The Obscurer

Month: November, 2006

Bring Out The Quinny

AKA Mooli, AKA Eleanor Jean.

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Before he became an irritating twerp on Sky Sports, Rob McCaffrey was an irritating twerp on Granada TV, playing third fiddle to Elton Welsby and Clive Tyldesley on such shows as Kick Off and Granada Soccer Night. One day he was walking through the centre of Manchester when my mate Mark drove past in his car. Instinctively, Mark wound down his window and hurled a lump of pate in McCaffrey’s direction; tragically it landed harmlessly on the pavement some distance from its target, but the thought was there. Why pate? I suppose Mark had to think quick, knowing he was never going to be presented with such an open goal again, and he could only work with what was at hand. Let’s hope it was just something like Tesco’s own Ardennes, and not Selfridges’ Fois Gras.

So? Well I was reminded of this incident when I think I heard on News North West this morning that “Herr Doktor” John Reid is to be in Manchester today, acting up; I say “I think I heard” because I only ever half listen to the local news. When he was here for the Labour party conference the other month there was a massive police operation that closed off the whole of the city centre around the G-Mex, Midland Hotel and old Free Trade Hall; but they can’t be spending £4m on security this time around, not for that twat. This then has got to be my best chance of throwing something amusing right in his grinning face.

And it must be amusing; not boring, like paint, or with a message, such as a DVD of 28 Days Later. I don’t mind if it is harmless or potentially deadly, so long as it isn’t dull or predictable. I am looking for silly.

But what? My wife suggested a “meatball marinara” sub from Subway, foot-long; but that seems like a waste of a good sandwich. My son thought of “balls…purple and green and lellow…made of wood” which could certainly do some damage but are not especially funny in themselves. I am finding it difficult to think beyond pate myself, although I also quite like the idea of dropping an acme anvil from a great height – say the new Beethams Tower – like in a cartoon. That idea still needs some work though; perhaps I’ll watch my son’s Tom And Jerry DVD’s for inspiration.

I’m stuck really, so I’m passing it over to you; fitting the criteria outlined above, what should I try to chuck at John Reid today? Chop chop now, he’s not going to be here all day. The winner will be awarded an exciting prize; the respect of their peers.

Waste Not Want Not

Last week the TaxPayers’ Alliance announced its “Public Sector Rich List”, a roll call of the highest earning workers employed in the state sector. In announcing the list they stated that

Taxpayers will be shocked at the scale of these massive pay awards. Large numbers of people in the public sector are effectively being paid City salaries. It is not surprising that taxes keep going up when the salaries for the public sector’s top executives keep rocketing.

For me the two standout statistics from the report are that the average salary of these government fat-cats, including bonuses, is £259,701 per annum, and that on average they have enjoyed a pay rise of 8.4% over the previous year, compared with a 4.2% rise in the economy as a whole. The full list can be viewed here (pdf).

Look a bit deeper, however (and not very deep at that) and I begin to doubt the point of this list, other than to play to the gallery. In the first place the TaxPayers’ Alliance has chosen to feature only those earning over £150,000 a year. Now, my maths is pretty shaky, but even I know that this means that the average pay of the people on the list is therefore going to be over £150,000 per annum. If you cherry pick the stats in such a way it isn’t that surprising that the overall average wage is going to be as high as it is.

So how many people make up this sample; how many out of the millions employed in the public sector are earning such extravagant figures? Well according to the report the grand total is a whopping 170 people. Are you shocked at that figure? I am; shocked that it is so small. I may be going out on a limb here, but can I suggest that the only reason the TaxPayers’ Alliance are so shocked – and feel that this figure can be considered high – is because they have a mordant hatred of the public sector for its own sake?

As a fair comparison you could ask how many people in the private sector earn a comparative figure? The answer, I think, would be “a lot”, certainly more than 170; only the other week it was announced that 4000 city workers have this year earned £1m in bonuses alone. Now, if I were to criticise such city bonuses there is every chance that I would be accused of the politics of envy; that I don’t is because quite frankly I have only the vaguest idea of the pressures and problems associated with such professions. Is it really any different to criticise high earners in other sectors of the economy?

For the TaxPayers’ Alliance it seems people in the public sector simply shouldn’t be awarded such sums. But why not? How much should they earn? Presumably just less. One argument often voiced is that the public sector doesn’t face the same scrutiny from shareholders that private companies do; but this assumes private companies are listed on the stock market in the first place, which in these boom times for private equity is less likely than ever. Private companies, of course, can go bankrupt, a pressure theoretically absent from the public sector; but does that mean that an equivalent job in the public sector gets an entirely free ride?

Let’s take television as an example. You could argue that the chairman of ITV faces far greater pressures than does the director general of the BBC thanks to the existence of his shareholders; but for one thing to make up for this the chairman of ITV already does earn more money than the loaded BBC chief (source), and for another you could plausibly argue that at the BBC that lack of shareholder power is more than made up for in the form of the far greater political pressure and scrutiny the corporation faces. Other broadcasters of course have different problems again; if you are the head of BSkyB your pay still dwarfs that of your BBC equivalent but your main concern is to keep your old dad happy. For me, though, the inclusion of Channel Four executives on the rich list seems particularly odd; while being nominally government-owned the channel is not publicly funded and has to compete for advertising revenue like most other broadcasters.

Certainly some of the pay awards listed seem pretty large – I will leave it to London’s public transport users to decide whether the £1m+ paid for Bob Kiley’s services amounts to value for money – but as with the city workers I mentioned earlier, I find it difficult to say they aren’t justified without knowing fully what such jobs entail; certainly let’s say that I think running London transport could be quite taxing, and that it is a big job with or without shareholder pressure. The argument for paying such high wages is surely the same one a private sector company would make – that you have to pay these wages to attract the top talent – and public sector organisations often have to compete with private sector firms for the same managers, with the salary (in theory) set in the the same marketplace. You can disagree with this principle, you can argue against high executive pay, but why just in the public sector? You can point out where the public sector fails in comparison with the private sector, but can you really criticise it when all it is doing is aping the private sector? And if you think some of these positions are overpaid best not seek to privatise them, as history suggests that their compensation payments will shoot up even higher as a consequence.

Now, if you are still with me, then I know what you are thinking; here he goes again, he works in the public sector himself so he is bound to defend it. But why should I? I pay my taxes too and I have no interest in my money being frittered away. I am pretty confident that if the public sector were reduced to its bare bones then my job would still exist, so I have no vested interest in any proliferation of non-jobs in and around where I work; if anything I should be more pissed off about them than anyone. While my colleagues and I are facing an enforced 2.2% pay rise I’m hardly eager to defend executive pay rises nearly 4 times that level.

But I’m not defending these levels of pay, I am just questioning their use as a criticism of the public sector itself. What irritates me here is the blinkered and biased nature of the debate. What especially grieves me is that I do think the TaxPayers’ Alliance has a valuable role to play. I agree that the public sector it spending our money, that these executives are our employees and they should be answerable to us. When the TA argue that the public sector should face greater scrutiny and accountability I wholeheartedly concur; when they attack some of my own bete-noires such as the cosy, meaningless quangos and the huge sums wasted on management consultants I couldn’t agree more. However, in apparently objecting to anyone in the public sector earning over £150,000, and to get worked up about even 170 public sector staff receiving such a salary, this report seems motivated purely by spite and disdain, as part of a one sided argument the sees the public sector as only ever bad. It detracts from the very justified points the TA may make, in the same way that the occasional valid criticism one reads on Biased BBC loses its weight because that blog is such a bolthole for Islamophobic fuckwits.

Along these lines I was less than impressed with the TaxPayers’ Alliance’s spokesman Blair Gibbs when he appeared on Victoria Derbyshire’s show on Radio 5 last week. Quite apart from stating that people in the public sector should earn less than their private sector counterparts, and then admitting that many executives had moved into the public sector for “public service” reasons when they could have earned more had they stayed put in the private sector (to which I thought “so what’s your problem, do you just want them to earn even less again”) he then went on to criticise people on the rich list who “we had never heard of in organisations we had never heard of”. As an example of one of these mysterious quangos they had “uncovered” he cited British Waterways, and sneered that all they do is to manage Britain’s canals of which “there are hardly any anymore”; a statement that on a number of levels betrays a quite astonishing level of ignorance.

But I haven’t given up on the Taxpayers Alliance just yet; I will give them one last go. The other day I picked up their Bumper Book of Government Waste. I brief flick through its pages does show up some bizarre examples of the sort of profligacy and empire building you feel would be difficult to get away with in the private sector; on the other hand there appears much that seems endemic to any bureaucracy or large organisation, or which wouldn’t be seen as waste in the private sector, but would for example be seen rather as a mark of a caring and generous employer that enjoyed good staff relations. It is interesting to note that according to the authors’ biographies they themselves have no experience of working in the private sector (that is if you don’t count think tanks, which of course I don’t); as such, unlike me, they have nothing against which to compare their public sector experiences. But we’ll see where the book takes me, and I may report back in time. I can’t help finding it ironic, though, that I picked up a book complaining about waste in a bookshop’s remaindered bin.

Fear Itself

These are worrying times. Only the other day my son, barely 3 years old, told me he was going to carry a little plastic knife around with him when we went out in case he got into trouble with some bigger boys. I was truly shocked that things have come to this in 21st Century Britain. I mean, unless a giant plasticine man mugs him, that plastic thing is less than useless. So now I send him to nursery packing a good old-fashioned 5-inch flick knife. Just what are they teaching our kids these days? Plastic knife indeed!

But fear is much on people’s minds. Last week the news led on a couple of stories; our ever more dysfunctional teenagers, and the creep towards a surveillance state. ASBO’s are seen as a badge of honour, while CCTV cameras monitor our every move. Any more acronyms? Anyone? No? Just the two then.

Newsnight covered the story and treated us to a discussion featuring some experts on youth crime, and someone else called Nick Ferrari. Ferrari was described as a “broadcaster” so I have no idea what personal knowledge he brought to the party. Perhaps it is now the programme makers’ policy to invite random members of unrelated professions to debate in the interests of contrast; this weeks discussion of the US mid-terms will feature a French baker, while an article on climate change will canvas the learned opinions of an occupational therapist.

I’ve seen this Ferrari bloke before, and as ever he talked a right load of prancing pony (do you see what I did there?). It takes a real talent I feel to disengage your brain so fully and so keep a straight face while talking about “prisons being holiday camps with colour tvs” and police who will “jump on you in seconds if you eat a chocolate bar while driving” but will let the burglars be. Can someone tell me the point of Nick Ferrari? What is it for? Wikipedia inform me that he is a talk radio presenter in London, but I don’t see why that means he has to be foisted upon the majority of the population fortunate enough to lie outside the range of LBC’s transmitters.

Anyway, I digress. That Newsnight programme discussed the ever-faster descent of the nation’s youth into alcopop-fuelled, hoodie hell; and this grim opinion went unchallenged. Meanwhile the CCTV issue was raised, that we are being watched every second of our waking lives, with again no dissenting opinion on view. Needless to say we were once more shown that same CCTV footage of those same lads smashing the window of that van (as I posted on here; my Wife and I cheered when it inevitably appeared); they are the sort of ASBO flaunting youths who would no doubt be causing all our problems, were it not for the fact that the featured film is so old that both gents are currently on a SAGA mini-break. Much was made on Newsnight of the irony that that our lives are ever more monitored while our fear of crime is higher than ever.

But is it an irony, really, that problems with ASBO’s and CCTV cameras, apparently contradictory fears, are in the news at the same time? Are they not really just different examples of the same thing, of people’s irrational fears, lovingly stoked by the media and government for their own ends?

Perhaps there was a halcyon age when people left their doors unlocked and youths were little angels; that is when they weren’t scrumping (ie. stealing) apples. I don’t know. What I do reckon though is that the “yoofs” are largely no worse than in my day, which was a wee while ago. For as long as I can remember people have complained about the “youth of today”, with civilisation so far having failed to collapse as a result. Yes gangs of hooded youths on street corners can seem intimidating, but when I walk past them into the off-licence they tend to ignore me; and why shouldn’t they? I’m really not that interesting. Perhaps I would feel different if I lived in a different area, but as most of the loudest critics of today’s kids are classic middle Englanders, rather than people from “the projects”, I’m not sure how relevant that is to this discussion.

This fear of youths, of course, is one of the reasons, or excuses, for the build up of CCTV cameras, so to some extent the two issues are entwined. To return the favour, you would think that the fact that there are, apparently, hordes of youths causing mayhem every night in defiance of the surveillance society would point out that we are not yet in the age of Big Brother; but no. I think a genuine concern about creeping totalitarianism is certainly valid, but exaggerating it is just daft. It is true that technology enables databases all over the place containing all sorts of personal information about us; but I am more concerned that there could possibly be anyone out there so dull that they would actually want to pore over the details of how I have earned my Nectar points. Yes, unscrupulous people accessing your private details is a concern, but was ever thus; that problem is one of unscrupulous people. Of course there are CCTV cameras everywhere, but usually, whenever I am potentially being watched by CCTV operators I am also potentially being watched by loads of other people, be it shoppers on the High Street or curtain twitching neighbours. Again, I really don’t think I am so interesting for people to bother; my confidence is less about “having nothing to hide”, more that I can’t believe anyone can be arsed to monitor my activity that closely. I suppose it is possible in theory that all the disparate databases could be pulled together so that everything I do is being scrutinised by the state, but quite frankly that suggests a level of competency and resources that our security services haven’t shown to date.

But if it is the media and government that are stoking the fear, to some extent that is because they are feart themselves. Fear has got us here, because fear sells. The likes of the Mail and the Express are petrified of being outflanked by each other in lamenting the way Britain is going to the dogs, and so each runs more exaggerated and outlandish stories pointing out where they think it is all going wrong. And government, when not merely attacking civil liberties for their own sake, often responds out of fear of being seen to be doing nothing. Many will decry actions that smack of the intrusive state and breaches of confidentiality; but come the next rise in recorded street crime, or the next terrorist outrage, or the next tragic death of a child who has slipped through the social services net, how many of those same people will complain of the lack of legal sanctions, or the poor quality of the intelligence services, or how the various authorities haven’t adequately shared their masses of separate information?

Can I suggest we calm down a little and get things in perspective? Or am I being complacent and naïve? Probably I am. I may change my mind about the nation’s youth if in the next minute a brick smashes through the window and whistles past my ear. I know that some youths do cause serious problems for people and make their lives hell; but I also feel that much is exaggerated and that the fear of youths is far greater than the reality. With regards the surveillance state, I don’t think we should just trust government to get it right, I still oppose ID cards and I don’t think the police should be given carte blanche to flick through our medical records like they are a copy of Hello! magazine, we should demand safeguards that any information that is stored is only ever used for specific and justifiable reasons. We should concentrate on the real dangers, to prevent information itself being misused, not on hyperbolic nonsense about our lives being on hard drives and of cameras constantly tracking us.

So let’s not be too scared of those hooded youths outside Spar; they’re probably more interested in copping off than with mugging you. Who cares if you are on CCTV all the time? The chances are that no one’s bothering to watch.

Let’s all chill out a bit.