copyright Hugh Harris 1993

The other News From England. 9th April 1993. (Good Friday).

It is lucky it is good Friday because during the week I have been taking a newspaper every day and scouring it for news that might be of interest to you, and have found so much that I am at a loss as to how to write it all down. The paper I chose was The Independent, a fairly down-to-earth no-nonsense paper aimed at the thinking middle classes with good photographs where used and not as dull as most, if a little dry.

On Monday, in second place to 'US gives £lbn. down payment to Russia', about which you will already know, I had to look inside to find anything else, and when I found it, it was a bit of suspected skullduggery. I find it difficult to understand myself, but will relate it to you to the best of my ability.

The headline was:

"BRITISH COAL ADMITS SECRET DEAL OVER PENSION FUND".

The government, in it's obsession with efficiency, decided some months ago to close some coal pits - quite a lot of them and whenever this happens there is always a lot of friction. There were so many protests and politicians' arguments about it that the government to some extent withdrew and offered substantial redundancy payments (amounting to about #SOOm) to smooth the way.

The pits concerned are all owned by British Coal, a government mining concern, and so to some extent the government has access to the company's books. Now, it just happens that BC's pension fund has a theoretical surplus of about £450m, and the government have tried to get hold of that money to offset the redundancy payments! (The last time this happened, it was a newspaper proprietor, who allegedly didn't bother to ask or tell anyone anything about what he was doing).

A pension fund is the property of it's beneficiaries and future beneficiaries, but the government believes that if the company has paid in too much on behalf of it's employees because of a miscalculation, it can take back the money. However, that's not the end of the story, because the actuaries who calculate the requirements of the fund say that there may in fact be no surplus at all. It depends how you interpret the books.

The secret deal referred to in my paper was that the government would finance British Coal to take legal action against the pension fund trustees to get their hands on this money, and the sum has increased to £960m, with BC's share of this sum at £480m. Fortunately for the pensioners, and unfortunately for the government, the trust deeds of the company state the surplus cannot be removed. In the past, BC have just stopped making payments until things have levelled out.

BC are looking for £480m to pay into a fund for redundant staff, and they wish to catch up by tapping the surplus in the pension fund. The pension fund say that if they do this they will be depriving the pensioners of a total of £960m. because they already owe £480m. Sort that out if you can.

As the government is trying to 'privatise' as many state companies as possible, the public are beginning to question whether they will be helping themselves to all the pension funds before the sell-off. I would have thought a company would be worth more with a surplus in the pension fund (particularly if you have in mind looting it), but I may be a little naive.

Further on, we have the much more interesting statement:

HEAVY DRINKERS LOSE BRAIN AGILITY.

Some people in Harrogate have been looking at the effects on the brain of a lot of drinking (I suppose they all went out and got drunk and then looked at the effect). They weren't so much concerned with what happened when one was drunk as what happened when one was sober. The main finding was that amongst heavy drinkers (not necessarily people who got "drunk") brain function and reasoning ability was greatly reduced. Having worked in a mental hospital, I would say that didn't need to be researched, but there we are, they've shown it.

The truly alarming thing was that people who didn't drink a great deal were effected, too. Possibly even the odd pint of beer. The functions which were found to be damaged were the ability to reason through new concepts and "mental agility", and stopping drinking did not seem to regain the lost powers. So be warned. I don't know if they analysed other aspects of their sample. For instance, if someone drinks a lot it may well be that they drink because they have psychological difficulties, and that those particular psychological difficulties would prevent them from being effective at the tested functions, alcohol or no alcohol.

On Tuesday,

COAL TRUSTEES ANGRY AT GOVERNMENT PLAN TO 'SAVE' #481m.

Well, they're back, and I think the £481m is the same as the #480m yesterday. The department of Trade and Industry is now denying that the Government has it's eye on the pension fund - at least, not for paying the £48om subsidy to British Coal promised last week. One presumes that the scheme now is that the Government will pay the subsidy to British Coal and then take it back later. I suppose there is a difference?

As far as I am able to tell, the story hasn't changed.

Inside, we have Mackay back again. He usually manages to be somewhere in some paper at least once a week. He is the Lord Chancellor, and heads the financial part of the law. The Law Society (the solicitors' trade association) are seeking a judicial review of Lord Mackay's plans to reduce the circumstances in which a person who was short of money would have their legal bills paid (in the event of a legal action taking place) by the government - the so-called Legal Aid. This is a big issue at the moment because even lawyers are feeling the recession, and in a recession a large amount of Legal Aid work appears and not a lot of the other, highly-profitable, stuff. Even some of the people who would not have been eligible for legal aid suddenly become so. And, not surprisingly, some solicitors who normally avoid legal aid work take it on, and in some cases see it through conscientiously.

So, you see, solicitors and barristers have a lot to lose, and, because it is a recession and lawyers need customers, the legal aid claimants are benefiting from their support.

On Wednesday, we have:

UNIONS TO STEP UP RAILWAY DISRUPTION.

Largely, the British have wasted their railways, but the parts of them that are still operational are under the government's beady eye for privatisation. The railway unions want the government to guarantee that there will be no involuntary redundancies as a result of privatisation. The government retaliate that the union are asking for 'a job for life' and that it is not possible to guarantee that.

At first I thought the government were right, but I realise that in any change there will be some people who want to volunteer for redundancy, and since the package being sold would be bought with the deal already in place, the market price would reflect this fact. The new owners would then have to overstaff (if necessary) for a while until natural wastage solved the problem, or use the people they already had. As far as I know, all privatisations are at a knockdown price, so this looks like a tolerable deal for both sides.

The cartoon shows a fond mother looking over her sleeping son and saying to her visitor: "when he grows up he wants to be a train driver". This is a reference to the fact that last week the railways were on strike on Friday over the above matter, and nobody bothered to go to work. The whole nation took a holiday. It was very pleasant, and did little damage to public relations whilst at the same hitting British Rail in the pocket. The unions state that they do not want at all to upset the customers - whom they call 'clients' in these modern times.

A further strike is planned for Friday 16th April, and although it feels as though half the nation are unemployed it is thought that the nation cannot afford to take another day off work - what work? It seems to me that we would actually be better off if we reduced the amount of hours worked per week per worker and employed more of them, but I am always a bit on the outside. I would like to see the railways expand, and the use of roads reduce, both dramatically, an increase in the workforce, and possibly a decrease in "efficiency".

Interestingly, the photograph that accompanied the article about the railway strike was not of railwaymen, but of firefighters, one of whom is carrying a banner saying "don`t force us to strike". More of this later, I suppose.

On Thursday the main headline is:

PATTEN FAILS TO SWAY TEACHERS

John Patten is the Minister of Education. One of the things that the 80`s brought out in politicians was the idea that education should be about something that they could understand, and that you should be able to measure the success or otherwise of it. To which end, they devised the National Curriculum.

the criticism of British education has been that it is all too airy-fairy and not very much in contact with the needs of employers - which immediately suggests that what the government are thinking about is the state schools not the `public` schools, which operate largely to prepare people for controlling those people who know how to do things.

So they set about designing the National Curriculum. The National curriculum, then, is a standard set of subjects that a minion ought to know when they leave school, and presumably (for I don`t know the actual subjects) will consist of reading and writing, mathematics, general science, possibly computer studies, maybe business studies, and technical subjects for those who are, like Einstein was in his day, not considered too bright by their teachers. Technical subjects in this context are such things as my favourite woodwork, and metalwork, mechanics, machine-shop activities, building trades, etc. - the technology of a modern society. I rather doubt that Latin is any part of the deal, because this language is normally only taught to the controlling classes.

Within the context, the National Curriculum seems quite a good idea, but it has certain snags. Not least the fact that it takes so much time to administer that there is little or no time left for any other school activities. Furthermore, to test it`s effect takes a whole lot more time and energy. Earlier this year, test results were pronounced disappointing.

The friction with Patten is due to the fact that this year some teachers' unions have decided to boycott the tests, and so there will be nobody to invigilate and nobody to measure the results. A local council then took the teachers' unions to court in an attempt to force them to do so, and the judge ruled that their actions were legal. Patten then promised a review of the National Curriculum, but failed to pacify them, as my paper put it. The aforesaid council is trying an appeal.

Teachers' unions have now decided, however, to hold a ballot on testing. Furthermore, there is still quite a lot of tension about, because when Mr. Patten described his reception by the unions as warm they were very quick to point out that it was not warm but merely courteous!

Teachers are thought to be conscientious by and large, and are thus having their arms twisted by a Mr Patten saying that they would be depriving this year's 14 year olds of the chance of being tested. Not a few teachers would argue that this is a good thing.

The cartoon (I think the cartoonist's name is Colin Whuler, although I find his writing difficult to read) is of a man (Mr Patten?) in schoolboy outfit in front of a blackboard inscribed:

"Design and Technology: Design and make National Curriculum."

In front of him is an obviously extremely amateur contraption made of a bicycle wheel and a few bits of packing crate.

Nice one.

Inside, Mackay is back again with:

MACKAY FACES FIGHT ON LEGAL AID CUTS.

Well, it didn't take long. The Law Society have got permission for a full hearing into the legality or otherwise of Lord Mackay's plans to curb eligibility for legal aid. The only snag is, Lord Mackay will be implementing the plans before the hearing, so that even if the Law Society are successful there will be some people who will fail to get representation when they need it very badly. During the interim, the government will save money on legal aid. I do not think it will be for long, however, as the great majority of lawyers will have an interest in maintaining legal aid as it is now or at a higher level, and I wouldn't mind betting they can influence the speed at which a hearing comes to court.

Also in this paper we have the surprising and possibly alarming headline: -

£458,000 BILL FOR FOUR JUVENILE OFFENDERS.

A chief constable (chief of police) has disclosed that the total cost of the offences of four young people (all boys) came to #458,000 in policing, insurance claims and legal expenses (these people were all legally aided - I wonder if they would be excluded under Mackay's new system). The piece is accompanied by a 'league table' that any aspiring criminal might be proud to be on, starting with the most expensive one (age 15) at £153 382, to the least expensive one at #60,211. The costs are divided into various categories, and the one that surprises me is the victim loss, which in all cases bar one is smaller than the insurance loss. Quite how this can be, I don' t know.

It all seems rather pathetic, since the criminals probably got almost zero gain in each case. I'm sure many Americans will be very familiar with this scene.

(Ed writes: these early Othernews` were mainly for Americans to read)

Crime is a very big problem in our society, and there are as many explanations as to why it happens and suggested solutions to the problem as there are people to suggest them. I have my own ideas, but it would take another 2000 words at least to outline them.

Surprisingly, the National Health Service - the system by which health care is available at little or no cost to all - has not been in the paper all week. The National Health is something very dear to the majority of British people, largely because of the terrifying stories they' ve heard about the way ordinary people fair in countries that do not have one. I' m not a typical example, but as an example I would not have dared try to be self-employed most of my working life without this kind of backup. It is one thing the majority of British people feel is well worth the tax, run-down though it is at the moment.

Well, that's it. A week in which almost nothing happened.