The Brexit Political Declaration

The Brexit Political Declaration has turned up just in time for Christmas – it has all the rigour of a Christmas present list written to Santa.

The reality is that all the key points have been booted into the long grass at least a year from now. The only point of actual agreement appears to be is that Christmas is coming and everyone is exhausted by this 2-year and counting divorce. The parties have decided who is going to get the cutlery, but not what will happen to the kids, the house, the mortgage etc. – basically all the important parts.

Goods – it appears the UK will only have access to the EU if it respects EU standards on competition, tax, the environment, and social and employment protection. This is done to prevent the UK from undercutting the EU – which is what the Brexiteers had in mind.

Fishing – there still needs to be an agreement on EU access to UK waters, it could be that British caught fish will be prevented from being sold in the EU without a deal. This is not all bad news; we are just going to have to eat more fish.

Financial Services – passporting is going, it will be replaced with “equivalence”. This is a stricter test, under the agreement it can also be withdrawn with just 30 days notice.

Northern Ireland Border – the addition of a new technological solution paragraph marks the return of “magical thinking” eliminating the need for a physical border and customs – as if Ireland didn’t have enough leprechauns already.

Gibraltar – the Spanish government, has stated they will not agree on any trade deal unless Gibraltar is excluded from it. This appears to be a move to isolate Gibraltar from the UK and make it even more reliant upon Spain.

Breaking up is never easy, but only a sane person would question whether going ahead with this break up is worth it. This is not exactly a quickie divorce, we are not even leaving the house – we are living in a tent in the garden.

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The Brexit Endgame

So here we are, after two wasted years of bluff & bull, the time has run out for the government. A deal must be done – and it looks like it has been done, or it could be.

Regardless of where you stand on this fight, (and it has been a proper street brawl at times) the deal done by the government will not satisfy the remainers or the brexiteers. It will also be a substantial downgrade from our existing arrangement, full EU membership.

As a country, we will have to remain aligned to and follow EU rules, but without the power to inform influence and vote on them. Rather than an equal place at the table we will be relegated to a side table and given the kids’ menu.

Many MPs have made a career out of moaning about the EU, they will have even more cause to complain now, and ironically no recourse to do anything about it, no MEPs, no mother-of-all-Parliaments diplomacy.

For those naive enough to think this will be a temporary transitional situation – think again. This situation could very well become permanent; as the EU has absolutely no incentive to offer the UK some favoured-nation status. In fairness to the EU, they have clearly and unambiguously stated this for the past two years.

The UK risks being stuck in this limbo and humiliated for a generation.

For those deluded souls who pine for a hard Brexit, they continue to cling to it. They will forever say Brexit was diluted, or never delivered, that the people were defrauded and duped. This is a bit rich coming from people who lied openly and repeatedly about the sunny nirvana awaiting the UK with all the wonderful trade deals just ready to be plucked from the abundant tree of commerce.

The reality is that other blocs or nations negotiating with the UK know we are isolated and desperate. They will be queuing up around the block to stuff us and inflict chlorinated chicken and hormone filled beef on us. Other countries will just eye-up our ever-lucrative market and salivate at the opportunities awaiting them. (In the past carmakers have called the UK “treasure island” because of the prices they can inflict upon us). The irony is that the EU played a significant part in ending this exploitation of the UK consumer – particularly by European carmakers.)

What awaits us after a hard Brexit can already be seen at the WTO. The UK assumed it could hive off a proportion of the tariffs enjoyed by the EU to fast-track a tariff deal with the WTO. However, twenty nations, already full WTO members objected to this, stating they could lose out on access to the UK market. Those nations included Russia and New Zealand. So, there are trade deals to be done, but they are likely to be wincingly one-sided – in our hour of desperation, we become easy prey when separated from mother Europe.

So, if the May deal is not as good as we currently enjoy and gives us no say or stake and hard Brexit is even worse – we have to ask why leave?

The UK has every right to stay at the EU top table – we built it – the hard way. The EU came into existence after this country (and our esteemed allies) fought and defeated fascism. This is recognised and acknowledged by everyone within the EU.

Some people seem to forget that the war was won by a coalition of countries, all cajoled and persuaded by the British government. The UK has always worked best by working with our friends and allies. The blood on the beaches of Normandy has barely dried, and we are retreating from our historical position of power and influence.

We can and should remain central and fully engaged members of Europe to shape it more to our own image, besides, the rest of Europe still wants us, and probably needs us.

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Time To Google Equality

So it turns out that Google is no different to other large companies where mainly privileged men hold the majority of senior posts – and look out and look after each other.

The revelations seeping out of Google are a major embarrassment for the tech giant – all the corporate fluffiness can’t rid Google of this problem. This is more than an image problem – when your own employees walk-out in collective mass protest – you have a problem. The desks and conferences rooms are empty, but the streets outside are full.

The New York Times broke the story, which centred around Andy Rubin who was effectively rewarded for sexual abuse with $90m in a payoff on top of the millions already earned and granted. Google also went on to invest in his next commercial venture.

The New York Times also highlighted other cases of senior male employees abusing their positions of power. In all of these cases, the women were believed, but they were also prevented from going public, were sidelined and in some cases left Google.

Google used “arbitration” clauses in employment contracts to prevent employees from suing or going public. These were in effect legal gagging orders that served to protect the abuser and Google.

The mass-protest – Walk Out For Real Change lists five key goals:

1. End to forced arbitration in cases of harassment and discrimination.

2. A commitment to end pay and opportunity inequity.

3. A publicly disclosed sexual harassment transparency report.

4. A clear, uniform, globally inclusive process for reporting sexual misconduct, safely and anonymously.

5. Elevate the Cheif Diversity Officer to answer directly to the CEO and make recommendations directly to the Board of Directors. In addition, appoint an Employee Representative to the Board.

None of these five points is difficult to achieve and are certainly not doing anything more than following EU employment law and best-practice in the workplace.

So, we would like to add our own little list:

1. Revised and simplified pay, bonus and stock structure with employees paid on the basis of their seniority of role. So, a senior manager in engineering will be paid the same as a senior manager in the accounts department – including bonuses and stock – this is important. This should apply right the way down the flattened structure, so newcomers get paid the same, and this remains so through their Google careers.

2. A more open, inclusive and diverse recruitment process, and internally the same for promotion, training and other opportunities.

3. A man and a woman doing broadly the same job or at broadly the same level within the company should be paid the same and have the same conditions of work. The women should be brought up to that level, not the men levelled-down – as happened at the BBC.

4. Equal pay, bonuses and stock back-dated for a minimum of five years. Any inequality in bonuses and stock magnifies and entrenches the overall pay differential – all the way through to possible severance pay and pensions. This means a Google woman could work in the same role as a Google man for the same number of years and still leave substantially poorer than the man.

Google simply cannot fudge this – it is the perfect opportunity to show leadership. It also sends a powerful message to current and future employees that Google can be a positive force for change. It also helps in recruitment and retention, which in turn gives Google a powerful and persistent commercial advantage over rivals.

If Google does not change it consigns itself to being just another tarnished tech company. After all do the founders want to wake up one day and find they have become just like Facebook?

The New York Times

The Guardian

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The Gay Cake Case

The Gay Cake Case, also technically (and correctly) known as Lee (Respondent) v Ashers Baking Company Ltd and others (Appellants) (Northern Ireland).

A final (and unanimous) decision was reached by The Supreme Court in London on 10th October 2018. The court found for the bakers Ashers.

The bakers had refused to produce a cake for Mr Lee with the message “support gay marriage”. Mr Lee had previously ordered cakes from Ashers, (but without this message). Ashers took the order, but then subsequently refused the order, due to their committed Christian beliefs.

The cake then became a case – Mr Lee supported by The Equality Commission for Northern Ireland brought a claim for direct and indirect discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, religious belief or political opinion.

Mr Lee won the first round, Ashers then appealed and lost on appeal. The Attorney General for Northern Ireland then referred the case to The Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court found that Mr & Mrs McArthur, the owners of Ashers did not discriminate against Mr Lee personally – they objected to the message because it was contrary to their religious beliefs – which can also be protected. As the court stated, “The less favourable treatment was afforded to the message, not to the man.”

This has proved to be a very expensive cake.

We would argue that the facts of this case a fairly unique and the judgment is actually quite limited in scope.

The argument now goes that discrimination because of your religious beliefs is ok. No, it is not. Mr Lee was not discriminated against; the objection was to the message.

It should also be remembered that religious beliefs still have a significant hold on society in Northern Ireland – this is partly for political reasons. Northern Ireland is also behind the mainland UK regarding gay marriage and equality, and will probably remain out of step for quite some time.

We would argue that if this case was brought by parties in another part of the UK, the decision may, (but only may) have been different.

The bottom line is that if as a business you offer a service be prepared for it to be used in different ways. The way to run a business is to provide the same service to everyone.

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How To Survive Meeting Hell

Meetings…we have to ask why?
It seems to be that when nobody wants to make a decision, or they do, but they want cover in case it goes wrong…they have a meeting.

The more significant the decision the large and longer the meeting. There is even the likelihood of pre-meetings ahead of the main meeting and post-meetings to dissect the result of the main meeting (if any).

I was talking to someone recently who said he could not get any work done because he was always in meetings…about work.

About work…rather than just doing the work.

His boss had set up a series of committee groups – this seemed like a good idea – except that it was not. The suspicion was that these committees gave the boss cover. If something went wrong, he could blame the committee in charge.

I then decided to waste even more time reading about how to effectively run meetings – a sort of LinkedIn Guide To Hell.

I will keep this post short because I am sure you have a meeting to go to.

I have come up with an almost foolproof way to conduct meetings and get stuff done.

1. Set a definite time limit for the meeting, (subject to a maximum of 30 minutes – see 2 below). Once that is done…halve it.

2. For any meeting that goes over 30 minutes. The person who called the meeting and is supposed to be running it buys everyone coffee & cake. This is important – do you want to run the risk of buying for 5 people or 50? Keep meetings small. If the meeting goes to 5pm, those present can elect to have their coffee & cake the following day – because we all have lives to go to.

3. Use Basecamp or Slack…before, after, or as a replacement for meetings. You can thank me later.

Other additional strategies can include going directly to the coffee & cake and holding the meeting in the queue, and for no more time than it takes to consume your beverage and cupcake of choice.

See simple.

As an endnote, please do not link to this wisdom from any social media…life is too short for “inspirational insights” – we all have lives to go to.

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No-Fault Divorce Reform

Finally, the current government has announced a consultation process to look at updating our divorce laws and introducing “no-fault divorces.”

Just in time for Brexit.

Brexit jokes aside – the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 is almost 50 years old and drafted in a different age. Under the Act couples effectively have to apportion blame:

Your partner has committed adultery
Your partner has behaved unreasonably

Or, there is a separation of between 2-5 years, depending on their partner’s consent.

However, the period of separation is probably used less frequently – leaving the first two grounds of “blame”.

It is important to understand that the law was drafted back in a time when divorce was the exception – the current rate of divorce in the UK is approximately 42% of marriages. Interestingly, the divorce rate is climbing in the over-50s age group, but declining in those married from 2000 onwards – so much for reckless youth.

The proposals are seeking to remove grounds for divorce and simply keep the current situation that the marriage has irretrievably broken down.

The proposals will also remove the right of the other spouse to contest the divorce – this is due to the recent Tini Owens case. This involves a wife who has to wait until 2020 (five years) to divorce because her husband refused to accept it. This case alone highlights how archaic the law has become.

Relevant Links:

UK Divorce
Tini Owens Case
Buzzfeed UK

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Stockpiling Food – More Project Wake-Up

Mondelez International, owners of Cadbury’s (and many other food companies), have announced they are stockpiling ingredients and finished products in case of a Hard Brexit.

This will probably be dismissed as more “Project Fear” – when it is really Project Wake-Up.

Hubert Weber, the president of Modelez Europe, has calmly stated – “We have a contingency plan in place to manage [a hard Brexit], as the UK is not self-sufficient in terms of food ingredients, so that could be a challenge.”

Basically, the UK can’t feed itself – whether it is chocolate or salad.

Those that advocate, a Hard Brexit, appear to be deploying a WWII crisis management approach – a sort of, “We’ll show em”. It plays well to the papers with a reading age of twelve.

So, we have to ask at what point do the public start of taking note of the warnings and take them seriously? The sorry answer seems to be when it’s too late.

The whole Brexit campaign has been brilliantly run by appealing to stupidity, meaningless soundbites and disparaging experts. Never mind that these “so-called” experts happen to be experts in boring stuff like trade, logistics, business investment etc.

We appear to be entering a new golden age of the stupid.

This can be backed up by Nigel Farage’s mock outrage that Mark Carney has been asked to stay on to steady the ship through Brexit. Nigel Farage’s only response was that Carney is a Remainer. This Homer Simpson style response sums up Brexit. It also ignores (conveniently) two important facts:

1. The Bank of England is independent.

2. The Bank of England will seek to minimise any damage caused by Brexit.

Basically, it is easy to come up with the Brexit idea in the pub, it is slightly harder to deliver it and deliver it in a way that does not damage the economy and take away jobs.

But, there was never a plan for the complicated stuff – the complete lack of progress in two years shows that.

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When To Turn Off

The UK works some of the longest hours in Europe, but still lags towards the bottom of the productivity scale – this is something that has confused economists and politicians for years.

According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), the average hours worked stand at 37 hours per week. This has held steady for the last 10 years. However, productivity (the measure of work output per hour) has continued to drop since 2008. This is trendily known as the “productivity puzzle”.

In Germany the average working week is 40 hours, but Germany has higher productivity. Graphs show that the UK and Germany followed each other upwards from a low-point in 2009, (we assume due to the financial crash). However, despite following the same trend, the UK has consistently lagged behind Germany in productivity.

According to the OECD, this gap has grown since 2015. Germany has continued a smooth upward trend, whereas the UK plateaued in 2015 and bumps along this plateau with barely any growth.

It is impossible to come to any definitive conclusion as to why this trend continues and the gap widens. However, maybe (just maybe) the national attitude to work plays a part.

In Germany, workers tend to be more focused during work hours, partly because it is culturally expected, but also because German workers know when their working day ends – it really does end.

I am trying to avoid generalisations, but German workers have a cultural habit of leaving their work behind at the end of the day. This trait is shared with Scandinavian countries.

It seems to be that grey areas are not tolerated. The national psyche seems to be when I leave work – don’t bother me.

This is taken quite seriously too. Companies such as VW go so far as to turn off work email delivery outside work hours for all employees, except the most senior managers and board members. Furthermore, those with access to work email outside office hours are firmly instructed only to use it when absolutely necessary and not to send emails to subordinates outside hours. This instruction is backed up by an internal disciplinary code.
Compare that to the UK where email can be used as a passive-aggressive weapon, with emails sent by employees at odd hours of the day and night and over weekends – with Sunday afternoon a favourite with aggressive idiots.

We have seen organisation-wide emails sent on behalf of the boss on a Sunday afternoon. Not small organisations either, ones with 1,000s of employees.

In one instance a frustrated junior employee replied with a less-than-cheery “f**k-off”, but replied all – so not only did the boss receive the response, so did the other 15,000 employees on the list. On the plus side it gave some people a good laugh on a wet Sunday afternoon, but less fun for the sender on Monday morning. They kept their job, but their cards were forever marked.

The irony is that someone else on behalf of the boss sent the email. The boss was possibly away enjoying their weekend.

Amusing stories aside – the pressure of constant-on exhausts employees. There is little or no time to escape and recharge depleted batteries. Employees end up starting the working week already warmed up due to the constant stream of nonsense emails from Friday afternoon to Monday morning.

A recent study by the University of the West of England found that Wi-Fi introduced on some train routes had led to more people answering emails before and after work. Interestingly, many people welcomed this as a need transition period to and from work and to avoid work overload on reaching their workplaces.

Sadly, some people referred to time on the train as “dead time”. We would kindly refer these people to a good book, a good newspaper, a good magazine, some nice music, the crossword, chatting or even just looking out the window.

To paraphrase the saying – if you always use the saw and don’t stop to sharpen it, it becomes too blunt to use.

It’s almost 4pm on a sunny and warm late August day. I have focussed on writing this for a clear 90 minutes. Time to go and enjoy the world.

Before I do, I will leave you with a picture of the ultimate symbol of power and status, not a car or plane or another toy – no – the smartphone-free life. Ask Simon Cowell. If anyone is in touch with symbols of status and power, it is he.

Relevant links below, but please go read a good book instead.

Links
BBC News
UK Average Hours
Productivity
German Average Hours
OECD – Productivity – measured by GDP per hour worked

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Housing – A Window On A Broken Society

So more reports of housing woe in the papers today – and still nothing is done.

Latest reports show the decline in home ownership among younger adults who should be first-time buyers. The sad conclusion being that the next generation will be more divided than ever, divided between who owns and who rents property. Also, that our children will be poorer than their parents and substantially poor than their grandparents.

Just as a quiet reminder to the present government – if you don’t own property you will probably be less likely to vote Conservative. It does need pointing out, as the government seems to be missing a lot of obvious and important details recently. Such as the EU has no intention of negotiating away their stated position and weakening their status as an institution. Likewise, Donald Trump has absolutely no intention of offering the UK a quick and advantageous trade deal. After all, if you spend your waking hours on Twitter, you probably don’t have the time or attention span to oversee a trade deal.

New Zealand this week announced a selective ban on foreign companies and nationals buying new properties in New Zealand. This is in response to property prices in some areas, such as Auckland rising 75% in four years.

The only issue with the New Zealand ban is that it is selective – buyers from Singapore and Australia are not included, but buyers from China are. If there is going to be a ban, it should be for everyone, not selective and not discriminatory, that is just common sense. Plus New Zealand has the additional pressure of returning lands stolen from the original settlers, the Māori.

A ban in the UK would be completely unenforceable and too controversial. Besides the UK cannot even manage to reform leaseholds or prevent Crown Estates and the Duchy of Cornwall from exploiting arcane loopholes that belong to medieval times.

The best course of action is to tax any person or organisation that holds multiple properties heavily and to ban property being owned by offshore companies.

The concentration of property (and so entrenched wealth) in the hands of the few will ultimately damage the UK economy. Less money will flow through the economy, and successive governments will see a permanent decline in their tax take. Further, younger people will have fewer reasons to stay and contribute to the economy and pay the bills incurred by their parents and grandparents. After all, if you are aged 25-35+ trying and failing to buy a home you may decide to look elsewhere, Australia and Canada now hold greater prospects for the young.

Finally, we need to stop calling rental properties “affordable”. Renting is not affordable and in the long-term reduces your chances of actually own a home of your own. Affordable is decent freehold homes to buy – nothing more and nothing less.

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Can Brexit Be Delivered?

So now that the infamous lies of the Brexit referendum are disappearing into the mist – along with the people who promoted them – there still remains the issue of whether Brexit can be delivered.

There is also the other slight issue to consider – what exactly is Brexit?

During the referendum all the lies came out – the Brexit dividend, the extra £350 million a week for the NHS. Staying in the single market, but without having to abide by the key principles etc.

Two years later these have been shown to be not false hopes or promises, but cynical lies. More worryingly we now see evidence of British subjects conspiring with a foreign power to campaign for Brexit.

Our enemies love Brexit, (even more than the Tory far-right) – anything to divide and weaken Europe and undermine our alliances forged since the Second World War.

We now also know there was never any grand-plan for Brexit. “Taking back control” was as far as it went. In fairness, how can anyone plan for Brexit? The reality is too difficult to comprehend. The “cake-and-eat it” mythology and the simplistic money found down the back of the sofa is as far as any Brexiteer has got in explaining the intricacies of the process.

We are getting divorced after more than 40 years of marriage; it is going to be messy and expensive. Following that up with asking to come round with your mates to watch the England game on the big TV – well you know the likely response.

Brexit may be a success one day, but are you prepared for 10 years or more of hardship, (just after the last recession) to see if it works? Quite a few hard-line Brexit supporters are ready for you to make the sacrifice for their ideological purity; besides, their nests are robustly feathered, and they can weather the storm.

Now that “project fear” is “project reality” with businesses clearly signalling reduced investment and the movement of people and capital investment overseas it may be time to think through the realities.

The UK has spent 40 years reaping the benefits of free movement of people, goods and capital. That tide is now turning; the flow is starting to go the other way. The tide is going out on the economy; we may end up marooned at low tide.

But, is a soft Brexit deliverable? Is the (potentially) worst of both worlds the best option? Also, if Brexit is that soft, why go through with it at all?

Many invoke the ghost of Mrs T, whether you liked her or not she was always pragmatic, determined and disciplined. She would not have tolerated the frothing mouth of Boris Johnson; he would never have made it into the cabinet. As we all know Mrs T was no fan of the EU, quite the opposite. However, at no time did she ever contemplate leaving. She knew it was too lucrative a club to leave, despite its numerous serious flaws.

If we can have more pragmatism and less Tory-Taliban ideology, just maybe we can keep our jobs and prosperity – all of which grew as part of the EU.

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