Wednesday, 22 June 2016

My vote to remain in the EU

The EU referendum campaign is drawing to a close. It hasn’t been a good campaign. Yet the consequences of this vote are enormous – much is at stake.

We have heard arguments from the sublime to the downright ridiculous. The Tories have turned on each other in a bitter fight to the finish, which says more about the Tory party than it does about the real issues. This has been a fundamental problem because it has distorted the case for Britain remaining an active member of the EU.

Tory internecine warfare threatens the stability not just of their party, but also of the United Kingdom. Whatever the outcome, wounds opened by the campaign will be difficult to heal. The future of the Tory government is in question with the potential for political chaos if Britain votes to leave.

So, it has been left to Labour to make the substantive case for remain. Their case is a good one. It is idealistic, pragmatic, economic and social.

Labour with Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership set out to make a distinctive case – to be inside the EU as an active member campaigning for reform. Corbyn's assessment of his position on the EU with a score of 7/10 probably represents the view of the majority in the Labour party, and the position of many voters. He says, honestly, that he 'doesn't love the EU' but thinks we can work for reform better by being in than out of the union. It would be foolish to consider the EU as perfect, but its weaknesses are not good enough reason to leave. Labour's position is sensible and reasoned. So tomorrow, polling day, I will be voting for Britain to remain a member of the EU.

I respect the arguments of those who wish to leave the EU. There are good arguments for leaving. But there are equally valid reasons to stay. I will be voting remain because I believe we are better able to work with our partners in Europe on climate change, on rights in the workplace, on consumer protection and social justice. These issues are transnational and need transnational collaboration.

I also believe on balance the economic argument for remain is sound. Our economy has benefited by our membership, with more sustainable growth since we joined. It has attracted massive inward investment to the UK.

A regulated single market requires a body to ensure those regulations are applied fairly and consistently and requires a degree of pooling of sovereignty. We need to work together to develop the poorest areas and those in decline, creating jobs and opportunity. We can do this better together with fair regional funding. We all benefit by this funding because it strengthens the market in which we sell our goods.

The mantra of the Leave campaign has been to 'take back control'. Sovereignty is a key issue, but I didn't see any lack of sovereignty when the British parliament sent our troops to Iraq. Nor was there a lack of sovereignty when our government imposed austerity measures and cut benefits to the poorest and the disabled. There is no lack of sovereignty as parliament decides to renew Trident.

So what then do they mean by take back control. They are not talking about real sovereignty. They are talking about 'our borders' and immigration. It is an unconvincing argument. It is the economy and conflict that drives migration, and the demands of the UK economy will continue to drive migrant numbers, whether we are in or out of the EU. It is notable that the leave campaign were unable to say that numbers would fall if we leave!

The leave campaign have an attractive slogan - take back control. On the substantive issues that affect us, we haven't lost control. Our problems don't stem from the EU. Our NHS and social care are in crises, not because of our EU membership, but because of actions taken by our government. It is disingenuous for leave to suggest otherwise.

I am an internationalist because I believe social justice should be international. Too much of our economic well-being and freedom is predicated on the oppression and exploitation of people in other parts of the world. We don't address that by leaving the EU.

Some on the left see the EU as a political tool of global capitalism, but I see the potential for challenging that system, creating and protecting workers rights and freedoms, working with our socialist partners in Europe. We won’t always win, and progress may be slow, but I cannot see how we can do it alone, with our economy at the mercy of a resurgent neoliberalism.

My father’s generation saw the carnage that the toxic mix of capitalism and imperialism brought to the peoples of Europe. Instead of seeing the promised homes fit for heroes, he saw instead the consequences of capitalist failure and greed. We also saw the results of that greed and failure in the recent banking crises, and our problems owe more to that than to the machinations of Brussel's eurocrats.

Perhaps the EU isn't essential for peace, but in my lifetime we have seen Europe at peace with itself. It has been part of the settlement that has allowed Europe to change. We have seen the Berlin wall fall, and a united Germany at peace with its neighbours. The EU is part of the process of post war economic, social and political development on which that peace is built.

Indeed, this was heralded by Winston Churchill in 1946 when he called for a european structure for peace. 

“There is a remedy which ... would in a few years make all Europe ... free and ... happy.
It is to re-create the European family, or as much of it as we can, and to provide it with a structure under which it can dwell in peace, in safety and in freedom. We must build a kind of United States of Europe.”

Europe is a better place that it was. We have seen the end of fascist tyranny in Spain, and democracy flourish. We have seen the end of dictatorships in Greece and Portugal. We have seen Europe working together – working together in regional development, in research and in health – and working together to create social justice and trade union rights enshrined in law.

Human rights transcend national boundaries and we need international bodies to foster and protect them. That isn't a loss of sovereignty. It is giving power to people.

The EU isn’t perfect. But we have seen Europe flourish as a family of democratic nations.

The truth is we have created a better Europe - not a perfect one, but a better one. It is a Europe that protects democracy and human rights; a Europe that promotes consumer rights; a Europe that protects rights in the workplace; a Europe that promotes social justice. I do not believe we can better stand against global capitalism outside the EU.

So is reform inside the EU possible. The answer is clear. In every nation, in every corner of the Continent, the appetite for fundamental change is growing. That desire for change should be directed toward a fundamental transformation in the governance of Europe, and we should be at the forefront of that push for change.

So let’s remind ourselves why the right-wing brixiteers don’t like the EU. They detest the fact that the EU’s single market (the world’s largest market) is a market with rules to protect consumers, workers and the environment and to regulate multinational companies. It is this regulation they call ‘red-tape’, and they would sweep it away.

Leaving the EU is a bit like jumping off a seaworthy boat in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean and extolling the virtues of being 'free' to swim to shore. We may drown, but at least we are ‘free’!

Global Capital is what it says – it is global. It requires global regulation. We don’t strengthen our fight against it by leaving the EU – we weaken it.

There is a tendency to think that whether we remain in the EU can be the product of some form of calculation – the amount we receive from the EU vs. the amount we pay in. But such a calculation is not possible unless you can put value on that which is incalculable. 

We cannot measure the benefit to the UK by a simple spreadsheet. How do we give monetary value the social provisions of the EU? It is argued that if we left the EU we could simply replace the social legislation with our own. But think, how long that would take, and think of the political struggle to achieve it. Would the Tories willingly replace every level of social legislation? No. Of course not! It is precisely the social legislation protecting workers rights that they want rid of.

It took a Labour government to sign up to the social provisions opposed bitterly by the Tories. 

So, the argument isn’t simply the consumer market of some 500 million providing jobs and inward investment in UK businesses, or the extended consequences of that for the supply chain, for jobs and the broader economy.

For me it isn’t simply the massive €1 bn UK science receives through the EU. It isn’t the support for our small and medium sized businesses and regional development, or the support for small farmers. 

Nor is it that the EU has accounted for 47% of the UK’s stock of inward investment worth over $1.2 trillion. Or that Access to the EU Single Market has also helped attract investment into the UK from outside the EU. 

It isn’t what we get, or what we can get from our membership – it is what we can achieve by working with our European partners. 

The UK’s net contribution to the EU budget is around €7.3bn, or 0.4% of GDP. As a comparison that’s around a quarter of what the UK spends on the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, and less than an eighth of the UK’s defence spend. The £116 per person net contribution is less than that from Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Germany and the Netherlands. Yet Vote Leave continue to peddle the misleading figure of the cost, and pledge to spend it instead to solve almost every problem from housing to the NHS! It is pie in the sky. It is disingenuous. 

Our universities generate £73 billon a year for the British economy! That is a massive figure, and demonstrates the value of our universities. But we depend heavily on the EU to achieve this in two ways: 1) EU students studying here and 2) EU research funding in science and technology, the fruits of which will translate into innovative economic benefit. 

125,000 EU students generate £3.7 billion a year, supporting directly 34,000 jobs.

The universities also receive £725 million per year in grants form the EU. My own college, University College London receives £34.5 million per year in research grant income from the EU. All this contributes to the UK economy and innovation.

If you don't think this is at risk if we left the EU, then consider these questions. Would the government, or any political party, guarantee to replace the EU grants for research? If so, where would the money come from?

Would they be prepared to increase taxation to do that? I doubt it. Our universities lead the world and we hit way above our weight in the international league tables. Much of this is helped by our membership of the EU and our collaborations with other EU bodies.

There may well be ‘too much’ red tape. But it is better inside determining what those regulations are, than outside simply having to conform to them but without any influence on what they are.

The case for our membership of the EU is threefold.

It is Idealistic: the EU has helped create and maintain an area of peace and stability in a continent that was ravaged by war for centuries. We underestimate that achievement at our peril. 

It is pragmatic: our countries are highly interdependent, and we need to find common solutions to common problems in many fields. The EU is the structure we’ve built together for this purpose. Be it managing our common market, cooperating in fighting terrorism and criminals, or working together on the environment, we can achieve more together than apart. 

It is also right from our own self interest: EU membership is vital for British jobs. It is the main destination for British exports. We need to have full access without tariffs and a seat at the table to defend our interests where the common rules for the common market are made.

Our economy has benefited from the EU membership. Gross domestic product per person has grown faster than Italy, Germany and France in the 42 years since we joined the EU. By 2013, Britain became more prosperous than the average of the three other large European economies for the first time since 1965. Before we joined we were regarded as the 'sick man of Europe' with sluggish growth and sterling crises.

Patrick Minford of Cardiff University, a leading Brexit economist, suggests a boost to GDP growth by 2020 on the basis of Britain dismantling all tariffs unilaterally post-Brexit. Under Minford’s assumptions this is great boon to some sectors of the economy which would benefit from cheaper imports. However, even supposing he is right, he acknowledges it comes with a massive cost as “It seems likely we would mostly eliminate manufacturing, leaving mainly industries such as design, marketing and hi-tech”. In other words it would devastate our manufacturing base.

Economic success if we left the EU would depend on our ability to reach good trade deals. The Treasury Select Committee – comprised of prominent Brexiteers and Remain campaigners – has agreed a unanimous report in which it concluded that "reaching high-quality trade agreements with countries like China, India and the United States, while securing access to the agreements to which the UK is party by virtue of its EU membership, would be a considerable diplomatic challenge; it would take time, resources and the goodwill of other governments." There are very few certainties. Be wary of those who say leaving the EU will be easy.

So there it is. These are my reasons for voting remain.

Saturday, 13 February 2016

Age UK call for a meeting

As the 'media storm' subsides we move into the second week of our campaign for compensation for misled E.ON Age UK tariff customers. The message is clear from so many of the comments left by those supporting the petition. They all express outrage at both Age UK and E.ON.

Many of you would have heard the response of Age UK in the media. It is apparently all a storm in a teacup whipped up by the media and in particular The Sun.

Age UK and E.ON have responded to the media storm by 'suspending' their commercial association, but they continue to defend their position. They would have us believe this move has nothing to do with the campaign. Meanwhile they continue to peddle misinformation.

The boss of Age UK says that they received 'typically' just £10 from each customer signing up to the Age UK tariff.

A simple calculation shows this is not true. The accounts for the year 2014/15 for UK Enterprise Ltd show they received £6.3 million from E.ON for signing up 152,000 customers. It is simple arithmetic.

The average received was £41 per customer. This means that on average each customer was giving almost £10 a month to Age UK.

The petition will now be the focus of continued press and media interest. The people speak.

I have been asked whether I worry about the damage this is doing to Age UK and the vital work they do. The answer is yes, of course. But it is not we who have done the damage. It is Age UK. We cannot turn a blind eye to a wrong simply because it is a charity. That would be a cover up, and there are far too many of those.

Age UK says they have done nothing wrong. Legally I am sure that is so. I am also sure that they had all good intentions - but the ends do not always justify the means. To simply justify misleading 'customers' by the good work of the charity is not an ethical position. Age UK had a duty of care to those who turned to them for help. They did so believing they would look out for their interests.

The Age UK tariff was not the best available deal for them. They could have been referred to other energy suppliers who would have given a better one. E.ON do acknowledge that the Age UK tariff was not the cheapest of their deals on offer at the time.

Age UK now say that price isn't always what counts and that service and quality of after care matters. Indeed it does. But there is scant evidence to show Age UK customers got better service or aftercare than they would have otherwise been given. On the contrary, E.ON repeatedly scores low in customer satisfaction ratings by  Which? the consumer group. They are not the worst of the big six, but they are not the best deal on offer when it comes to customer care.

The Age UK Enterprise boss, Ian Foy, has said he would like a meeting with me to discuss 'the complaint'. This is a good move and I will respond to it. Age UK needs to move forward positively from this, but it can only do so if it understands the problem. At the moment it seems they do not.  He says

"We do not believe we have misled anyone who bought our products, and we warmly encourage Ray Noble to get in touch with us so that we can talk this over with him."

I do welcome this move and will be in touch with him to arrange such a meeting.

This coming week I will be posting an open letter to the boss of E.ON UK asking for a meeting to discuss their response.

Meanwhile please support the petition.

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Come.ON E.ON now do the right thing

A victory of sorts, or at least a skirmish won. With pressure mounting as a result of The Sun investigation and growing public outrage, E.ON UK has announced that it will withdraw its misleading Age UK energy tariff and replace it with a better deal for older people. We will see the replacement this week. This is good news. But it isn't sufficient.

E.ON's move is an acknowledgement of the misleading nature of the Age UK tariff.  They are bowing to pressure, and they know it is indefensible.  Defending the indefensible is always a bad place to be. We need to maintain pressure for them to refund those pensioners who had a bad deal.

Age UK initially denied it was a bad deal, saying that fuel prices can go up or down, and that they advise people to search around for the best deals. But this is too simple.  it is easy enough to say consumers should 'shop around', but if that was the best thing for Age UK clients to do, then why not simply give them the best advice on how to do it.  Why introduce a tariff from which Age UK would benefit financially? It compromised their integrity and misled older people they were supposed to represent.

Many older people are not in a good position to search for the best deals. Many are not online. A survey by the Oxford Internet Institute found that the numbers of older people online has remained relatively static, with between 25% and 35% using the internet. But even if they have access to the internet,  it isn't easy to find the best deals. 

Tariffs are complicated. This is why they would have welcomed Age UK looking after their interests. They trusted that Age UK would monitor the rates and be actively engaged on their behalf. The truth is their faith was misplaced.

Age UK involvement had a clear objective, and that was to raise money for Age UK. At best there were conflicting objectives - the objective of protecting the interests of older people and that of raising money for the charity were in conflict. It was an ethically compromised scheme.

Older people who signed up to the Age UK tariff trusted that there would have been a duty of care for Age UK to look after their interests. This is why many were attracted to it.  When I first signed up to the tariff I received a reassuring welcome package from Age UK with tips on how to stay warm.

They now find that our trust was misplaced, and we have effectively been overcharged. This is why E.ON should now put this right by arranging to refund those Age UK E.On customers who are out of pocket from buying into the Age UK brand.

Latest figures show there are 1.14 million older people in England living in fuel poverty there are some 31,000 ‘excess winter deaths’ in England and Wales last winter.

Fuel poverty kills.  This is why it is incumbent on energy companies to ensure older people are able to heat their homes.  This is a social responsibility.  It goes beyond profit and loss.  Each older person paying over the odds for their energy is someone baring the burden of cheaper tariffs for others. That is unfair. 

Age UK warn that there has been little progress on tackling fuel poverty.  That is the reality. This is more reason why Age UK should not compromise its own position by selling a given tariff and receiving commission from it.  It must work with the energy companies to produce economic justice for older people.  

The energy companies should also have a social obligation to ensure older people are on the best deals.  Keeping sufficiently and safely warm is not a luxury. It is a necessity.  It shouldn't be decided by a tariff lottery. We can do better than that. We must stop this retail energy casino. It is gambling with the lives of vulnerable people. 

E.ON should now do the decent thing and make a refund. Please sign the petition and share it with others. 

Friday, 5 February 2016

The truth about Age UK?

The truth about Age UK is that it has become a social enterprise company rather than a charity. You might say it is a charity with a commercial arm.  But there is a point when the aggressive nature of the commercial arrangements can compromise the charity's role and independence.

Age UK is proud of its commercial approach.  It has won awards for it.  It boasts about it.  It has been a trailblazer in the new approach for charity fundraising through engagement with the financial market in insurance, equity release plans,  energy tariffs,  and funeral plans.  But does this activity compromise its ability to challenge the financial market and campaign for better service for older people?  If you depend on your income from part of that financial sector, can you really be free from biased judgement? It compromises your position.

Perhaps that is the truth about Age UK and its commercial arm,  Age UK Enterprises Ltd.  Age UK Enterprise has an annual turnover of some £47.6 million.  In 21014/15, they provided 482,000 home, travel and insurance policies tied to Ageas Insurance Ltd.  Were these really the best deals for older people? And how can they be giving independent advice about this when they are earning from each Ageas policy? Age UK relies of the trust of those it represents.

Age UK Enterprises Ltd provided  'energy services' to 250,000 'customers' in 'collaboration' with E.ON from which they received some £6.3 million.  These were not the best deals for many of those who bought into the Age UK tariff.

Age UK Enterprises Ltd provided 18,000 funeral plans in 2014/15 through one company Dignity PLC, generating income of £9.3 million. Were these the best available?

The list goes on.

There is a point when the independence of financial advice becomes compromised by the financial arrangement - when that advice becomes commercially beneficial to those giving the advice, and when the choices provided are limited by the way that advice is given.

It might be argued that the overall benefits by increased income to the charity outweighs the pitfalls of such enterprise.  That is the utilitarian argument provided.  But the argument from the duty of a charity to consider all those it represents should outweigh such utilitarian considerations.  The threshold is set high by such duty of care.

Duty of care matters.  Age UK failed in their duty of care when brokering the E,ON Age UK tariff. They become commercial beneficiaries.

Regarding their clients as 'customers' changed Age UK into sales representatives for an energy company.  When I receive advice from a charity I want to believe they are acting in my best interest and not just their 'collective interest' as a social enterprise. Age UK cannot do that freely if they are tied in with commercial providers. That is the problem.

Working with commercial companies, giving advice to them on how best to make provision for older people is a different matter. That is what Age UK should do it if is representing all older people. It should campaign for change to provide better provision for older people. It cannot do that if it is tied commercially to one such private sector company.

Age UK need to stand back and reconsider its position and how it operates.

Please sign the petition calling on E.ON to refund customers misled over the Age UK tariff.

Little transparency from E.ON on deal with Age UK

Thank you to all who have supported the petition to get the energy company E.ON to compensate customers for any losses resulting from their Age-UK tariff. We are making progress but we need to maintain pressure.

Citing the "sensitive" nature of its payment to Age UK, E.ON confirmed the "commercial relationship" with Age UK. The involvement of a charity representing millions of older people should have transparent relationships with the commercial sector. Yesterday the scandal of Age UK commercial involvement with E.ON was front page news. The Energy Minister has asked Ofgem to investigate.

But Ofgem is a toothless 'regulator' with little power of enforcement. This is why it is important to keep the pressure on E.ON.

Age UK is the biggest charitable body representing and supporting older people. Its supporters do sterling work. But in promoting E.ON energy tariffs the board of Age UK has stepped over the line and compromised the charity's integrity.

Age UK rightly say that fuel prices go up and down. I believe their intentions were good, but the execution bad. They should not have compromised themselves in a commercial relationship but continued to campaign for lower energy prices and better deals for older people. Now they have locked themselves into the ludicrous position of having to defend a tariff that was not the best for many of those they intended to help.

It is ludicrous that energy prices appear to be a lottery for so many customers on fixed incomes. Energy costs are a large part of households expenditure. Heating is a necessity not a luxury. It shouldn't be necessary for older people to 'shop around' for the best deals. The need to stay warm and safe is not like a mobile phone. Vulnerable older people die through not being able to afford to heat their homes.

Age UK's poor judgement in its commercial deal with E.ON at least highlights once again the pitfalls of energy pricing and poor regulation. Ofgem is a toothless body. But we need fundamental reform of the energy market with provision to protect the most vulnerable. With political will it could be done.

The petition isn't aimed at the thousands of Age UK supporters who work tirelessly to help older people. It is aimed at E.ON and the Age UK board.

Let's push on to get justice for E.ON customers. We now have over 600 signatures, please help put pressure on E.ON.

Let's now reach the next milestone of 1000.

Thursday, 4 February 2016

Age UK compromised by deal with E.ON

Three years ago I posted on twitter my concern about the Age UK energy tariff offered by E.ON to their customers.  I was then concerned that a charity representing the interests of older people was being used in a commercial deal by the energy provider.  I had myself signed up to the tariff. What exactly was the relationship? Was it misleading?  Little did I know then that this issue would become headline news today on the front page of The Sun.

Age UK have themselves berated the energy companies for overcharging customers. It seemed odd then that they would entangle themselves with a commercial deal from which they received commission from E.On for each customer signed up to the tariff with the Age UK branding. 

According to The Sun investigation the charity has received £6 million from E.On as a result of this commercial deal.  At best this financial deal compromises the charity's objective to represent the best interests of older people. Worse is that  The Sun investigation discovered that the Age UK tariff was not the best deal for many customers signed up to it, and they lost out as a result.  It is a sorry state of affairs for a charity. 

Many like me would have signed up to the tariff trusting it was the best for them because it carried the approval of Age UK.   This is the breach of trust.  

Finding the best deal is a tricky task at the best of times. It is full of pitfalls. The consumer needs to take account of their energy usage and 'shop around'.  Many pensioners do not do this. We tend to stick with the same provider. Understanding the plethora of tariffs isn't easy. I have never understood how there could be so many different prices for the same electricity delivered through the same cables. The truth is, as with telephone tariffs, it doesn't pay to stay with the same provider. Loyalty carries no weight in pricing. 

Age UK have issued a robust response to The Sun investigation. “We strongly reject the allegations and interpretation of figures in this article. Energy prices change all the time and we have always advised older people to look out for new good deals and we will continue to do so.”

It is an odd response.  They are right to point out that 'energy prices change all the time'.  They are right to advise us to 'look out for new good deals'.  But this is all the more reason why they should not themselves tie their charity brand to one of those deals. It implies it is better than others for most older people. It suggests they have approved it when they haven't. It is deceptive.  It compromises their charitable status.  They should stick to representing the interests of older people and not burn their fingers in dodgy commercial  deals with energy companies. 

Please sign the petition on calling of E.On to reimburse customers out of pocket. 

Friday, 29 January 2016

The truth about NHS emergency care at weekends?

Much has been made by the Prime Minister and the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, about a seven day NHS and doctors working at weekends.  They cite in their case against the action of the Junior doctors in their opposition to the new contracts that more patients die at weekends.  This they say is a scandal and imply it is because there is less care over the weekend in the NHS. 

But is this claim really true.  A new study published today in the Emergency Medicine Journal reveals that it is at best an oversimplification. 

Looking at what happens in one hospital in Belfast, the study shows that patients admitted as medical emergencies at the weekend are significantly older and more dependent than those admitted to hospital on other days of the week.

The authors suggest that while staffing levels may have a part to play, the profile of the intake may help explain the seemingly higher death toll of patients admitted as medical emergencies at weekends.

They base their findings on an analysis of 536 patients admitted to the acute medical unit of a large teaching hospital in Belfast during November 2012.

They compared the profile of patients admitted as medical emergencies between 1700 hours on Friday and 0900 hours on Monday with those admitted on other days of the week.

Because there are proportionally more night shifts worked during weekends than on week days, the researchers also compared the profile of patients arriving in the unit during both the day and night at weekends and on week days.

Their analysis showed that there were no major differences in the severity of illness between patients admitted on weekdays and weekends, as evidenced by key clinical indicators and test results.

But patients admitted at the weekend as medical emergencies were significantly older—on average, more than 3.5 years—than those admitted at other times of the week.

They were also more physically incapacitated than patients admitted during the week, as measured by a validated disability scale (Rankin scale), attracting an average score of 3 compared with 2 for weekday admissions.

Patients admitted during the day at weekends were also more functionally dependent than those admitted during the day on other days of the week.

The researchers stress that this study reflects the experience of only one acute hospital, so may not be indicative of patterns elsewhere.

But the researchers point out: “These findings illustrate major differences in the age and functional dependence of patients admitted to hospital at weekends. This difference in profile may fully or partially explain the increased mortality that has been publicised.”

They also question the belief that greater numbers of senior doctors at the weekend would make any difference to the survival of patients.

“Additionally, the lack of difference in physiological and laboratory markers of illness acuity presented here questions the plausibility of the inference that increased senior medical presence at the weekend would improve outcomes,” they write.

They conclude that if arguments are to be made about the number and seniority of staff required at the weekend, these need to be based on solid evidence and take account of other factors that may potentially influence death rates.