the training is really important.

Some MNTs are selected for the role, rather than being elected, and I do worry that in some cases individuals are deliberately selected because they won’t really challenge the employer or provider.  Its human nature, if the people responsible for administering the pension scheme choose who sits on the trust board, why would they want to choose individuals who are going to give them a hard time?

I knew a really capable MNT, one of the best I have ever known, who who was kicked off the board because she challenged the scheme too much in one respect.  She refused to ever vote on a matter if she hadn’t been sent the papers at least 24 hours in advance, she was very diligent and capable but she was managed out of the role.

Churchill said "Democracy is the worse form of government - apart from all the rest". MNT's should always be directly elected by beneficiaries in my view.

Q. What is the biggest challenge that you face in carrying out your roles as an MNT?

Getting sufficient time off work, to stay on top of all the developments in the pension world and go on training courses, to do necessary reading as well as attending the actual trustee board meetings. Some employers are very good at giving reps enough time off to do these roles but others aren’t.

Q. Is there anything that we should be calling for the regulator to do to improve this situation?

There is already guidance that says that time off should be given to trustees but this guidance needs to be clearer – for example it could specify that time off is needed for reading and training as well as attending the meetings.  There is about a day’s worth of reading to do for each meeting.

I don't think as a rule that MNTs should be paid for their roles, as they are managing their own money, but the employer could be reimbursed by the scheme for giving them the time off and if a MNT is out pocket, they should be fully reimbursed.

Q. Apart from providing a fresh, non-industry perspective and asking challenging questions, what are the other benefits of having MNTs on the board?

It gives the members confidence in the system when they can see that they have their own representatives involved in governing the scheme.  This is essential because many members have a real distrust of the scheme or the employer and this is preventing them from saving enough.

In some good schemes they have an AGM once a year where trustees can talk to ordinary members and often encourage them to join the scheme. Senior management or PR type people just can’t talk to members in their own language in the same way.

Member reps are essential for building trust in the system and proper accountability. I have lived through so many scandals in the Financial services industry, like Maxwell, Equitable Life, 2008 etc, and it should be obvious to everyone that people from outside the industry need to be involved in governance to stop foul play.

Q. We have been calling for more schemes to hold AGMs, but hear the criticisms that they won’t work, no one will come, it’s a waste of money.  What is your experience?  Do AGMs work?

Yes they do.  Many schemes typically get very good turnouts.  I have been to AGMS of FTSE 100 companies where the turnout was much worse than at a pension scheme AGMs – and the quality of questions was poorer too.

Q. What kind of things do people ask questions about mainly at pension scheme AGMs?

Benefits.  And after that ESG is the next biggest topic. Employers and providers are very nervous about ESG issues but they aren’t actually doing anything about it.

Q. You’ve said that ESG is on the radar of trustee boards and pension schemes, but what can be done to move things to the next stage of getting them to act?

We need to get the message across that it makes good business sense to incorporate ESG.  This approach is better for getting your money to grow in the long-term than chasing short-term, speculative returns.  The funds I am involved in are not ethical funds, but they still care about investing ethically because it’s best for the fund.  There are still, unfortunately, a lot of people out there who thing that ESG is just for tree-huggers

Q. What kinds of mechanisms should schemes (trust-based and IGCs) put in place to open channels of communication with members, apart from AGMs?

Schemes should have good websites and newsletters, where they profile trustees.  I have seen organisations who do a ‘trustee of the month’ feature, for example, which works well.  Large organisations can also post things on notice boards in communal areas.

Q. What have been your proudest achievements during your time doing these roles in pension governance?

My proudest achievement is getting a proper reaction from the fund management industry to the Rana Plaza disaster and other factory fires in Bangladesh. A lot of fund managers initially didn’t get why this was important and we had some very "difficult" meetings.  We did succeed in convincing fund managers to take appropriate action to try and ensure that this type of thing does not happen again.  This was particularly important in my pension fund as a lot of scheme members are of Bangladeshi origin.

The TUC, AMNT and UNISON stewardship networks have been very useful for achieving these sorts of aims and I  has seen how actions these schemes have taken have filtered through to the wider industry.

Q. Any final comments?
Schemes need to recognise that it’s just not good for them to shut out the members.  They should welcome MNTs as these people help schemes to realise their own weaknesses.  The industry should know this.  There is no ‘invisible hand’ regulating the market. We try and keep schemes honest and successful. Nothing more and nothing less.

(I suspect that many will not know who is the person in the picture - it is mega pension thief Robert Maxwell)

Monday, October 13, 2014

NHS Strike - 5 Days for fair pay

This morning UNISON and other union health workers will be out on strike in England.

For the first time in their history midwifes will also be on strike. The last such dispute on pay was over 30 years ago. Urgent and emergency care will still be provided.

The government is refusing to implement the independent pay review body award of 1% while at the same time increasing the pay of MP's by 11%. It will not talk to the trade unions.

Pay for the last 5 years has been below inflation so this means in real terms a massive pay cut for NHS staff.  The lowest paid such as Band 1 hospital porters have lost £1,387 and this year another £347.

Over the weekend we heard that 20% of NHS staff have to work a second job in order to survive and 13% depend on payday loans.

By coincidence on BBC news today they reported that the directors of the top FT100 companies now earn 120 times average earnings.  This is £2.3 million each per year. In 2000 they use to receive only 47 times the average. I note that they used the figure of average earnings as £27,000 per year. 25% of NHS staff earn less than £21,000.

It is growing pay inequality in this country that is driving not only poverty and food banks but disillusionment, distrust and fear in modern British politics.