Brief comments on various issues (2)



See Comment 1 for earlier posts on a wide range of subjects.


Please scroll down for comment about the Irish border,

and for getting young people to do more sport (1/9/18)  




Budget briefing – 2018


Having read the full text of Philip Hammond’s budget speech in order to have the whole picture, rather than just the headline measures covered by the media, it seems to me that there are three main components to his proposals: a programme of generally sensible and cautious government spending which will benefit our individual and collective well-being; a commitment to enterprise and business across the country; and some very limited progress towards a more equitable society in which everyone has sufficient income to have a good quality of life.


Looking at government spending there is a lot to welcome. The announcement of a new mental health crisis service is excellent and we all hope it will relieve the desperate suffering that any form of damage to one’s mental condition can bring.1 Extra funding for social care is welcome but much more still needs to be done in this area. The £10 billion for the air ambulance service is another excellent proposal.


I’m happy to hear that extra money will be put into the implementation and funding of universal credit as rolling out the scheme has caused too much unnecessary hardship. And I’m pleased about the money to deal with potholes although I’ve never been fully persuaded that local councils cannot afford to repair them.


Schools should be pleased with the extra £600 million they will receive but apparently they consider this to be a derisory sum. I’m afraid that if I were the chancellor they wouldn’t be receiving any extra funding since this is not the best way to improve education. By far the best way to achieve this is to persuade society that much more learning should be provided at home – at no cost to the public purse but of inestimable benefit to our children and young people.2  


The second component of the budget, a commitment to enterprise and business, involves giving financial assistance on a variety of fronts. This includes expanding the National Productivity Investment Fund to over £38 billion by 2023/24, increasing the Annual Investment Allowance from £200,000 to £1m for two years, extending Start-Up Loans funding to 2021, and halving the 10% contribution that smaller firms have to pay for taking on apprentices. For many retail businesses cutting their business rates by one third will be the most welcome announcement in the budget.


It is when we come to the third component of the chancellor’s proposals, improving incomes for everyone, that we see his, and the present government’s, limited ambition. The sum of £130 that basic rate taxpayers will receive annually as a result of raising the personal allowance will not do a great deal to improve the living standards of those on low salaries. Nor will raising the living wage to £8.21 per hour although clearly this will be helpful. It is far too low and the aspiration for it to reach 60% of median earnings by 2020 will make little difference.


It is in this area of low pay that governments and society as a whole must have a radical change of mindset. If we want a fairer society, and surely we do, we must see all jobs as being valuable to us and therefore ensure they are all properly remunerated.3 Which is why I would like us to be much more ambitious and aspire to a living wage of £12.50 phased in over the next eight years.4


This would be good for the economy, would reduce the need to pay certain benefits but above all would improve the quality of life for many individuals and families throughout the country. And isn’t that what budgets should be about?


1   This is not new funding but will be part of the increased spending on the health service that was announced in June.


2   See my Comment posts on school funding, 18/11/17 and 29/3/17:                                          

Plus for the wider purposes of education see:

For why parents should do more to educate their children see:


3   See: The definition of a good job at:


4   I’ve done the numbers and make it that the hourly rate will need to rise by 54p a year which is 6.58%. An inflation factor will also need to be included. It’s an ambitious target but with the goodwill of the British public, who will have to accept that they will pay more for what they buy, it could be reached.   






Give thanks for apples


It’s harvest festival time and you can be sure that a collection of apples will add their colour and aroma to the produce displayed in churches and schools throughout the country.


Although apples are now an all-year round feature of supermarket shelves they were, for almost two thousand years, a home-grown, seasonal fruit that ripened in late summer or autumn. As in the past they are still an amazing source of food and drink.


Eaten raw they are a nutritious and healthy part of our diet and ideal to make up one of our five a day. The old saying that an apple a day keeps the doctor away was clearly wise advice. For those, like myself, with a weakness for food that is naughty but nice, they are an essential ingredient for apple cakes, tarts and crumbles – made all the more delicious with an added splash of cream. Not so healthy perhaps.


On the drinks front apple juice is becoming increasingly popular and is   produced on farms throughout the district. Apple brandy is available for connoisseurs who can afford this tipple but the biggest selling alcoholic drink made from apples is, of course, cider.


And in cider we have a great tradition here in the West Country. For many of us it’s a tradition associated with Somerset and one immortalised by the Wurzels in their rousing anthem, Drink up thee Cider. I’m sure I’m not the only one who also remembers the jingle: Coates comes up from Somerset, where the cider apples grow.


Cider and scrumpy can be bought at local farms and it was one such farm in the village of Sandford that went on to become the mega business it now is. A few years ago the company bought a swathe of land on the Mendip Hills close to where I live and planted thousands of cider apple trees now fully laden with their bounty. (1)


The success of this company and other small businesses producing cider and apple juice is an inspiring story of local enterprise. It should not, however, be allowed to disguise the fact that, in my view, supermarkets are still stocked with too many apples from South Africa and New Zealand. We are not growing or eating enough of our own varieties of which there are many.


So let’s use post-Brexit agriculture to have even more orchards in the UK full of apples for which we can give thanks at harvest festivals. And if you can’t get to one of these, you could instead quietly say thank you to an apple next time you eat one or have a glass of cider.



1   Fully laden at the time of writing. Now the bounty is "safely gathered in."






Denis Law, Harry Kane and a summer of sport?


A magpie, a few crows and some seagulls – the only creatures visible as I gazed across the playing fields of my nearest secondary school. Deserted, as they always are in the school holidays and at weekends. Deserted, too, were the tennis courts and all-weather sports pitch. No one kicking a ball around, no one practising their cover drives with a bat, no one honing their skills with a tennis racket.


Also deserted were the other school playing fields I visited, just as they were last summer when I did a slightly larger survey. It has been a similar picture at the local parks and recreation grounds which have either been empty or have contained just a few youngsters doing not very much.


It’s been a great summer for watching sport, particularly the world cup, but has it been a great summer for participating in sport? Not from what I have observed. Maybe it’s different in other parts of the country but I strongly suspect that it is not.


There is an urgent need for all of us, especially parents and teachers, to do a lot more to inspire children and young people to be physically active. They should be spending far more time outside organising their own games of football, cricket or any other sport.  The health benefits of physical activity are indisputable and these will continue into adulthood if the habit of exercise is built into a child’s lifestyle.


One of my favourite poems for children is Denis Law by Gareth Owen. It tells how three young lads go home after watching Manchester United and play a game of football in the backyard. One of them decides to be Jimmy Greaves, one is Bobby Charlton and the narrator becomes Denis Law. It’s a brilliant poem which captures the way children like to pretend to be their sporting heroes.


The success of the England squad this summer has provided us with plenty of sporting heroes but my feeling is they have not been emulated in great numbers on playing fields or in backyards. Lots of Harry Kanes and Dele Allis, and maybe even some Denis Laws, should have been energetically demonstrating their skills up and down the country, but I wonder if they have been.


We must strive to ensure that during their school holidays and at weekends all children get outside and kick a ball around or do some other sporting activity. There are plenty of facilities to use for this purpose and plenty of sporting heroes to emulate. 






The common-sense solution to the Irish border issue 



It seems to me that the issue of the Irish border in the Brexit negotiations is a spurious difficulty that has been grossly exaggerated by those opposed to the idea of the UK leaving the European Union. The issue should not have been allowed to become such a prominent factor in the discussions and under no circumstances should it be used to obstruct the democratic mandate given by the British people to leave. 


In the unlikely event of there being no free-trade deal with the EU there is a very simple and common-sense solution to the matter. When we leave the European Union the Republic of Ireland should be given special status in recognition of its long-standing, close association with the UK. This would allow it to import goods from the UK, but only from the UK, without having to impose the tariffs that other EU countries were applying. Since there is no reason why the UK would want tariffs on Irish imports the status quo of free trade between the UK and Ireland would continue.


Under this special status arrangement the free movement of Irish and UK citizens across the border would also be allowed to continue.


There is nothing complicated whatsoever in implementing this solution. Politicians in Europe, Ireland and the UK have a duty to adjust their present mode of thinking to one in which a much more accommodating approach can be adopted. I accept that those who want the UK to remain in Europe would be deprived of one of their arguments, and that the lawyers involved in drawing up excessively complex plans for leaving would have their work and pay cheques reduced, but I would regard such consequences in a positive light.


Goodwill and common sense on both sides must be at the heart of the Brexit negotiations in order to deliver what the British people voted for in the referendum. Moreover, these attributes must be permanently to the fore in order to deliver mutually beneficial cooperation with Ireland and all our European neighbours long into the future.






The beautiful, and not so beautiful, game 


I understand why football is called the beautiful game. It is skilful, elegant and exciting, and there is a beauty in its flow and patterns of play. It provides pleasure and enjoyment in abundance and it arouses deep emotional responses.


But there are certain aspects of the game that, for me, are not so beautiful: the uncontrolled celebrations of the players when a goal is sored, especially when they pile on top of each other; the over-theatrical performances when someone collapses to the ground after receiving a slight kick in a tackle; and the jostling and shirt-tugging when a corner is taken.  


Nor do I find the frenzied emotion of some of the spectators very beautiful. There is nothing wrong with emotion but when it is frenzied it can indicate a lack of self-control and an unwitting participation in ecstatic mass hysteria. 


Least beautiful of all, in fact positively ugly at times, is the chanting of fans particularly when the chants are aggressive. This is the baying of the mob, the unthinking behaviour of the crowd – the most unpleasant manifestation of the herd instinct that we still possess as human beings.


I worry about the herd instinct whenever and wherever it is exhibited. It is certainly not necessary for people to be chanting in order to enjoy and appreciate a game of football. I am sure those who watch rugby, cricket and tennis without constantly chanting are fully enjoying the experience.   

But let us return to what is beautiful about football. Perhaps its most beautiful attribute is that it brings people together, whether watching or playing, in shared pleasure and joy. It brings happiness and well-being, and escape from the realities of life. And the great beauty of the World Cup is that it brings people together from all over the world in this shared pleasure and well-being. It shows what human beings have in common and this is the basis for establishing friendships between nations and individuals across the globe.


It is just the sort of globalisation the world needs. 






Top job


I wish Sajid Javid every success in his new job as home secretary. I hope his decisions will benefit everyone and I'm sure he will be able to resolve the difficulties faced by the Windrush generation.

He clearly has considerable ability and will have worked hard to attain the position he now holds. His personal achievement can be seen as the story of someone rising to a top job from humble origins by climbing the ladder of opportunity. But it's a story, like other similar stories, that I have a problem with. More particularly I have a problem with the beginning of the story.

I can accept that the small, overcrowded home in which he grew up might be described by some as humble. What I am not prepared to accept as part of his humble origins is the fact that his father was a bus driver - a fact that has been well-publicised in the media.

I cannot see why having a father whose job was driving a bus should be an indication of a humble background. It's an immensely important and worthwhile job and children should be proud of their parents if that is the work they do.

Sadly, however, many people regard the job of being a bus driver as of lower status than that of being home secretary. I do not.

Far from it. For me not only does it have equal status it probably makes a greater contribution to people's daily lives. It is absolutely essential for the well-being of millions of people and crucial to the smooth functioning of society It is bus drivers who enable people to travel to work, do their shopping and visit places where they can enjoy their leisure time.

Apart from the invaluable contribution that bus drivers make to society we should remind ourselves they are not only doing a highly skilled job but a job which requires them to take a huge amount of responsibility. They are responsible at all times for the safety of their passengers and for the safety of other road users.

I have expressed similar thoughts about bus drivers on a previous occasion - when Sadiq Khan became mayor of London. As individuals and as a society we desperately need to break free from our anxieties about status, pecking orders and our place within them. We should recognise the value of all forms of employment and not see jobs in terms of low or high status or low or high rungs on the ladder of opportunity.

Until we manage to do this, however, we must put the job of being a bus driver, along with many other jobs of course, at the top of any occupational hierarchy. It's a top job and should be recognised as such.

See also:


Thoughts on ... Bus drivers

Thoughts on ... The definition of a good job






Crowd trouble

Like many other animal species we human beings have evolved to live in groups or herds. In the process of evolution we have acquired the herd instinct and this is a key factor in shaping our behaviour.

It shapes our behaviour in a number of ways. It draws us into enjoying the company of other people which, of course, is an important part of our lives.

It causes us to belong to sub-groups in society which as well as providing social fulfilment often gives us a sense of identity. We can belong to a grouping of people that follows a certain religion, supports a particular political party or advocates social action of some sort. We can also belong to a group that engages in a particular leisure pursuit, supports a certain football team, or likes listening to a specific type of music.

Herd instinct further shapes our behaviour by impelling us to do what others in the herd are doing: wearing what is in fashion, acquiring the latest technology, drinking milky coffee, and generally following any new lifestyle trends that come along. Unfortunately, as we know only too well, doing things simply because other people are doing them can have consequences that are not always desirable.

Such consequences are troubling but equally troubling is another aspect of herd behaviour. It is how we behave when we are literally part of an assembled crowd gathered together for whatever reason. Crowd behaviour can develop its own momentum and have an element of mass hysteria about it. In these situations it is difficult to be different and not follow the crowd, and it is all too easy to be led into behaviour we would not engage in if we were on our own.

I worry about crowd behaviour at football matches when the chanting begins; at conferences of political parties when one person stands up to applaud and everyone else follows; and in the House of Commons at Prime Minister's Questions when noises of approval or disapproval are expressed in unison. I worry about crowd behaviour whenever I see a crowd of people all doing or shouting the same thing.

At this time of year my thoughts turn to the behaviour of the crowd in Jerusalem two thousand years ago. When Jesus rode into the city on a donkey the crowd welcomed him with shouts of Hosanna. A few days later in front of Pilate the shout was 'Crucify him'.

I accept this was behaviour that changed the course of history but it can still serve to remind us that how we behave when we are in a crowd can be deeply troubling.






Better listening


Here’s a statement that struck a chord when I came across it recently in the Times Educational Supplement. ‘Most people do not listen with the intent to understand. They listen with the intent to reply.’(1) The quotation was used to introduce an excellent article about how to teach pupils to consider other points of view when discussing something - with the aim of reaching greater mutual understanding.

It has prompted me to reflect on my own listening skills and my conclusion is that they have not been as good as they should have been and are still not good enough.

I have tried to listen sympathetically when people have spoken about their worries and concerns. I like to think I have listened with genuine interest to people's news about themselves and their families and asked sincere questions about what I have heard. I'm sure I have listened attentively to people's views about politics and the news items of the day. And I hope I have listened quite carefully to instructions at home and at work.

But in all these respects I think I would have been a better listener if I had tried to listen with the aim of having a deeper understanding of what was being said instead of allowing my own thoughts to occupy a large space.

Despite my efforts to improve I am not yet as good a listener as I should be. When I discuss politics I can be too concerned about analysing the logic of what is being said rather than understanding the reasons behind the points being made. When I listen to people's news I am too ready to chip in with my own contributions rather than fully absorb the information. It keeps the conversation going, of course, as do my interruptions and anticipations in all the conversations I have, but does it greatly further my understanding of what I am being told? When I listen to people's worries and concerns I will be sympathetic but do not always attain the depth of understanding that enables one to be truly empathetic. 

How all this compares with other people's listening skills I don't know but it seems to me that in our everyday lives many of us can improve the way we listen to each other. But what about the way we listen in more formal situations, such as meetings, when we are discussing decisions or ideas - the subject of the article in the TES? And, even more specifically, what about the way our politicians listen to each other especially at Prime Minister's Questions - a parliamentary ritual that continues to trouble me?(2)

Our political discourse, both inside and outside parliament, is in urgent need of better listening. It should not be an exchange of entrenched, polarised opinions laced with slogans, insults and sweeping statements. It should be about listening with respect to other viewpoints, trying to understand why they are beng advanced and being prepared to adjust one's thinking in response to compelling arguments or insights.
We all have values, beliefs and character traits which shape our views about life. There is nothing wrong with having firm views and nothing wrong with expressing them passionately on occasions. We live in a society where freedom of speech is a cherished liberty and we must ensure that it remains so.

Moreover, there is nothing wrong with disagreeing with one another and challenging one another's opinions. But it must surely be a good thing to use divergent ideas positively by acknowledging those that we find acceptable and combining them with our own ideas to arrive at wise and rational conclusions. This doesn't necessarily mean abandoning our basic beliefs or values, although it may mean rethinking them considerably, but it does mean being prepared to alter them in some respects. And that means, of course, accepting that views we previously held were wrong.

We can all learn to listen better in our everyday lives and our politicians can certainly learn to listen better when they engage in discussion and debate. We can even learn to listen better when we hear views being expressed in the media to which we are strongly opposed. Instead of going for an instinctively hostile response, probably in the form of an unseemly utterance, we should pause for a moment and see if there is anything in these views which helps our understanding. I am hopeful this would help us become better listeners and it is something I need to work on.

1 Taken from The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People, Stephen Covey, quoted in an article by Doug Lemov in the TES, 12 January 2018
2 See my lettter to MPs.






Concerns about Carillion but not about outsourcing


There’s a lot about the collapse of Carillion that concerns me. What concerns me most is the likelihood that there will be people who have depended on the company for their income who will lose this - Carillion's own employees who could be made redundant, and employees of businesses which had contracts with the company. I'm worried about the families of all these people and I’m very conscious they will be far more worried than I am. My thoughts are with them.

I'm concerned about the fact that Carillion's senior executives were well paid for mismanaging the comapny. I'm concerned that the company appears to have grown too rapidly and that its debts did the same. And I'm concerned that, what should have been a construction business, was running public services which were nothing to do with construction.

But, despite the fate of Carillion, and despite my disquiet about the ethos and instruments of capitalism, it is not sensible to condemn the principle of public sector outsourcing on the basis of one spectacular failure. There must be plenty of success stories in the public sector where outsourcing to private firms has delivered high quality services. I imagine that over the years Carillion itself has satisfied a good number of its customers. I am sure, too, that its emloyees and subcontractors have put in a lot of hard work on a daily basis to provide this satisfaction.

Instead of having a divide based on prejudce or ideology - public sector good, private sector bad - it is surely more sensible to take a pragmatic approach to the question of outsourcing. The taxpaying public wants the services it pays for to be delivered effectively in every respect - which means providing, at a fair price, services which fully meet the needs of those using them, and providing them reliably, promptly and courteously. If, as taxpayers, we receive a good service at a fair price most of us are not too worried as to whether it has been provided by direct labour or a private contractor.

It seems sensible to me that public sector bodies should be allowed to choose for themselves whether they use their own employees to carry out work for the taxpayer or whether they use a private contractor. They can then decide which option they feel best suits the needs of the users. If they choose the private sector they will have the further option of being able to choose from a number of businesses and assess their ability to do a good job at a good price - the latter not necessarily being the deciding factor.

As well as giving these options to public bodies the use of private contractors has two other benefits. One is that the competition involved in the process of outsourcing creates incentives for firms to innovate and develop new ideas in order to win contracts. On the whole such innovation is likely to have a positive effect in terms of improving services.

The other benefit applies to small businesses and sole traders. In my view it benefits society enormously if these sort of businesses have the opportunity to carry out work for the public sector either through their own direct contracts or, indirectly, through contracts with larger businesses. This opens up more possibilities for them and enables this part of the economy to expand. Which is in the interests of all of us because small businesses and self-employed sole traders provide us with a wide range of essential goods and services.

But there is another way in which society benefits. People who have their own businesses are entrepreneurs who possess initiative, determination and a capacity for sheer hard work. Almost by definition they believe in self-reliance. Society needs these determined, self-reliant individuals, not only to contribute to the economy and provide us with goods and services, but to show the rest of us their personal qualities. We need to see these qualities in action so that we can encourage each other to develop them.


As human beings we have instincts to support one another through the collective provision of services but we also have strong instincts to be self-reliant - we want to shape our own futures for the benefit of ourselves and our famlies. I do wonder, however, if the instinct of self-reliance has become diluted and that with some services we have become too accustomed to relying on the state.

Having a private sector that works with the public sector has the benefit of giving public bodies the options mentioned above and it also brings the benefits of competition. Perhaps, most important of all though, it has the unintended benefit of providing work opportunities for small businesses and the self-employed. Those involved in this work can then showcase their skills, their enterprise and their self-reliance and that will benefit all of us.

So let us not use the collapse of Carillion as a rallying cry against outsourcing and private contractors. Let us instead acknowledge the work these contactrors do on our behalf and celebrate the spirit of self-reliance they embody.






Financial Education

Listened to a very good discussion on the radio about financial education - Money Box Live, 3/1/18. I completely agree with the contributors that this is something that should be taught thoroughly in schools. It is essential knowledge that everyone should have in order to be able to understand and manage their personal finances.

I also agree that all young people should acquire a thorough mastery of basic numeracy - which is not only necessary to manage one’s finances but is required in everyday life and employment. It was encouraging to hear the contributors to the programme saying it was important that parents as well as schools should be teaching their children about money. I would like to see all parents doing this from when their children are young until they leave college or unversity.

One of the purposes of education must be to teach young people a wide range of vitally important life skills, such as managing money, and I have drawn attention to this key purpose in my book Forever Learning. Some relevant extracts are shown below.

... To manage their personal finances in the future young people not only need basic maths skills they need to be fully aware of the living expenses that have to be met by families including the weekly shopping, petrol for the car, various insurances and the supply of electricity, gas and water. Moreover, they need to be familiar with matters such as mortgages, loans, savings, pensions and personal taxation...

... It must, then, be an absolute priority to give all pupils a mastery of basic and functional maths by the age of fifteen when their ability should be assessed in a school-leaving examination. They must thoroughly understand, and be able to apply, essential number processes, measurements, basic geometry and simple statistics. This understanding will cover many aspects of maths and include the following: multiplying and dividing numbers by 10 and multiples of 10; fractions, decimals and percentages; area and volume; scale drawings; shapes and angles; mode, mean and median; and pie charts...

... They(parents) should help their children with maths as well as reading. When they are young they should teach them to count and play games with them which involve using numbers. From about the age of eight they should test them on their multiplication tables and help sharpen up their mental arithmetic. When they are older they should show them various items in the household budget and give them some calculations to do...

Note: As I explain in the book I would allow young people to leave school at !5 if they wished and if they had a job to go to. However, along with their peers, they would be assessed in English, maths, computing and critical thinking.





Brexit – making a meal of it


The UK government and the European negotiators have done well so far despite a few bumps on the road. An agreement has been reached which allows the negotiations relating to the UK’s withdrawal from the EU to move on to the next stage.


But what I am baffled by is how long it has taken to get this far and why the whole process has been made to appear so complicated by our politicians and the media. It has even been claimed by some of them that the logistical effort required to leave the EU and strike out on our own will be greater than anything else the state has had to manage since the Second World War. I doubt it. I would have thought that setting up the National Health Service and implementing the Attlee government’s programme of nationalisation was much greater. Moreover, I find the comparison an affront to all those involved in what was the most truly incredible logistical and organisational effort this country has ever engaged in.


It seems to me that the three areas of concern that have been the focus of attention in the initial discussions, the so-called divorce settlement, have been perfectly straightforward to resolve. There was never going to be any difficulty over the rights of EU citizens living in the UK or British citizens living in the EU since common decency and the principle of reciprocity were obviously the best way to resolve this issue. The question of the Irish border generated a lot of hot air, together with irresponsible comments about a hard border undermining the peace process, but since there was widespread agreement that as far as possible the status quo should be preserved a sensible solution was plainly in the interests of everyone.


The financial settlement had the most potential for difficulties. However, I imagine that most people agree that we should continue to pay our share of the obligations that we have entered into as a member of the EU. There are far better things on which to spend the £39 billion exit fee but it is right that we should honour our commitments. It is an enormous sum of money and serves to remind us of the misguided decision to join the club in the first place.  


Given that there has been nothing complicated to resolve in the issues that have been negotiated so far I think it’s fair to say that our politicians have been making a meal of the whole process. Which is a wholly appropriate metaphor when you consider the countless slap-up meals, paid for by you and me, which have been consumed by Theresa May and many others during the negotiations and which seem to have been an essential accompaniment to them.


I hope that large helpings of goodwill and common sense will accompany future Brexit negotiations rather than large helpings of fine food. If this is the case there will be no need to make a meal of anything and we can look forward to an agreement that will be good for everyone.