Sunday, 12 December 2010

1603 and all that ever after

Iceni Warrior - lost cause participant spotted at Iceni Village about 2006

Friday morning, a few days without the internet has allowed a bit of time to reacquaint myself with traditional news gathering in action. I haven't relied on half-hourly radio news bulletins or twice daily TV news programmes for about 12 years.

I actually bought a daily newspaper for the first time in a few years. I do like the East Anglian Daily Times. A very good piece of journalism, local, regional and national news are all reported. A newspaper that does report the issues that concern Suffolk. I often used to find out more about what was going on in my own town than in the local weekly papers. Thoroughly good read, interesting groups of features. I don't mind the sections dropping out on a Saturday as they are interesting in their breadth and sometime eccentricity. So aside from allowing to me to appreciate the local genius of a Suffolk cornerstone, how has the news shaped my opinions?

The major story this week that is going to echo down the history books in this relatively small nation is the Bill that passed through parliament, the “Graduate Tax”. As a graduate of Scottish and English Universities, at undergraduate and postgraduate level, I have more than a passing interest in the potential of what is going on. I am watching this and being left with a mix of impressions from amazement to scepticism, and a sense of what does it mean

I am listening to BBC Radio 4, (Farming Today in the background as I type), a number of events seem to have been party to the application of “choas theory” (deliberate misspelling). These events in the last few days have encompassed to name but a few: student “radicalism”, attacks on the future monarch and the workings of democracy in England today. (I say England as the Bill appears to be aimed at English students).

Turning back my personal time line to the mid-eighties, as an undergraduate student at a Scottish university we still had full grants available to those that qualified. The fifty odd polytechnics were still polytechnics and doing a very good job for the market they catered for – keep it local. How we have moved on, the business talk of market crept into the last sentence. The student union was independent of the NUS buying group, union was not a positive word. The token student political activity was a Law student who stood with her placard on the steps of student the union every Wednesday afternoon drawing attention to human rights in other places. Dedicated for her first few year through all the elements a Scottish winter could could come up with, becoming less apparent in subsequent years.

The conditions of the last few days are very different to those of 25 years ago. Thatcher's children had a very different take on their ability to influence and change events. The present students appear calmly articulate, well-dressed (no Young Ones extras here) with an almost “middle age” self confidence of we'll try but won't be disappointed if we are not listened to first time, as we might have “another cunning plan”. A few 80's humour references again. These are definitely not children playing at being adults. The child centred education that we have aimed for in society in the last decade or so has produced a very different type of student to the type our present leaders were themselves. Radical action used to be something we only looked at through our TV screens, it happened in France (Good book Seven Ages of Paris) and China – “somewhere else”. However, it is very easily seen how these civilised intentions became an own goal allowing outrage to obscure the procession of events leading to the vote on a “Graduate Tax”.

Saddle Tank engine on the Poppy Line
1603 and all that is the title of this little blog of today. Why 1603? I read a book a few years called 1603. I had escaped to the North Norfolk coast resort of Sheringham and told everybody around me only to phone in a dire emergency. As I sat in the garden of my hotel (how many hotels have gardens), a steam engine passed at the bottom of the garden literally on the other side of the fence. The Poppy Line helped the step back in time. The book chronicled the take over of the English state by a Scots man. Recent history parallels here. An interesting book as a lot of the machination's of 1603 and the same basic questions of  the rights of groups of people have become current again. We have a group of people, English students being treated differently to other members of the United Kingdom.

Magna Carta is the gift of the English system to the democratic world, influencing among others the authors of the American Constitution.  Recently moves were apparent to suspend Magna Carta principles as they were considered not fit for purpose in present English society. Magna Carta's idea that no single group should be taxed or targeted was a response to civil unrest issues, Simon De Montford and the Barons agitating at the time. Putting aside the mechanism by which yesterday's bill passed parliament, FIFA might want to adopt the whip system from our parliament, I am left with a very great sense of foreboding.

I am wary of the bill because as a graduate my self interest asks when will all graduates be taxed, no matter when you became a graduate. Will the English graduate become a very expensive commodity within the UK job market working. We already have certain companies using the work permit rules to bring in graduates from other non-EU states to work in their UK subsidiaries The cost of keeping track of even basic information of status of loan holders is going to cost time and money either for the employer or the tax authorities. Will English graduates become fundamentally expensive to employ compared to their Scots, Welsh or Northern Irish counterparts?

Personal experience of the having had a Student Loan from when I retrained 14 years ago (another recession) illustrated the difficulty of tracking. I was given a tax office generated demand for payments. The computer informed me that a my employers had not taken the loan amount from my salary. The inland revenue was a collector for the Student Loan Company. After a few unhelpful conversations with the tax office, I decided to take direct action. Not what you might think in the light of today's headlines.

I sat in my car and drove the 45 miles to my local Tax office in Ipswich, where my records were stored. I sat for about 45 minutes waiting. This was not the first time I have had to go and talk directly to tax officials, but that is another story. I very politely pointed out that I had been paying off my student loan to the Student Loan Company by Direct debit from the moment I had finished my course, a number of years previously. I was lucky. The other side of the desk was a parent whose own child had been a Student Loan Company customer. The problem apparently was because the payment stream was not immediate enough to finance the system, so the Inland Revenue as a collector of monies had been brought in. The historical system of direct payment was not recognised by the computer system.

So my responsible behaviour was not recognised in that version of the Tax software, or by many telephone based tax officials as it hadn't made the crib sheet. This apparently was a problem for many Suffolk Tax payers. The revenues' computers today are still apparently not fit for purpose.  Considering the amount of money spent on PFI type projects, consultancy firms and importantly the way they are paid for poor products I am not hopeful of an improvement. Seasonal Christmas trees as reported by BBC radio can be had for £851 (?) from a PFI supplier to a government department. The official who perched on a chair to place the star, on the assumed privately purchased £40 DIY tree, has hopefully not invalidated the PFI contract.

So the system is broke. The recriminations are still echoing on the radio from yesterday. The milk is spilt, how can we put some of it back in the bottle. I can see a gap in the market for the equity release and endowment product providers that doesn't involve the tax system. A reverse American College fund might be a solution. Insurance is a matter of risk. I am sure if insureres can gamble and insure against Earthquakes in California an actuary might want to take a gamble on a modern “indentured servant” market. Interesting to see if banks do consider this, especially where it might become expedient for certain institutions to become private universities for undergraduates and graduate activities become a graduate school to access public research funds. I have read claims that Cambridge earns more from postgraduates than undergraduates. It has to be remembered that the Insurance market has been underwriting since before Thomas Gresham and the Tudor financial services revolution.

Another historical take on taxation and representation. I haven't heard any pressure groups yet say this, but it might not be a far step for the proposal that voting rights be linked to the amount of tax we pay.. Historical precedents exist with graduates of Oxford and Cambridge pre-1832 able to vote for seats assigned to the Universities, as well as their own vote if they were monied enough in a local seat . My opinion is this would be a bad step as money already has enough ways of lobbying primary policy on which parliament votes . However, in the consider all possibilities scenarios that one needs to be watched. But if everybody went to university, and was a customer of the Student Loan Company, this would not be a problem as everybody would be equally influential to the finances of society as a stakeholder. Does the Student Loan Company still exist as an entity, I haven't seen the latest list of quangos/public company abolition.

Why is it only English students? Is this the thin edge of the wedge that will lead to the break of the United Kingdom as we know it? Is the future monarch of the UK going to avoid other attacks on his Rolls or was it Bentley car of this potentially significant day in history.  Personally I cannot really see UK PLC as it is today existing in 30 years time even before the events of the past few days.

So as the first person in my father's direct family line to go to University I am watching the passing times with interest. The year 1603 was a time of change. Other significant years 1215, 1914 etc to name a few a clustered at the beginning of centuries have also been times of social change, hopefully the toxicity to life of other centuries will not be repeated.

More to follow …......??

Should have been posted Friday 10th December but BT Broadband was not working for this Blogger.

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