Toxic dumping banged to rights

Toxic dumping banged to rights

gavelThe case alleging that British/Dutch/Swiss firm Trafigura dumped its toxic waste in Ivory Coast, overloading capital Abidjan’s health system and injuring thousands of people, reads like something from a John Le Carré novel. Yesterday, a Dutch court found the multinational guilty of illegally exporting toxic waste from Amsterdam and concealing the nature of the cargo. Trafigura continues to deny wrongdoing and claims that the ruling is “incorrect”.

The fine amounts to €1 million, substantially more than it would have cost to have the waste dealt with correctly at the time, and it’s the first time Trafigura has faced criminal charges since the scandal struck in 2006.

This judgement is a genuine blow for justice. But it begs the question: how much more of this is going on?

Over the last thirty years we have seen (quite rightly) the growth of the FairTrade movement, aimed at giving growers and producers a price which reflects the value of their goods, rather than their weak negotiating position. But there is no FairTrade on waste. As EU laws (again, rightly) tighten up on disposal of waste on this continent, there are surely many more companies than Trafigura who eye the rubbish dumps of Africa or even Latin America as convenient places to leave their pollution, far from Western courts or the eyes of Western journalists.

Indeed, it was down to Greenpeace to bring the case, although Trafigura has paid out £104 million to the government of Ivory Coast and £32 million to individuals.

What is especially alarming in all of this is that an Ivory Coast court found two non-Trafigura employees guilty in 2008, sentencing one to 20 years in jail and the other to five years. I am not questioning their guilt — but two non-European nationals have borne the personal criminal liability with jail sentences for a crime for which they were by no means the main beneficiaries.

Here in the West, we bemoan the fact that while we put minor drug-traffickers away, we allow the big bosses to get off scot-free. The fact that no Trafigura employees are facing personal criminal convictions shows that, from the point of view of Africa, Western multi-nationals can behave exactly like those drug-traffickers.

No ‘Dark arts’ in Tory schools sell off…

One of my closest friends was in school with Michael Gove. He remarked to me a few years back ‘he is not the man I knew’. I’ve only met Gove once myself, and he seemed nice enough. I am of course reassured that, in his plans to sell of British schools to the French (among others) he will (in his own words) “make sure that extremist organisations, or people who have a dark agenda, are prevented…” from running them. Therefore, we can be confident that Hogwarts will not, after all, be in the hands of Voldemort.

However, he has been speaking to Hollywood actress Goldie Hawn’s charity, which emphasises social and emotional progress over academic testing and the use of simple breathing exercises to boost learning power.

His plans are estimated to cost £1.8 billion.

Crucially, he is claiming that this will all boost the chances of pupils from poorer backgrounds reaching top universities.

Michael Gove, I beg to differ. Experimental schools have never proven to be effective in helping those from deprived backgrounds. Where they have worked, they have worked for the rich, who can afford to compensate later for any deficiencies. Moreover, they tend to face much stronger resistance in deprived communities: after all, if you live in a ‘bad’ area, you are most likely to want the same kind of education for your children as those in ‘good’ areas are getting, not some experimental model imported from France, Sweden or the USA.

Just as importantly, in a time of massive national deficit, this is not the moment to be spending £1.8 billion on an educational experiment which may or may not work. Remembering that experiments, generally, don’t.

I have absolutely no doubt that Michael Gove is a good man, who desires good for the people of this country. But his innate goodness is not enough to make a bad idea into a good one. Naturally, in the run up to a general election, Gove will be trying to show that he is full of radical ideas, even though the polls suggest we are now heading for a hung parliament in which he will never be allowed to put them into practice. (Or, possibly, unkindly, because he will never have to put them into practice). Nonetheless, he must be careful what he wishes for. There is no idea so bad that it does not run a chance of being acted upon in the right (wrong) circumstances.

So, why do I think this is a bad idea? Simply, because the problem of education in deprived areas is exactly not a failing of the education system itself. We know that British education works, because it produces people like Stephen Hawking, Tim Berners Lee, Paddy Ashdown, Reeta Chakrabarti, J K Rowling, and, indeed, Gove himself. Trinity College Cambridge (I have been told a number of times by people who went there) has more Nobel prize winners than the whole of France. True, Oxford and Cambridge pick up more students from the independent sector, but the independent sector operates (or did at least until the advent of the revised A-level system) the same educational approach and the same curriculum as state funded education. From this we can conclude that it is not the system which is the problem.

I lived for a number of years in deprived communities, and was a school governor both in a very well run comprehensive school in a wealthy area, and a nursery school in a deprived area. There are many reasons why children from deprived areas have much poorer life chances than those from wealthy areas. These reasons span political divides. Right-wingers would say that clever people move to wealthy areas and have clever children who collectively do well at school, giving those schools a good reputation which attract more clever children. It would be hard to deny this. Left-wingers would argue that structural injustice in society takes the people least able to make the most of their opportunities, and deprives them of even those opportunities. Again, it is very hard to build a credible case against this view. But, since both views have some truth, it is foolishness to support one while ignoring the other.

In Britain, we have one of the world’s better educational systems. It is uniquely suited to our culture, and it produces world-leading results in some. If we want it to be better, then we should work to improve it, not to tear it up by the roots and replace it with culturally alien models which are not even proven on their home ground.

Seriously, what education needs from politicians is that they support it and invest in it. Not that they interfere with it.

Real issues, number one…

Business, as I learned when I was in it, is about forming partnerships to get the end consumers products that they need, want, or will enjoy, in a way which is cheaper, better, faster or easier than the way they would otherwise get them. In this way, the manufacturer grows rich, the supply chain grows rich, and the consumer has a richer life experience. And, of course, both the transactions and the profits also involve a contribution to taxation, which funds many of the things which are good, but which would not otherwise happen if left to market forces alone.

But not all businesses are like this. There is always an undercurrent — and sometimes it is powerful and drags in whole communities — of businesses which make their money by tricking the customer, by preying on fear, on misinformation, on unethical selling tactics, or simply on the poor life chances of their victims. The Office of Fair Trading regularly shuts businesses of this kind down, but they persist, and, in some cases, gain the protection of the law, even when what they are doing is blatantly unjust.

In a deprived community, all of the following are probably acting:

    unsecured, high interest loan companies
    companies processing money transactions for a high fee for those without a bank account
    employers who repeatedly hire staff for six months and then fire them, in order never to have to make redundancy payments
    quasi-legal firms urging people towards unnecessary litigation
    ‘bait and switch’ online traders
    landlords offering below-basic accommodation for prices designed to gain the maximum housing allowance
    companies providing cash machines where there are no bank-supported ATMs, with a transaction cost sometimes 20% of the money drawn

Over the twelve and a bit years I lived in Stechford, one of the UK’s most deprived communities, I saw all of these, some quite regularly. By contrast with dodgy second-hand car salesmen, unhygienic restaurants, people selling contraband cigarettes and garages offering MOT certificates for dangerous vehicles, all of the above trade within the law. And yet they suck the life out of the communities least able to afford them, and least able to resist them.

This is legally sanctioned injustice. It engenders anger, and despair. I saw the anger boil over into rioting in the 1980s. In the 2000s, I more frequently saw a cold resignation. “They’ll always rip you, but you can’t do much,” is a phrase I heard all too often.

Should a nanny-state prevent people from spending their money however they like, even if it means they get perhaps just 70p in the pound in terms of value received? Or should predatory traders be allowed to get away with anything they like, so long as they stay within the letter of the law?

In the seminal book The Spirit Level, public health doctors Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett examine the life expectancy, crime rates and other key metrics from the twenty most prosperous nations, and show, fairly convincingly, a strong correlation between larger gaps between rich and poor and poor overall life expectancy and societal good for the community as a whole. The UK, Portugal, and USA have the widest gaps in the Western World, and perform worst on almost all the metrics. Correlation, of course, does not demonstrate causation. However, it is fairly elementary to show that endemic injustice begets both violence and despair.

Government should be working on global warming, on the economy, and on rebuilding Britain’s damaged democracy, because these are big things which only governments are big enough to tackle. But government must also have a care for the little things. The answer is not additional legislation. Indeed, many of these companies prosper in the tangled world of badly drafted legislation which allow them to invoke clauses or style themselves as other kinds of businesses than they are. But we do need some of the collective intelligence of Whitehall and Westminster to be directed at these issues.

There is no armageddon waiting round the corner if we do not tackle these things. The British National Party may well elect its first MP at the General Election, as might UKIP, trading on false blame for the causes of deprivation. But it is almost inconceivable that they will ever have enough seats on anything, even the Parish Council, to actually set or influence policy. But we should tackle these issues because it is our duty to do so. Those who are elected are elected to serve the whole population, and to make decisions which benefit all.

Decade of distrust reaches an end

The 2000s began with the end of Bill Clinton’s US presidency limping out of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. They finished with the UK House of Commons facing a collapse of public trust which is set to result in 1/3-1/2 of MPs leaving or losing their seats in the 2010 General Election, and trust in politicians at an all time low of 13%, according to IPSOS Mori. We went into the decade with the taste of the sleaze of the John Major administration still in our mouths, and, as a reminder, Jeffrey Archer charged with perjury and perverting the course of justice, a charge which was to see the man who had been selected to be Conservative candidate for Mayor of London sent to Belmarsh prison in 2001. We came out of it with the threat of prosecution hanging over a growing number of parliamentarians.

Given that Major’s men were up to their tricks throughout the 1990s, and the current crop of Expenses-scandal-sleaze MPs had been doing what they did since either the 1990s, or whenever they got elected, where did politics go wrong?

It’s a common misconception (pushed forward by those who hope to survive the storm) that it was the system which made MPs claim expenses to which they were not entitled. But this is manifestly untrue. No system makes people act in a dishonest way. Nobody was forced to break the law by claiming for mortgages which did not exist, nobody was forced to break the explicit parliamentary rule that expenses should not be managed in order to render a profit at the tax-payer’s expense, and nobody was forced to use the expenses system to claim for excesses such as moat cleaning, duck houses, and limed oak toilet seats (even as I write this one, I’m forced to think ‘did this really happen?’ Apparently, it did).

Also, how is it that so many of them did it? It’s been pointed out (by me, among other people) that the majority of MPs were not engaged in these practices. But a sufficiently large minority from all three parties (including my own, though to a lesser degree) have done so that the entire class of MPs is not merely under suspicion, but under complete derision.

Political parties are now changing the way in which they assess and select parliamentary candidates. But it’s fair to say that, in the 1990s and 2000s, candidates were not being assessed on the trustworthiness, although (especially in the ‘spin’ years), parties have always been interested in credibility.
So, what’s the difference?
Credibility is whether or not you appear trustworthy to people. Politicians with no interest in football have been told to bone up on the off-side rule in order to appear more credible in urban constituencies. Politicians who live in London but are standing in far-flung rural areas (ie, anywhere outside the M25 that is not 90% urban) are photographed in Barbour jackets. People change their accents, go through teeth-whitening procedures (because people with whiter teeth tell fewer lies… right), and discover obscure ancestries which link them to the constituency. Every ‘parachute’ candidate rents a flat where they intend to stand. Credibility can be bought for the right price with the right advice. It doesn’t always work — we all remember William Hague’s reverse base-ball cap, and David Cameron being photographed cycling to work, followed by a van full of his papers. But, despite these minor mishaps, David Cameron at least has shed most of the Eton / Oxford exclusive dining club / millionaire image that he grew up with.

Trustworthiness is something quite different. Self-evidently, many of the people we trusted were not worthy of our trust.

So, where do we go from here?

If we really want trustworthy politicians, we need to start voting for them. I think it’s fair to say that the big political parties have not got the message. There has not been a flurry to find candidates who are more honest than those of previous generations. The all-women, all-ethnic minority shortlist talk is not about increasing trustworthiness, but about increasing the overall credibility of the party that shortlists them. Actually, a desire to increase credibility without a search for honesty is a mark of the deepest untrustworthiness. Or bad faith, as we used to call it. But the big parties are counting on the public voting on party, political or tribal lines, not lines of trust. They believe that, after we’ve had our rant, we will still lump all politicians together as necessary evils, and get on with voting for the ones we would have voted for anyway. Therefore, we need to disappoint them, and severely.

But, given that every politician will be coming to us at the election with the claim that they are more trustworthy than the others, and given that the richest and best connected will be able to have the best advice and be able to buy the best services, how can we tell?

Here are my thoughts:
1) What did they do before politics?
People who have served the public, perhaps in charities, in the armed forces, in the muckier bits of the public sector, have a very different track record from those who made a killing in the city or played around with inherited wealth before being given a safe-seat. That doesn’t mean that people who work in the city are not trustworthy, or that inherited wealth makes people liars, but a track record of service in the past goes a long way towards underlining a promise that they will serve us in the future.

2) How hard did they have to work to get here?
The vast majority of expenses-scandal MPs have been in what are generally termed ‘safe-seats’. Check out someone’s political track-record. Have they faced disappointment and defeat in the past, or have they been handed easy victories? Easy victories don’t make someone untrustworthy, but the majority of those who cheated did have big majorities to shore them up.

3) Where does their money come from?
People whose every working hour is given to becoming richer are unlikely to give up the habit when they get elected. More importantly, there are some ways to get rich, or, get by, which are in the public interest, and some which are predatory in nature. Someone who trades on other people’s greed, weakness or ignorance in order to gain their money is unlikely to be trustworthy in parliament.

4) For sitting MPs, what have they done?
The ideal MP works hard, claims only reasonable expenses, and arranges their affairs so that there is not even a suggestion that they may be profiting at the public expense. If your MP is seldom in the House of Commons, has claimed extravagantly, or has made a fortune through publicly-funded property speculation, then there is very little reason to believe that they will change their ways in the next parliament.

5) What’s their position on second jobs?
Will your candidate be dedicating his or her paid time exclusively to the House of Commons, or will that time be shared with company directorships, business dealings, lobbying firms and lucrative contracts? The rules, it appears, will not be changing to ensure that they do not, so it’s a good indicator of just how trustworthy they really are. For sitting MPs, you can easily check the register. For candidates, you can write to them or ask them at a public meeting whether they will be retaining any of these income streams, and whether they can guarantee to make the House of Commons their sole source of income. Taking a second job does not make someone necessarily untrustworthy, but, if someone is promising to dedicate their life to serving you in the next parliament, you can legitimately question how much time that will leave them for other things.

6) How do they respond to criticism?
No-one likes being criticised, but it’s instructive to see how people behave when they are accused of an impropriety. Some people flare up, some people become very sad, some people become very earnest. All of these are normal reactions. But some people demonstrate consummate skill in deflecting the criticism. This isn’t necessarily a sign that they are untrustworthy, but, taken with the other indicators, it can reenforce what you already know. Jack Straw, who isn’t from my party, always gets very agitated when people criticise him on Radio 4. A friend of mine who worked with him tells me that he is, in person, very trustworthy. Peter Mandelson, from that same party, is always very smooth in the face of criticism. Partly that’s his job, but, equally, the word is that he is not necessarily the first person you would want to trust.

7) How hard do they try to be credible?
Finally — and for this you need to really meet them and look them in the eye — how hard are they trying to be credible? You probably won’t be able to tell if they’ve had their teeth whitened (some people have naturally white teeth), but, when you talk to them, if you move off the usual subjects, you can get a fairly good impression about whether they are happy to talk about anything, or always want to move the conversation back to them, their credibility, the uncredibility of other candidates, the sins of other parties. Anyone who is too desperate to have you trust them — like a car salesman who keeps saying “I’ll be honest with you” — is probably not someone you should be trusting. Again, some people are naturally eager to make friends. But, generally, those people are more natural at it.

I don’t want to suggest that everyone who fails these tests is a liar, and, I’m sure, there are people even now coaching would-be MPs about how to pass these tests, or others like them. But, if we have no tests, then we are left only with what the candidates tell us about themselves. With their credibility, not their trustworthiness. If you don’t like these, then write down what things would make you trust or distrust someone. But do it, and then vote on it.

Otherwise, as we enter the 2010s, rather than the government we really want, we will once again elect the government we deserve.

Many people will wish to point out that the decade ends at the end of 2010, and the new decade begins in 2011. I do agree with them. However, the arbitrary decade beginning with the year 2000, which was celebrated (somewhat bizarrely), as the Millennium (bizarrely because, notwithstanding questions about year 0, nothing in particular happened in the Year 1000 for us to commemorate) has reached an end, and it is that decade which I am describing.

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