Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Osborne plays a deceiving game

Hat tip to Bob S for his link to Facebook site "Fight Propaganda" who have dissected George Osborne's speech at the Tory Party Conference last week. Check the references below.

"With scores of economists indicating through open letters that Osborne is making bad financial decisions, and indicators of poverty rising sharply, It is impossible to see these parts of his speech as anything other than misleading propaganda.

Market crash not Labour: www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/former-bank-of-england-governor-claims-labour-government-not-to-blame-for-last-financial-crash-9948434.html Crash started in America: http://www.economist.com/news/schoolsbrief/21584534-effects-financial-crisis-are-still-being-felt-five-years-article

More debt than every Labour Government: www.politics.co.uk/comment-analysis/2014/06/17/the-coalition-will-leave-more-debt-than-all-labour-governmen

Slowest economic recovery since 1720: http://www.bankofengland.co.uk/publications/Documents/quarterlybulletin/threecenturiesofdata.xlsx www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/britain-has-taken-longer-to-recover-from-recession-than-at-any-time-since-the-south-sea-bubble-9645218.html 

Homelessness up 40%: https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/homelessness-statistics 

Food bank use: http://www.trusselltrust.org/stats 

Longest sustained decline in average wages since records began: www.standard.co.uk/news/uk/british-workers-suffering-worst-decline-in-real-wages-on-record-9789942.html 

Economist open letter: http://www.taxresearch.org.uk/Blog/2015/06/12/80-economists-say-osbornes-economics-make-no-sense-in-the-guardian/ 

Transcript of speech: https://www.politicshome.com/party-politics/articles/news/george-osbornes-full-speech-tory-conference"

Monday, October 12, 2015

Real Debt fringe: Austerity, Private debt & the next Global Crash - TUC Congress 2015

I am slowly catching up on events that I haven't managed to post upon yet for various reasons.

This "Real Debt" fringe took place at the TUC Congress last month. It was sponsored by Unison.
Clare Williams, the Northern Region convener chaired and speakers were Damon Gibbons from Centre for Responsible Debt, Sarah-Jayne Clifton, from Jubilee Debt campaign and Ewa Karwowski, who is a lecturer in Economics at Kingston University.m

Sarah spoke first about how debt has increased by 30%  in the last 4 years. The level of debt did drop during the onset of the recession in 2008 but we still have a very high level of individual debt.  At a time of very low interest rates, we also see investors and institutions chasing dodgy debt in order to get a higher interest rate.

Tax dodging by multi national companies is just huge. They dodge 3 times more than developing countries get in aid. The UK alone loses £40 billion a year in corporate tax avoidance.

Does the UK have a debt problem? The UK private sector has but not the public sector. Only 4%  of government revenue goes on paying off our debt. Usually experts say it is a problem if you have to pay 18-20%.  The main risk from debt is when the debt is not held in your own currency.  25% of our debt is owed by the UK Government, 50% by UK investors and only 25%  by foreign owners. Private debt  in the UK from household and private companies is however a massive 4 times our GNP.

Ewa also  agreed that our UK problem was not public debt at 90% of GNP.  It is not that much higher than Germany at 80% and far less than Greece at 180% but we need to grow our way out of debt.  Also if we add up all our true U.K Government, corporate, household and most important our financial services debt then we are actually ahead of Greece in terms of GDP.  Which is not good.

The reason for this $57 trillion in global debt?  The richest 20% have seen their wealth rise by 64%  since 2005.  While most workers have seen wage stagnation. Workers have been forced (and encouraged) to rely on debt to survive.

Do not forget that the 1930s recession was a double dip and our next recession could strike anytime soon caused by austerity and the resulting inability of households to be able to pay off  their private loans.

Damon agreed that "Britain is in the red" and that it should be noted that the Government stopped publishing details of household debt 2013. We can guess the reason why...?

I know that the economic advisers to the Newham Pension fund are also very concerned with the level of household debt in the UK and fear that unless something is done it will end in tears.

My question to the panel about the chances of a one off international wealth tax being levied to pay off this debt (which will actually benefit the rich in the long run) was supported but it would have to be only for the really wealthy and their short term selfishness made this unlikely to come about. Instead the ending of austerity, growth, more effective regulation of financial services, a real increase in wages and fair taxation as well as a clampdown on avoidance was the way forward.

Rather like many of Jeremy Corbyn's ideas

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Why did Sports Direct call ambulances 82 times?

Dear Friend

Sports Direct’s Shirebrook warehouse is the heart of the giant sportswear retailer, handling clothes and kit that will be sold all over the country. The pace of work there is relentless, and the harsh conditions have long been protested by Unite, who represent workers there. But now a new BBC investigation has confirmed just how damaging Shirebrook is to its workers’ health.

The BBC’s Inside Out team used freedom of information requests to find out that over the last two years, ambulances have been called out a frightening 82 times, with 36 occasions described as ‘life-threatening’. The emergency cases uncovered by the BBC included incidents of chest pains, breathing problems, convulsions and strokes.

View the BBC report here: http://bbc.in/1QWgx0s

Shirebrook operates a ‘six strikes and you’re out’ policy, with even minor infractions of the strict work codes – like chatting to colleagues or taking an excessively long toilet break – punishable with a warning. It’s no wonder many feel scared to take time off sick, even when they really need to, and people are pushed to the limits of their health.

This can’t be allowed to go on.

Please help increase the pressure on Sports Direct to treat its staff decently by sharing Unite’s petition with friends and colleagues. Forward this email, or use social media to spread the word about this campaign: http://bit.ly/sportsdirectpetition

Every time we tell someone about Shirebrook we shine another spotlight on what’s happening there, and help the Unite members who are fighting for respect and decent work.

Thanks for all your help,
Unite Campaigns Team

Hat tip GoingToWork.org.uk

Update: controversy owner of Sports Direct, Billionaire Mike Ashley has now been charged with  a criminal offence following collapse of one of his companies. 

Saturday, October 10, 2015

TUC Rally and March #4Oct15 - A week on

The picture collage above is from the TUC Rally and March which took place last Sunday in Manchester. I went with UNISON Greater London Regional colleagues and helped carry our Banner.

It was estimated that 85000 trade unionists from all over the country took part in the march around the Conservative Party Conference in protest at government austerity policies and their attempts to shackle trade unions.

It was also from my viewpoint an entirely good humoured and peaceful March. There was apparently a tiny minority of idiots who spat at some journalists and threw eggs but they were not part of the main TUC March. Attempts by the Tories and even some Labour figures to link this behaviour with the trade unions and the new Labour leader is pretty disgraceful even by their standards.

By and large in my experience the idiots tend to be middle class posh kids and toy town revolutionaries who don't know the first thing about austerity nor trade unions.

The Tories of course have their own idiotic fringe making references to all protesters as "proles" "swampy" etc as well as allegations about "hating" Britain.

Their extremist agenda will mean that regrettably there will be more aggressive protests in the future.  The Tories use to talk about "Broken Britain", they are now delivering it. 

Friday, October 09, 2015

World Mental Health Day sees increase in reported mental health problems (such as anxiety and depression) at work

Tomorrow (Saturday 10 October) is "World Mental Health Day" which is supported by the respected United Nations agency the World Health Organisation.

"World Mental Health Day is observed on 10 October every year, with the overall objective of raising awareness of mental health issues around the world and mobilising efforts in support of mental health. 

The Day provides an opportunity for all stakeholders working on mental health issues to talk about their work, and what more needs to be done to make mental health care a reality for people worldwide". 

While mental health issues at work are not at all solely related to work related stress it is clear that many of us are being made ill at work due to long hours and workers being treated inhumanly. This will also impact on the many at work who have pre-existing mental health issues. Often employers and individual managers (not all by any means) have very little or even no understanding of this problem. 

I am obviously horrified at the finding of the CIPD survey below but not surprised.  There is increasing economic and social inequality, low pay, zero hour contracts and reduced employment rights. If you have a workforce that is not unionised or has weak density, there is no one to "push back" and challenge senior management on long hours and uncaring attitudes. So no wonder we have such high and increasing reporting of mental health issues at work.

The CIPD (professional body for HR) is publishing a survey ahead of World Mental Health Day that shows " Over two-fifths (41%) of organisations have seen an increase in reported mental health problems (such as anxiety and depression) over the last twelve months.... In 2009, only 24% of organisations reported seeing an increase in mental health problems during that year; 2015 is now the sixth consecutive year that levels have been over 40%, showing the problem isn’t going away. Reported increases are most likely in large and medium-sized organisations, with 69% and 51% respectively showing rises. They’re also associated with long working hours and the extent to which operational demands take precedence over employee wellbeing.

“So what more can employers do? Manager training is crucial, as they are often employees’ first point of call for reporting an issue, but only 30% of organisations currently provide it.  There needs to be a lot more focus on this going forward, as well as tailored support for line managers from HR and signposting employees to appropriate support. Employers also need to look at how well their corporate culture supports good mental health and employee wellbeing.”

The report also found the private sector particularly lacking in managing and supporting employees with mental health problems, with 28% admitting they weren’t taking any action to support employees. Just 32% currently offer a counselling service, compared to 70% of public sector organisations. Similarly, only 21% said they were increasing awareness of mental health issues across the workforce as a whole, compared to over double that (47%) in the public sector"

Thursday, October 08, 2015

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Tower Hamlets Council Pension Board - Inaugural meeting 28 July 2015

This post is just a little late but for accuracy,  I wanted to be able to refer to the published minutes which were only published recently. 

The meeting was held in the Council Chamber in the  Mulberry Place Town Hall E14. 

The Hutton report resulted in the requirement to set up a Board for every Council pension fund so this was a historic meeting. The first time there had been a committee of employer and employee representatives meeting on an equal footing to assist in the decisions making process of the  Tower Hamlets  Local Government Pension Scheme (LGPS). Well, that was the aim of the meeting anyway. It didn't quite work out that way on this occasion.

The LGPS has been in existence for around 100 years. The need to set up a retirement scheme for Council workers was one of the drivers for the setting up of one of UNISON's predecessor unions, NALGO and instrumental in this was the manager of next door West Ham Council tram services (a stanch Tory as it happens).

I have been a trade union observer/member nominated/admitted body representative on the Tower Hamlets fund since 1996 and have been arguing since then (and nationally with other UNISON colleagues) for the greater democratisation of our pension funds.

Things do move slowly in the Local Government Pension world although in recent times this is a-changing.

There had to be a meeting held of each Pension Board before the end of July 2015. I went as an observer since I sit on the main Committee. The meetings are open to the public but parts of it may be closed if there is confidential or "restrictive" papers to be discussed.

Unfortunately at the beginning of the meeting we found out that the 3 employee representatives were unable to attend due to a vacancy; a prearranged clash and the Council trade unions still seeking an agreement on who was to represent them as the third rep. The 3 employer representatives were present as was a member of the GMB trade union, who was hoping to become the trade union employee rep.

The acting chair of the Board was a Council chief officer from another London Borough. An interview  process was on going to appoint an independent non-voting Chair. I must admit I do not see the need to have a Chair who is not a full member of the Board. I also think that as a matter of general principle, it is not appropriate for the Chair of any Board to be a serving Council Chief Officer.  A Pension Board is supposed to be holding Officers and Councillors to account. So there will be seen to be an obvious conflict, regardless of the personal merits of such a Chair. 

It was decided that despite being inquorate the meeting will go ahead on an informal basis. No decisions could be made but I felt it was still an interesting and useful first meeting. Everyone present was able to contribute.

The report for the meeting to consider was over over 360 pages.Which is frankly far too long and will put off new Board members and even experienced Councillors. It may prove the need for more frequent meeting with shorter agendas and much shorter reports.

After the usual introductions, apologies and declarations, there was an discussion on the role and functions of the Board. There was some polite disagreement about whether the Board was about scrutiny of administration and processes or more than this. This issue about what was the real purpose of the Board kept coming up throughout the meeting.

There was also a constructive debate on terms of reference for the Board, training and its work plan for future meetings.  These issues are really crucial. 

The terms of references for many Council Pension Boards were not properly consulted upon with staff or their representatives (or not at all in some instances) and some I have seen are very poor indeed. A number do not even comply with statutory requirements and guidance. 

Training is key to the success of the Board but it must be good quality and independent of fund managers, advisers and other conflicted bodies. I am not sure that this option exists at the moment. 

The work plan is important but until the Board finds its feet it should be wary of making firm timetables and commitments. Instead it should first deal with bread and butter issues such as its governance and training. 

A good point was raised by an employer rep that the Lord Hutton report on the LGPS made it clear that Boards should be concerned with the sustainable future of the scheme and not just bogged down in technical detail.
Next was a presentation by the investment and treasury manager on roles, responsibilities and statutory documents as well as our investment in the London Collective Investment Vehicle (CIV)

There was also a report on fund performance and on the fund 2014/2015 annual report.

There was also a debate on how the Pension board can challenge decisions made by Pension committee. One view was that the Board cannot say the Committee has made the wrong decision, they can only criticise the process. I disagreed and said that in my view the Board could criticise Committee decisions but obviously they would have to justify it. The Board is not a sub-committee of pension committee but has its own statutory responsibilities and ultimately reports to the Secretary of State.

A very important discussion took place on the way different firms of actuaries make different assumptions on pension liabilities. Which means that some LGPS funds may may appear to be doing better or worse than their peers purely to the "House view" of their advisers. Which is not at all a good place for the LGPS to be in.

The Treasury "employer cap" on their contributions was also debated. If Council contributions for future pension service rise above 13% then the Government will force cuts to benefits or increases in contributions for staff. Which of course could result in staff leaving the scheme and bring about its collapse. To stop this we have to cut the massive fees we pay to our fund managers and advisers as well as increase our investment returns.

I also made an argument that the reason that pensions seem more expensive nowadays is that interest rates (gilt yields) are at a 200 year historic low and we need a more modern and realistic means of valuing the true likely costs and not an outdated and broken accountancy yardstick.

The Chair pointed out that his pension fund had assets of £1.5 billion yet were currently only paying out £47 million per year in pensions. So if nothing else changed (which he fully accepted will not happen) his scheme had enough capital to pay this figure for 30 years even if there was no further investment income or contributions.

The current value of the Tower Hamlets pension fund had increased by £100m in the last quarter to £1141,860,000

This was an imperfect but as I said, an historic meeting for the democratisation of the capital of workers.

It seems now that the Tory Chancellor, George Osborne, is determined to force the 89 LGPS funds to pool and consolidate into 6 regional "sovereign wealth infrastructure funds" (whatever that actually means). This could result in the demise of the Tower Hamlets Pension Committee and Board However, I hope and expect that the governance arrangement of the LGPS in the future will mirror the partner approach of Pension Boards rather than that of existing pension committees. We shall wait and see.

I will try and visit other London Council Pension Boards as an observer and report on what takes place. I live an exciting life.

(please note that this is my personal report)

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Fidelity pays £50,000 to help Tories cut tax credits for children & increase tax breaks for millionaires

Check this post by financial blogger Tom Powdrill and look for "Fidelity"in my blog archive. See what is being done with profits from managing our money. If your pension scheme has any links with Fidelity ask them to think again.

"Another Fidelity - Conservative Party link

I've blogged a lot previously about the many links that exist between the asset manager Fidelity and the Conservative Party. I've just discovered a new one that provides a bit more insight into how significant the relationship is.

The Leader's Group is one of the Tories' donor clubs. In fact, according to their own blurb, this is the "premier" supporters group:

Annual membership: £50,000 Chairman: Howard Leigh

The Leader’s Group is the premier supporter Group of the Conservative Party. Members are invited to join David Cameron and other senior figures from the Conservative Party at dinners, post-PMQ lunches, drinks receptions, election result events and important campaign launches.

It's not cheap either, at £50,000 for an annual membership. Helpfully the Tories provide some data on who meets who in this club, and look who turns up in their disclosure for Q4 2013:

FIL Holdings (UK) Ltd (represented by Barry Bateman, Director )

I had vaguely heard of Barry Batemen so I had a google around, and it turns out he's the vice-chairman of the UK business. This is a very senior position in the firm.

So in addition to funding the Conservative Party, employing a Conservative MP, sponsoring meetings of the Conservative Party's business liaison organisation and voting in favour of PLCs making political donations to the Conservative Party, Fidelity had one of its most senior UK people at an event organised by the Conservative Party's "premier supporter group".

Monday, October 05, 2015

Newham Compass debate on "Devolution London" 7.30pm Wednesday 7 October

This should be interesting. "Devolution London". Former leader of Southwark Counicl Jeremy Frazer, Co-author of "Changing London" David Robinson, Co-author of London Devolution Prospectus and Tessa Jowell former Minster. Chaired by Julianne Marriott.

Free parking nearby (check spot first for restrictions) and only 10 minustes walk from Upton Park underground. Right next door to a rather well known football stadium.

 All members of the progressive left are welcome!

Sunday, October 04, 2015

TUC March and Rally Manchester - #No2Austerity @4OctDemo

This picture is of UNISON members from London Ambulance Service (LAS) carrying our regional banner at the TUC demo today at Manchester.

Second from left is UNISON Vice President, Eric Roberts, who is the branch secretary of LAS.

This was a great day with an estimated 80,000 trade unionists (and many with their families) from all over the UK taking part in a rally and march against Austerity and the fascistic Anti-Trade Union bill.

The Conservative Party are holding their annual conference at Manchester and it is important to let them know that their extremist right wing agenda is dividing and destroying our country.