Tube Train

The British government has stepped in to bail out Transport for London today but Mayor Khan has had to accept some uncomfortable terms to get the cash.

TfL has seen a 90% reduction in income caused by the lockdown and spent the last of its cash reserves today. They have been given £1.1bn in cash and a £505m loan with strings attached. Khan has been running TfL at a loss, freezing fares for the last 4 years and it has been running up big debts.

Khan has had to agree to get the busses and trains back to 100% capacity as soon as possible, price increases, a review of TfL’s finances, seats on the board, ending free travel for pensioners at peak times and regular reports to the British government on staff absence levels. And just to rub salt in the wound he’s had to agree to replace his “Stay at Home” posters on the tube with the British government’s “Stay Alert” ones.

The British Secretary of State for English Transport, Grant Shapps, said that it was important that people from outside of London weren’t bailing out London. Amusingly, he said “You can’t then have an unfair settlement, where other British taxpayers are effectively bailing out the system” which pretty much sums up the Barnett Formula. But the penny has dropped at least as far as London is concerned although it is unlikely to see London cease to be at the top of the table for identifiable public spending in England.

The best thing for Londoners is for the British government to create an English Parliament to take control of the London Assembly and TfL, along with the metropolitan mayors they’ve created in our country so that power can be shared in a consistent and coherent way across England. The money wasted on building the apparatus of state in London could be much better spent on things like affordable housing, tackling homelessness and poverty and stopping kids from stabbing each other in the city. Staffing costs for the London Assembly have risen 82% since Khan became mayor and it employs about four times as many people as the Northern Irish Assembly which runs a whole country (when it isn’t suspended).

London is not a city state despite Mayor Khan’s pretensions.

Daniel Kawczynski

The MP for Shrewsbury & Atcham, Daniel Kawczynski, is trying to use the Coronavirus to campaign for the abolition of devolution in Wales.

Kawczynski is unhappy with the “expensive and unnecessary” Welsh government having different lockdown rules to England meaning his constituents can’t go to the beach in Wales.

He was particularly unhappy with the Welsh First Minister recording a video message aimed at English people telling them that the British government’s lockdown rules only apply to England because British politicians won’t say England.

Kawczynski is worried that the Welsh government having different rules poses a risk to the “cohesion of Britain”. He cites the golf courses in Shropshire that straddle the border as a reason for overturning the Welsh votes of 1997 and 2011 and abolishing the Senedd.

What Kawczynski and other British nationalists are most worried about isn’t that Scottish and Welsh devolution will lead to them becoming independent but that lack of devolution in England will lead to a backlash that will break the union. They can’t afford to put England on an equal footing with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland because their privileged position in the union is what keeps the flame of unionism burning and they can’t afford for the people of England to start asserting their Englishness because the whole house of cards will come tumbling down. This is why you’ll never hear a British politician say England if they can say Britain or the country instead.

Westminster Home Rule for England

Boris Johnson addressed the nation last night to outline the slight relaxation of the lockdown rules but it was left to the First Minister of Wales to tell English people that the announcement only applies to England.

The new rules mean people in England can travel wherever they want for exercise and relaxation as long as they maintain social distancing with effect from Wednesday. The Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish governments chose not to follow the British government’s rule changes for England and the restrictions on movement still apply there.

There is an unwritten rule in Westminster that England must not be named. The racist devolution system that excludes England and the British establishment’s tenuous grip on political power in England relies on the institutional discrimination not becoming a topic of conversation in England. That means that when Boris talks about lockdown rules in England he talks about the country. When Ministers go on TV and radio to talk about the lockdown rules in England they talk about the country. When people listen to them talking about the lockdown rules in the country they don’t hear England.

So because Boris et al don’t explain that they only speak for England the First Minister of Wales was forced to do it for them this morning with a message to English people telling them that Wales is still locked down and to stay away. That’s right, the First Minster of Wales had to tell the people of England that the British prime minister only makes the rules for England.

An English Parliament with an English First Minister taking charge of England’s response to the Coronavirus would have ensured there was no confusion as to who the new rules applied to. And when this pandemic is over and done with it would ensure there was no confusion as to which country they were talking about when politicians were talking about transport, fishing, environment, farming, forestry, education, health, social care, housing, planning, local government, sport, culture and tax.

VE Day 75 years

A couple of days ago it was VE Day. All over the country people flew flags from their homes and other buildings. Mostly it was was the British flag but there were quite a lot of English flags to be seen as well.

I read a comment from someone on Facebook suggesting that flying the English flag instead of the British flag implies that only the English contributed to VE Day and that would be beyond the pale (his words). It was prompted by a misunderstanding but it does show that for some people there is a instinctive belief that only the British flag is acceptable such events.

The terminal decline of the British identity is well documented by pollsters. It has its temporary peaks but the downward trend continues unabated. The military response in the second world war was undoubtedly British and all of the member states of the UK fought alongside each other equally. The original VE Day celebrations saw union flags everywhere which was reflective of the prevailing national identity and that’s not the case in 2020.

But the fact that all of this was done under the British flag then doesn’t mean that we have to fly the British flag now. Things have moved on in the last 75 years and the UK has changed fundamentally. We don’t expect the Slovaks to fly the Czechoslovakian flag or the Russians to fly the Soviet flag when they mark the end of the war in Europe, we shouldn’t expect English people to fly the British flag either.

Big Brother

The British government have launched a contact tracking mobile phone app on the Isle of Wight to help identify contact with people who have tested positive for COVID-19.

Which is great … except it isn’t.

Google and Apple are both rolling out changes to their Android and iOS operating systems to enable contact tracking. Their system records contacts via bluetooth and those contacts are stored on your own device. Data doesn’t get transferred to a central database.

The NHS app tracks your contacts and uploads them to a central database when you confirm you have tested positive. The central system behind that database will work out who you’ve been in contact with and notify you. The state then has a big database containing comprehensive data on the movement and associations of millions of people.

Most countries building contact tracing apps are using Google and Apple’s decentralised contact tracing technology that doesn’t involve building tracking databases. The fact that the British government chose to build a big database when one wasn’t needed speaks volumes.

A lot of money has been invested in this tracking app and it will be installed by millions of people who are being told that it will “protect the NHS and save lives”. Once the current pandemic is finished the technology isn’t going to be abandoned, it’ll be expanded and used for other things. It’s the thin end of the wedge and I will have no part of it.

Shropshire Hills

Sir Keir Starmer, the millionaire London MP chosen to lead the Labour Party, has called on the British government to ensure that nobody in England is more than 20 minutes away from a Coronavirus testing station. He didn’t say England, obviously, but that’s what he meant

I’m sure it would be fairly easy to put a testing station within 20 minutes of the average Londoner. You can get a long way on the tube in 20 minutes but London is just 607 out of 50,360mi2 of England, 92% of which is undeveloped.

So how would the MP for Holborn & St Pancras’ 20 minute plan work here in Shropshire where about 80% of the county is farmland, forest, open spaces or water?

Shropshire has two main towns next to each other – Telford and Shrewsbury – connected by a motorway and dual carriageway. It takes about 20 minutes to get between the two. It takes 20 minutes to drive from Ironbridge in south Telford to Bratton in north Telford and most of that journey is by dual carriageway and A roads. Getting from the border village of Priest Weston to the nearest town of Church Stretton will take over half an hour. It is the 13th largest county in England by area but 42nd out of 48 for population. It is the 6th most sparsely populated county in England. It would take hundreds, if not thousands, of testing stations to ensure that even people living in our large towns are within 20 minutes of one let alone the people who live in such remote locations that it takes them 10 minutes to get to a road. And if you need to use public transport then for most of the county you’re out of luck.

This kind of statement shows what is wrong with British politics. The leader of the Conservatives, the Labour Party and the Lib Dems are all MPs for constituencies in London and London is not England. London isn’t even an English city any more, its culture and values are entirely out of step with the rest of the country. The British Parliament is dominated by London and the south east of England whose MPs think that if something is right for their corner of the country it’s right for the rest of England and more often than not it isn’t.

The centre of political power in England needs to be moved right out of London and the south east and well away from metropolitan areas. England needs a parliament of its own, be it devolved from the British Parliament or independent. This parliament should be somewhere more representative of the majority of the country and I would (obviously) suggest Shropshire.

The first English Parliament involving commoners was held at Acton Burnell near Shrewsbury in 1283. Shropshire is the birthplace of the modern Olympics, the industrial revolution and the skyscraper and has given the world some of its greatest minds such as Charles Darwin, Dr William Penny Brookes, Clive of India, Abraham Darby, A E Houseman, Wilfred Owen and Roger de Montgomery. But most importantly, it would remind politicians that the bustling city life, 24 hour economy, world class public transport system and melting pot of different races, religions and cultures that they experience in London is alien to most of the country.

It would also help them to understand why saying that nobody should be more than 20 minutes from a Coronavirus testing station is little more than wishful thinking outside of the London bubble.

Eastern European Fruit Pickers

With fruit picking season kicking off farmers are going public with their stories of futile attempts to recruit locals to work in their fields and how they are having to look to their usual Eastern European recruiting grounds for workers.

Last week, following the story of a farm flying in a plane load of Romanians, I had a look to see what farm jobs were being advertised in Shropshire. As England’s most rural county with around 60% farmland I figured that if the dearth of unfilled farm vacancies was going to be seen anywhere it would be here. Not one of these jobs was advertised on any of the mainstream job sites.

Yesterday there was a story in the Shropshire Star about a shortage of seasonal farm workers with one farmer saying he would have to “look elsewhere” for people to work on his farm. I asked a farmer on Twitter where the jobs were advertised and he replied with a link to a seasonal farm worker recruitment agency that specialises in recruiting from Romania and Bulgaria, the Pick For Britain website that suggests looking at the DWP Find a Job website and a different farm’s website that is also looking for workers. The DWP Find a Job website has no fruit picking or farm jobs advertised for Shropshire.

This doesn’t make sense if farmers want to recruit locals does it? People who don’t usually do seasonal farm work aren’t going to know about specialist agencies and they’re unlikely to use an agency that specialises in bringing in Eastern Europeans even if they do. If you really wanted to recruit locals to work on your farm you’d advertise it with the Job Centre, on the DWP’s Find a a Job service, with the main job search sites like Indeed or Total Jobs, with farming publications like Farmer’s Weekly or the local newspaper. All of which have zero vacancies for this type of work.

HOPS recruitment agency specialises in recruiting Romanian and Bulgarian workers
HOPS recruitment agency specialises in recruiting Romanian and Bulgarian workers

So what’s going on?

Farmers have relied on cheap immigrant labour for a long time. They bring workers over from Eastern Europe who live on the farm in serviced accommodation often with meals provided. Weekly accommodation charges are capped by law at £52.85 including cleaning, meals and laundry and only the actual room rent is taxable, the services aren’t. Much of the accommodation charge is tax-free income for the farm. The initial capital outlay from building or purchasing the accommodation in the first place can be used to offset against their tax bill whilst the maintenance and off-season losses can be used to offset against tax bills forever and a day. Transport costs can be deducted from wages including admin fees. It’s a big money-spinner for farms employing immigrant seasonal workers and means they’re effectively paying below minimum wage for back breaking work. No pensions to pay, no sick pay, no holiday pay and they can be dismissed with no rights.

Employing a local worker means no (largely tax-free) rental income and the farm has to pay minimum wage with few opportunities to make deductions from wages for services rendered or expenses incurred. Where’s the incentive to employ locals when there are so many incentives not to?

The industry has a vested interest in “proving” that they can’t fill vacancies with local workers this year. A pilot scheme is being run that allows a restricted number of immigrant workers to come to the UK to work on farms for up to 6 months. The effectiveness of the pilot will determine how much cheap labour they are allowed to import in future years. To get the number as high as possible they have to show that the 10,000 seasonal workers they’re allowed to bring in this year (already increased from the original 2,500) isn’t enough. Industry lobbyists are already pushing for the number to be increased to 70,000 and the season has barely started.

So, to ensure the pilot fails the vacancies are advertised on obscure websites and kept away from the mainstream job sites that most people would turn to, to look for work. The farms will argue that they advertised all their vacancies but not enough locals applied for them and there’s nothing more they could have done and with only anecdotal evidence to the contrary the British government will almost certainly increase the numbers for future years.

Despite having record low unemployment there were still over a million unemployed in the UK before the Coronavirus lockdown and the economic damage it’s already starting to wreak on the country. There is no shortage of available workers and the number of people who have applied for seasonal farm jobs despite the best efforts of the farms in question to dissuade them from doing so exposes the lie that people already living here aren’t willing to do the work.

The only way to stop corrupt farmers from cheating the system is to only count jobs advertised on the DWP’s Find a Job service or with the JobCentre when calculating the number of jobs advertised and not filled to set quotas. Immigration policy must not be based on dishonesty.