Category Archives: Uncategorized

Re-nationalise the water industry? No thanks.

On 1st July 1974 I moved to West Yorkshire to take up a new job with the recently created Yorkshire Water Authority as Pollution Prevention Officer on the River Aire. The Water Authorities had been created just three months earlier. That was the beginning of an interesting and challenging career, which continues to this day. The recent discussion, by the Labour Party, of taking the industry back into public hands bothers me, hence this (rather long, but it’s a complex tale) blog.

First a bit of history

The water industry was highly fragmented in the period up to and after the Second World War. The industry had largely developed in response to a growing population and increasing demand for water driven by the industrial revolution and accompanying economic growth. Each area organised its own water and sewerage services, often by an individual Act of Parliament or Royal Charter. This left different areas of the country with varying levels of water and sewerage services.

In 1945 there were more than 1,000 bodies involved in the supply of water and around 1,400 bodies responsible for sewerage and sewage disposal. Most of these were local authorities, but there were also several statutory private water companies. Planning for water resources was a highly localised activity, with little co-ordination at either a regional or national level.

Post-war legislation aimed primarily to consolidate water authorities so that they could benefit from economies of scale, and to provide funds for investment in rural areas.

The Water Resources Act 1963 led to further changes, which were in response to a severe drought in 1959 and flooding events in 1960. The Act recognised the importance of a co-ordinated approach to water resource planning and introduced an administration system for the right to remove water (‘abstraction permits’). This was intended to make sure that existing and future water resources were adequately conserved.

Restructuring of the water industry (1965-1989)

Although there was a general consolidation of water and sewerage services after the Second World War, and greater investment in the form of grants from central government, water supply and sewerage services were still provided on a local basis.

Responsibility in any one area lay with one of a number of different types of organisation.

Water supply:

  • individual local authorities (for example Wrexham Rural District Council)
  • joint organisations covering the areas of two or more local authorities (for example Doncaster and District Joint Water Board)
  • statutory private water companies which were set up by Act of Parliament (for example Cholderton and District Water Company)

Sewerage services:

  • individual local authorities
  • joint organisations covering the areas of two or more local authorities
  • In the late 1960s and early 1970s ongoing problems with water resource planning and future demands forecasts prompted further restructuring of the industry.

By now there had been chronic under-investment in maintenance of existing and construction of new assets to meet the demands of a growing population. Many rivers were grossly polluted, the River Aire was effectively dead below Keighley down past Bradford through Leeds and Castleford and down to the Humber. Water quality was a secondary consideration by engineers whose operating philosophy was once expressed to me (by one of those engineers!) as “If it’s wet it will do”.

Establishing regional water authorities

The Water Act 1973 established 10 new regional water authorities. These authorities were responsible for managing water resources and supplying water and sewerage services on a fully integrated basis. These authorities took over control of the services that local authorities had previously (not!) been supplying.

The area that each water authority covered was broadly based on river catchment areas. Existing statutory private water companies were unaffected by the changes.

The Water Act 1973 required the regional water authorities to operate on a cost recovery basis. Capital to meet the necessary investment was raised by borrowing from central government and from revenue for the services provided.

Central government set financial constraints and performance aims for each authority.

Trying to meet investment needs

Although the restructuring had some improvements, it was difficult for water authorities to invest significantly in their assets. Additionally, the structure of the authorities meant that they were responsible for both discharging treated water into the environment and also monitoring discharges into the environment – both their own, and that of others. At the same time during this period increased environmental demands were made on the water industry, both with the public in favour of higher standards, and from more stringent European legislation.

In response, in the Water Act 1983 the government:

  • made some constitutional changes
  • reduced (frankly, almost eliminated) the role of local government in decision making
  • gave the authorities scope to access the private capital markets.

These changes did not result in a significant decrease in the number of pollution incidents but there was little desire to provide any additional public finance to meet the demand for capital investment. With the privatisation of other public services already underway, the decision was taken to privatise the water authorities. This was enacted by the Water Act of 1989, which:

  • separated the functions of providing water and sewerage services, and monitoring discharge into the water system
  • allowed the privatised water authorities to borrow money to invest in water and sewerage services

Privatisation (1989 onwards)

The ten publicly owned water and sewerage authorities were privatised in 1989 (after initial plans for privatisation were put on hold in 1986).

Privatisation was achieved by transferring the water supply and sewerage assets, and the relevant staff, of the ten existing regional water authorities into limited companies (the water and sewerage companies). This was accompanied by:

the raising of capital by floating parent companies on the London Stock Exchange

  • a one-off injection of public capital
  • the write off of significant government debt
  • the provision of capital tax allowances.

Over the years most of the companies have been bought out by private investment funds and taken off the stock exchange. At the time of writing only three (Pennon  aka South West Water, Severn Trent and United Utilities   aka North West Water) are quoted companies.

Regulating the privatised companies

To protect the interests of customers and the environment, at privatisation there was further restructuring of the industry. This entailed separating the roles of regulation and the provision of water and sewerage services.

Three separate, independent bodies were established to regulate the activities of the water and sewerage companies. These were:

  • the National Rivers Authority (from 1996 this became the Environment Agency) – which took over the remaining functions, assets and staff of the water authorities as the environmental regulator
  • the Drinking Water Inspectorate – as the regulator of drinking water quality
  • the Director General of Water Services supported by the Office of Water Services (Ofwat) – as the economic regulator

These bodies now also regulate the statutory private water companies (the water only companies).

There is no doubt in my mind that there were two primary reasons for privatising the industry. The first was the reluctance of governments of all persuasions to fund the ever growing demands of regulation.  The second was a philosophical/political one to reduce the size of the state. These came together in a perfect storm under a Tory government led by Margaret Thatcher.

The second of these reasons is a matter of personal philosophy and whilst I personally feel that industries upon which the welfare of the nation depends, such as water and the NHS, should be in public hands others will disagree. It’s a matter of politics.

I do have to observe that the companies have become much more efficient than the public sector organisations with whom I work and much more agile on their feet and able to innovate and use new technologies. The public sector is generally much slower to make decisions and fearful of truly empowering staff because of fears of ‘upsetting the voters’ ‘setting precedents’ and ‘lack of control’. I genuinely believe that one massively beneficial side-effect (or was it an unspoken intent, who knows?) of the changes has been efficiency.

Before privatisation in 1989 – Britain was known as the “dirty man” of Europe, low environmental standards and poor drought resilience eg resulting in standpipes being used in 1976 drought As a regulator, in the early years Ofwat drove investment and greater efficiency through the five-year price reviews. And it worked. Customers and citizens  now enjoy better services and a cleaner environment. Compared to the early 1990s, customers today are:

  • about eight times less likely to suffer sewer flooding
  • and five times less likely to experience unplanned water supply interruptions.
  • A 99% reduction (338,000) in customers at risk of low water pressure, since 1990
  • Leakage is lower – it has fallen by 40% from a peak in 1995
  • Asset health is in a much better state – most companies reporting stable asset serviceability measures.
  • Water and environmental quality has improved – more than 100 Blue Flag beaches and fish in the Thames again
  • Capital expenditure has doubled since privatisation

It is simply not true that, as one commentator has claimed, the water industry has failed customers.

Financing Challenges

Ever more stringent standards required ever more financial and operational efficiencies and despite the investment of over £130billion and massive reductions in staffing (when I started Yorkshire Water had ca 10,000 employees, when I left in 2000 it has ca 4000) more needs to be done to meet society’s aspirations for clean rivers and safe reliable drinking water. The standards are not just bureaucratic wish-lists, they are almost all driven by sound science, the democratic decisions of the EU and incorporated into UK law. Us practical experts occasionally question the relevance of some but by and large they have driven the improvement of our rivers from open sewers in 1974 to a state where salmon are occasionally caught below Leeds on the River Aire (and are shortly to be returned to the spawning grounds, see DNAire) and our drinking water to a quality such that nobody need have any concerns about drinking it.

Further investment is necessary to meet the standards and the current negotiation with Ofwat about prices and investment for 2020-2025. Money does not come free. Whether it is provided from the capital markets or by government there is a cost – in the first case payment of interest to the lender and in the second by government borrowing on bonds. Both routes have to be paid for, and who would pay for them if not the population who use these services? Whether water and sewerage services are paid for publicy or privately is simply a matter of either rises in taxes or increased bills.

There are those who claim that “we did not have to pay for it when the local authorities ran it”. Well that is patently untrue. It was paid for out of your rate bill, which was highly subsidised by central government. The cost was hidden.

Let us just reflect on what else happened when the industry was last in public hands – investment was almost non-existent. The fact that the Victorians, who built nearly all of the infrastructure in place at privatisation, substantially overdesigned most of what they built could be said to have ‘saved’ us from an even worse fate that rivers that were open sewers and water contaminated with cryptosporidium, giardia and all sorts of other life threatening nasties.

Quality and regulatory issues

How often have I heard something along the lines of “Those water companies can do what they like, they get away with murder”. As someone who used to have strategic responsibility for ensuring that Yorkshire Water met its regulatory commitments for drinking water quality, sewage discharges to the environment and health and safety, let me tell you that there might have been times when we wished the regulator did not exist – but only in the same way as I occasionally wish the 70mph speed limit does not exist.

Every routine discharge to the environment must have formal consent from the Environment Agency, who have a duty to impose conditions appropriate to protecting and improving the environment. It is changes in these conditions which drive further investment, so every 5 years there is a delicate and challenging negotiation between the companies (who have to implement the results of the negotiation), EA (who want more improvement faster) and Ofwat (who regulate the finances). There is always more to be done than can be afforded and so Defra also have a role in agreeing what it is appropriate for the EA to ask for in the current economic and regulatory environment. Having spent the last 2 years of my time with YWS leading such negotiations, I know just how challenging it can be – we started out with ‘demands’ from the EA/DWI that would have cost £2.5billion over 5 years and ended up with a programme valued at £1.4billion and even that was only possible by increasing bills a little.

Water companies around the country are regularly prosecuted by both the Environment Agency and the Drinking Water Inspectorate. Thames Water has the ‘privilege’ of holding the record for the largest environmental fine, a staggering £20.3million for repeated pollution of the Thames. Whilst it is right that the full weight of the law is brought to bear when serious incidents occur, the tragedy is that fines such as the £20.3million go straight to the chancellor and do not get spent on improving the environment. Recent provisions for civil penalties called Enforcement Undertakings offer the possibility that instead of a prosecution and equivalent penalty be paid to an environmental charity who must then spend the money improving the environment.

Accountability

Yes, a private company is lacking a democratic deficit and that is one reason that Ofwat, the statutory regulator, is keen on encouraging the companies to fill that gap. For the current price negotiation a series of ‘Customer Challenge Groups’ has been created with the express intent of challenging the companies’ plans.

An excellent paper https://www.ofwat.gov.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/Putting-customers-at-the-centre-of-a-regulated-monopoly-sector-DB-20-July-2017.pdf is available which traces the history of customer involvement in the industry.

The industry has long understood that only by satisfying customers will its reputation improve (and it did indeed have a poor reputation in the early years). Of course not all customers are satisfiable

Wasteful water companies!

The first wind turbine I ever saw was erected to power a remote pump delivering water to Bradford.

Water companies have long use anaerobic digestion to recycle sewage sludge and produce methane in the process.

Sewage sludge has been returned to the land as a fertiliser for hundreds of years. Following treatment, sewage sludge is either landfilled, incinerated, applied on agricultural land or, in some cases, retailed or given away for free to the general public.

One company has committed to planting 1million trees as part of its contribution to tackling global warming.

One company has committed to energy neutrality, generating all the power it uses and potentially exporting the excess to the grid.

It is claimed that Paris has leakage rates of ca. 10%, compared to 25-30% in the UK. A useful summary of the re-nationalisation of Paris water is available at http://research.ncl.ac.uk/media/sites/researchwebsites/gobacit/Anne%20Le%20Strat.pdf . This actually claims 5%, a figure which is hard to accept for us industry stalwarts. Leakage in the UK is too high for many and the public perception is one that needs changing. Part of the problem is the value of water. At ca £1 per tonne the economics of leakage control are a challenge!

Wasteful?

Overall…

Both history and experience has suggested that the environment is better protected and our taps better supplied when water is in the private sector. That challenges my own predilections for public ownership of such a vital asset, but experience in other fields shows how inadequate are public sector processes, how hard it is to get financing in the pubic sector and  how out of control pubic sector tendering and construction processes become.

At the time of privatisation, I held principled objections to the process. I still do, yet as a pragmatist I have to admit that we are much better off than we would have been had water remained in the public sector. Do I support renationalisation? No.

The blame game – and why we should avoid it.

Grenfell TowerMy brother in law is a recently retired airline pilot who has not only been flying planes since he left school 40 years ago but has been training the pilots of tomorrow for some years now. Yesterday we ended up talking about Grenfell, the Challenger disaster, the floods of 2015, drinking water pollution and airline safety. Apparently unrelated subjects one might think; but think again about how those things are investigated and the link becomes clear.

Let me start with a short personal story about drinking water pollution – people ill, huge costs and disruption and a serious possibility of prosecution of the company. My job was to conduct an investigation into the causes of the incident and suggest remedies. I completed my investigations and made my recommendations and presented them to the relevant Directors, leading to a ‘discussion’ with my Managing Director when I refused to put any names into the report or to assign blame to anyone. He wanted somebody to point a finger at, to sack. But would the people who so willingly helped me investigate a very tricky incident have been so helpful had they feared for their jobs? I suspect not.

What about the Xmas 2015 flooding? Well, as Chairman of The Aire Rivers Trust, I have been heavily involved in the aftermath of those floods looking at the causes, effects and future remedies. What has been especially ‘disappointing’ has been the amount of overt and covert politicking (with both lower and upper-case ‘p’) surrounding the whole process. This politicking, much (maybe most) of which as come from elected councillors does little to further the cause and only serves to demoralise the committed officers working on the schemes. Moreover it sows doubt about the accuracy and veracity of the various reports and recommendations, in turn feeding rather than calming the understandable public concern about what happens next time it rains.

Finally the Challenger disaster, which was rigorously investigated and which was ultimately held to be essentially ’caused’ not by the technical failure of a o-ring that had been identified and for which a ‘No launch’ recommendation had been made by the technical experts, but by the managers who decided to over-ride the engineers’ advice in order to protect their company’s position.

The similarity in all of these seems to be a desire by some parties to investigate rigorously, butting up against a wish by others to point the finger, to blame. I will come to Grenfell in a minute, but by now my point may already be coming clear.

For many years, the airline industry has had a ‘no jeopardy’ form of investigation. One which has led to continuous increases in the safety of an already very safe form of transport. The purpose of an investigation should be to establish all of the facts and the inter-relationships between them in order to prevent repetition. For any investigation to be able to establish the true facts of an incident it is necessary that the participants can ‘have their say’ and report their understandings and for the investigators to be able to dig into every detail and nook and cranny without ANY of them prejudicing their career or the possibility of legal action against them.

Will, even can, this happen for the tragic fire at Grenfell Tower? We have Politicians of one ‘colour’ blaming the other, and the other blaming the one; we have debate raging about the Fire Safety Assessments, about the Building Regulations (and who is responsible for enforcing them in the light of them being ‘privatised’); we have some pointing the finger at illegal sub-letting (as if illegal sub-letting justified the occupants to be burned to death), the companies responsible for supplying and then fitting the cladding are covering their legal arses, the officers who commissioned the work will be feeling very uneasy (especially those who encouraged the cost-saving measures that may have resulted in less safe cladding being fitted), we have a local authority absolving itself of responsibility because it was social housing run by a housing association not themselves…add your own complicating elements to the list.

Amidst all this we have at least 76 dead, grieving relatives, annoyed survivors and thousands more in similar accommodations who are not only seeking answers but looking to find fault. We seem to have a natural tendency to want to find someone to blame when accidents occur and that is playing out big-time here. But will that help in the long-term? Even if blame could be allocated, would it bring back the dead, would it sooth the anguish and the fears? And would the prospect of blame being allocated inhibit individuals and corporations from being completely open in their collection and giving of evidence?

When you run into the back of the car in front, it is usually ‘he braked suddenly’ rather than ‘I was going too fast, too close, not looking ahead of the car in front for possible emerging hazards’. When my house floods it is not because I failed to take the many resilience measures that I could have done but ‘because they didn’t build proper flood defences’ or ‘the farmers are causing increased runoff’ or even ‘climate change’ (as if we were not all contributing to the latter). It’s psychologically ‘safer’ to find someone to blame than to accept my own failings.

So back to Grenfell. Will the public inquiry set up a ‘no jeopardy’ process – no, because much of its’ evidence will be held in pubic and so anonymity (an essential part of a no-jeopardy process) cannot be guaranteed. How can this be set up? Sorry but I do not know, what I do however believe is that such a no-blame process is necessary if we are to truly identify and learn the lessons from this tragic event. Maybe just highlighting the issue and asking the question might help someone else to pick up the baton and see what can be learned from the air transport industry’s processes.

Flood risk management – do we need changes?

FloodsEarlier today the (D)Efra Committee published its review of arrangements for flood risk management. I posted my initial response on Facebook and I stand by what I said there – essentially that the call for a new strategic authority and ‘floods czar’ is misguided. This piece explores more of the issues.

There is a real risk that the report is seen as either a knee-jerk response and/or politicking, yet there is some good (if not novel) stuff in there as well as at least one major flaw.

First the good. Well, that is the vast majority of the recommendations. It’s always good to have p(P)olitical backing, but let’s not get the idea that any of these recommendations are novel. Numbers 1-7, which are the obviously ‘operational’ ones are already developing here in Yorkshire and were long before this report was ever thought of.

The idea of a whole-catchment approach mirrors that of the Catchment Based Approach that Defra set up and funded for ‘environmental’ concerns and bringing those two approaches to catchment management closer together is one of my key aims.

Storing water and land management is a no-brainer, although I remain to be convinced that we should compensate farmers (especially) when the flood plain that they own gets flooded. After all every time it floods they get free fertiliser and soil and owning a flood plain surely means that you understand (Or should do) the issues. So many of our flood plains have been commandeered for other uses and I can get quite frustrated when people complain that their local flood plain floods.

Sustainable drainage systems – it’s taken at least 30 years since the water industry started funding research for SUDS to become mainstream. It’s about time that developers were compelled to install best practice SUDS whenever development of any size is undertaken. Every little bit helps. I believe that much greater emphasis now needs to be placed on retro-fitting SUDS. We have millions of hectares of hard standing in our cities and our roads and by adopting the ‘every little bit counts’ philosophy we can slowly but surely make inroads.

Maintenance and dredging – a sensible recommendation but I feel that insufficient emphasis was put on the very limited usefulness of dredging, especially after the then Environment Secretary, Liz Truss, effectively gave farmers and IDBs carte blanche to dredge in her knee-jerk reaction to the 2015 flooding.

Flood warnings and public understanding of risk – Whilst I have put these two recommendations together, the first is primarily technical and the second to do with communications. Nonetheless they are sides of a coin, without the former we cannot effectively deliver the latter. The key issue is one of active engagement at all times. The history of the EA, which I acknowledge is changing albeit very patchily, is one of ‘Decide, Announce, Defend’ and this has left a legacy of mistrust. They have also tended, IMHO, to consult rather than engage and only to do so transactionally and late, rather than recognising that collaboration demands ‘upstream’ (sorry, but I could not resist!) effort to build trust and understanding in order to be able to reap that when needed.

The rest of the recommendations are clearly relevant at a national strategic level and all except the last make absolute sense and should be acted upon as soon as possible. However, I take exception to the suggestion that a new governance model be created.

There are certainly multiple agencies involved in FRCM and whilst these all need to be involved, I fail to see how creating a single national FCRM body helps co-ordinate them. We already have such a body – the Environment Agency – and my personal and local intelligence suggest that they are doing an increasingly good job in trying circumstances (for which read ‘shortage of funds’). I might argue that a desire to address a democratic deficit has led to a proliferation of agencies with responsibilities, to the detriment of strategic planning. Only a cynic (moi?) would suggest that this also pushed spending and spending decisions out of the hand of national agencies and so allowing government to have an arms-length relationship with these strategic challenges.

Finally, separating the ‘environment’ and ‘flooding’ arms of the EA risks fragmentation of addressing ‘watery’ issues. There is already a, fortunately closing, gap between the two arms of the EA and separating the functions can only make it even more difficult to identify and deliver the collaborative multiple benefits that are undoubtedly available when we work together.

A useful document that doesn’t add much in practice!

No longer an early adopter?

Early adoptersSome time ago I wrote a piece about how I used to be an early adopter of technology. Coming across that piece recently, it struck me that I have some new thoughts on the topic.

I see the challenges and rewards of early adoption these days as being different to those in the heady days when IT was first hitting desktops and the internet was a mysterious thing used by international scientists and nobody else.

let’s be honest about this, in the early days of IT corresponded with the stage of my career when I was needing, or was it wanting, to make an impression. Being the one with the mobile phone, the one using e-mail and the one who understood how to connect to the Internet most certainly put me into that position.

However, I don’t think even I have ever been quite so facile as to believe that the primary reason for adopting such technology was to make an impression on others. Instead, I like to think that I actually saw the potential of these technologies and wanted to get hold of them in order to try them out and see what was possible.

As I explained in my earlier post, that mobile phone and laptop facilitated a total transformation in how we can work. Remote working suddenly became a possibility and who, given the choice, would not sit on the beach at Flamborough doing their work rather than locked up in an office in the middle of Bradford. That era, the late 1970s and early 1980s, was when the world seemed full of endless possibilities and when emerging technologies created the opportunities to grab the possibilities and even create new ones. Compare that to many of the products that are hitting the market these days – Windows 10 is fundamentally an incremental improvement on the last few versions, iPhone 6 is slightly bigger, slightly faster, slightly more memory etc Ello so far as I can see is just another version of Facebook, WhatsApp is a messaging platform and so on with seemingly very little radical technology actually emerging.

Oh yes, voice recognition has come on considerably and I can actually now talk to my phone and say “Send a text to Suzanne” and it will do so without seriously mangling the content. But to successfully dictate an e-mail, report or even blog item I have to remember a whole bunch of complex commands for inserting formatting. We are nearly there and I am about to try Cortana once I am brave enough to upload Windows 10.

So I guess I might be missing some hot new trends, but then again I am not a hot new trend myself either. I would be very happy if anyone out there to point me in the direction of a current genuinely potentially transformative technology.

Still waiting…

Earlier this week I was advised that I was being referred for an emergency appointment to the Pituitary Clinic. Well, to me, ’emergency’ brings to mind urgent action and yet here I am almost a week later having heard nothing. I don’t know where I stand. I feel perfectly well apart from perhaps being especially sensitive to my usual early morning dehydration slight headache – always goes away after the first cuppa – and is IS slight, frankly I don’t often notice it because the slightest distraction gets my brain elsewhere.

I’m hoping to go on holiday next Monday and am now left wondering whether this ’emergency’ referral can wait for 2 weeks until I get back.

As usual with change, it’s the uncertainty that is the problem – let’s figure out where/what next and then make decisions about when/how.

Are you going to vote? Why?

Will you vote?A few weeks ago I listened to a brief discussion on Question Time about how the ‘youth of today’ are becoming increasingly disengaged with the electoral process.  It seemed to me that the discussion, which centred on why people do not vote, totally missed the mark. Firstly because it is not, in my opinion, about disengagement with voting and secondly because it is not just youth who are becoming disengaged.

Yes, the voting process itself could be improved. For example, why in this electronic age do we have to turn up at a designated location to vote; and when we do turn up surely the identification process could be a touch more rigorous?

But my issue is less with the process of registering my vote than the broader political process, with which I find myself more and more disillusioned – to an extent that might just lead me to fail to vote for the first time in my life. I can, and will, tell you what upsets me about the process so much that more and more often I find myself turning off the radio or TV when politicians appear; but what I find a bigger challenge is how to change the situation for the better.

So, what hacks me off about the way politics currently works? Quite a lot, so get yourself ready!

  1. SHOUTINESS!!! This category has a couple of variants:
    1. “I am going to say what I want to say, even of the only way I can do it is to shout over you.”
    2. “I am going to say what I want to say regardless of the topic under discussion and the question asked.”
  2. Dishonesty – ranging from ‘promises’ or ‘commitments’ made during the hustings that are subsequently reneged upon to claiming expenses to which they are not entitled.
  3. “You voted for it” – claims, typically accurate, that a particular policy was in the manifesto and you voted us in so you agree with the policy. NO. It is a very long time since we had a majority government and even then I can’t imagine that everyone who voted for them agreed with every specific in the manifesto. This is lazy thinking and a version of dishonesty.p
  4. Party Politics – I am asked to vote for an individual, who as soon as they get into The House become subject to party whips telling them how to vote on most issues. How about MY MP votes in line with the wishes of their constituents, or even their own conscience or personal insight?
  5. Career politicians – The youngest current MP is Pamela Nash who was 25 years and 11 months old when she was elected to Parliament in the May 2010 general election and the youngerst in modern times was Bernadette Devlin who was a few days short of her 22nd birthday when elected. Now, I ask you, just how much experience do you need to be able to contribute effectively to deliberations about the country? More than you get through a career that starts with a PPE degree, then a few years as an intern for a senior politician, followed by election to a safe seat. I want my MPs to have some experience of the world, not to have been brought up in the ‘Westminster Bubble’. Which brings me to …
  6. Second jobs – I actually support the idea of second jobs as they stand a chance of connecting MPS to the ‘real world’. I can’t support Malcolm Rifkind’s claim that he is self-employed (maybe he is legally!) with a part-time job that leaves him plenty of spare time. However, if like Gordon Brown you earn just short of £1m a year for your external activity just where might your loyalties lie?
  7. The drift to the middle – despite party politics, it seem to me that both major parties are increasingly competing for the votes of those in the middle. Yes, the Conservatives come at the issue from the viewpoint of the land/property owning relatively wealthy and Labour approach from the oppressed working class, yet ultimately that distinction is narrowing.
  8. Yah Boo, You Suck! – Anything going right is attributed to the skill of the ruling party and anything wrong is somehow traceable to the behaviour of the opposition. The global economic crisis was not caused by the Labour administration but by the greed and immorality of a cadre of bankers who probably vote conservative! Whoever was in power it would have happened.

At the end of the day, this is an opinion piece and the data to support my assertions may or may not be out there – I have not tried to find it. But my perception is my reality.

What to do about this is the next question.I will muse on this in a subsequent blog.

“Work will set you free”

The entry gate to Auschwitz

The entry gate to Auschwitz

“Work will set you free” – perhaps the biggest lie ever told by man to human.

For the very select few it became true; Stanisław Ryniak, prisoner #31, was brought at the beginning and was liberated at least alive. He did it by learning fast – which were the good jobs, who were the least obnoxious bosses, how to ingratiate himself to others (as many others as he could). For him and for the lucky(?) 75,000 others who were fortunate (?) enough to be fit (?) enough for working and so remained alive as the Russians entered the camp it was also true.

But for the 1.2 to 1.5 million Jews, Poles, Roma, homosexuals, political dissidents etc their journey to Auschwitz-Birkenau was their last. If you were unfortunate enough to be a woman, a child, infirm or disabled you would highly likely be poisoned by cyanide within 24 hours of arrival, your body incinerated and your ashes scattered randomly into the river, the on-site ponds or used as fertiliser on adjacent fields. Nearly all the men followed eventually.

Yes, I visited Auschwitz-Birkenau and I find myself holding back tears of anger, sympathy, despair and other emotions that I cannot name. Man’s inhumanity in those circumstances is hard to believe, let alone capture. Not man’s inhumanity to man, but man’s in inhumanity to around one and a half million individual men women and children who were unfortunate enough to be born to the wrong race, religion or to hold what were considered inappropriate political views. How to understand one and a half million people slaughtered for an ideology? If I were to read out all the names I suspect it will take me a lifetime. If I were to type a ‘full stop’ for every individual it would take me 750 pages.

I wanted, and want to write about my feelings on the visit. Paradoxically I cannot recall any – I think it was either bury them to enable me to experience the sights or let them all flow out only for them to get in the way of really learning about the greatest horror of our, or anybody’s, times. I chose the former and even yesterday I found myself questioning the value, 75 years on, of emotion in the circumstances. I cannot bring them, or their torturers and murderers, back. I cannot enter empathise – can anyone truly empathise with those who were lied to, humiliated, treated like cattle, separated from their families, tattooed, starved, beaten, tortured and eventually murdered in the name of the philosophy that is not yet dead and continues to rear its head throughout Europe (the recent suggestion in parts of the Ukraine that Jews should register filled me with absolute horror – fortunately it was a hoax, but the fact that someone could even think of such a hoax is worrying). I am no psychopath, but what good can come from floods of tears? At whom can or should I direct my anger – especially knowing that similar atrocities continue in Rwanda, Serbia, Nigeria, Cambodia, Iraq, Burundi, Bangladesh and so on. Separatism leads to war, war leads to atrocities; what happened in Nazi Germany was ‘just’ a matter of scale; extreme behaviour under duress seems to be an inescapable nature of the human state. I would like to think that I would not have dropped those canisters of Zyklon-B into the gas chambers at Birkenau. But if the option for me was certain death? I do not know how I would behave and nor, despite your protestations to the contrary do you. Why the final solution? Because translocation to Siberia was impractical, because shooting them was affecting the morale of the Nazi troops and so concentrating the deaths into one location made it possible to find those few true psychopaths to actually do the killing (or, in the case Mengele, the experimenting on unwilling victims)?

Whilst I argue that I cannot empathise with 1.5 million murdered, I found the most touching moments, those when my mask tottered, was when we heard the stories of survivors who came back and record their experiences. The sheer bravery, not physical but emotional, to revisit a place where you were always a whim away from death, where your family and friends had been brutally abused and killed. Now that I can almost imagine, and it hurts. It hurts so much that I choose to bury it, not in the hope that it will go away (I know it will not) but in the hope that I can and will find some way to continue to operate in my world.

I stood outside those iconic gates at Birkenau trying, with utter impossibility, to imagine what it must have been like for the new arrivals; understandably upset at what had happened to them yet totally unknowing of what was to happen. I failed.

I can only hope that the remaining few who lived through it, those who directly remember it and those of us who visit third hand can keep the memory alive in the hope that somehow it will never happen again.

In memory of the unknown and unnamed and in hope for a better future.