A useful guide to the British Police

Yesterday was not a good day for the outfit calling themselves the Sussex Police. They started out by tweeting this:

Which wasn’t met with the response they’d hoped for from some quarters. Naturally, Plod responded in the only way he knows how – with heavy-handed, ill-advised threats:

Evans quickly deleted this tweet, but some nimble-fingered soul on the internet archived it.

Things didn’t get better after that, when they gave the following answer to somebody who’d asked how much the paint job cost:

Which led to howls of derision, mainly along the lines of “What the fuck is a diversity budget?!” British police, remember, are busy telling us that they lack the resources to track jihadists because of funding cuts. The attitude above is one that is common in the public sector: they think money in a “budget” cannot be wasted because “it will be spent anyway”.

Things didn’t end there. The day before Sussex Police had posted this:

Which again didn’t meet with the praise they probably hoped for. Many people asked why the Metropolitan Police happily allowed the Al-Quds march to take place in London last weekend amid a forest of Hezbollah flags and anti-semitic chanting. The Sussex Police sloped shoulders and said that it didn’t take place in Sussex, as if they’d have done anything if it had. References were made to the Met Police refusing to address a complaint about the Al-Quds march made by a member of the public, and reported here by Breibart:

This controversial stance led to a woman attempting to make a complaint to three separate police constables about Hezbollah flags at the al-Quds demonstration on Sunday, with the police refusing to accept it.

The woman was sure that flying the “terrorist flags”, which depict an assault rifle held overhead in a clenched fist, was an offence, and was concerned that the officers’ refusal to register her complaint would mean they could “do like last time [and] say nobody complained”.

“You need to go and reacquaint yourself with the rules and the law around that particular flag,” an irate inspector told her. “There are specific wordings around when you, or anybody, can claim or refer to it as becoming an offence [to fly the flag],” he said.

The College of Policing’s Hate Crime Operational Guidance manual states: “For recording purposes, the perception of the victim, or any other person, is the defining factor in determining whether an incident is a hate incident.

“The victim does not have to justify or provide evidence of their belief, and police officers or staff should not directly challenge this perception. Evidence of the hostility is not required for an incident or crime to be recorded as a hate crime or hate incident.”

Senior police constables, such as Essex police force Assistant Chief Constable Maurice Mason, have previously confirmed that these incredibly loose definitions have led to “hate crimes” being logged after “members of the public [complained] about Nigel Farage, or whatever”.

Of course, the woman in question didn’t expect the Met Police to register her complaint, she did it to demonstrate the inconsistency with which British police forces apply this extremely vague and badly-written law.

This is deliberate, of course: the law was drafted like that precisely so the police could pick and choose who to arrest. It was intended as a tool to censor the native population under the pretext of protecting minorities, and was never meant to address complaints made by ordinary people regarding hatred spewed by violent minority groups.

A lot of people were annoyed by Sussex Police, but I was not one of them:

The sooner the public come to understand the nature of the police forces who lord it over them, the better it will be for everyone. Displays of idiocy like that of the Sussex Police on Twitter can only help with that.

 

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More Fruit & Veg

I see the story about Britain having a lack of seasonal farm workers has been picked up by other news outlets, including the Guardian which declares:

Farms hit by labour shortage as migrant workers shun ‘racist’ UK
A 20% shortfall in migrant workers relied on to pick fruit and vegetables is blamed on Brexit making the UK seem ‘xenophobic’

I guess eastern European migrant workers must have changed since I rubbed shoulders with them occasionally on farms and building sites, because back then they were about as politically correct as Donald Trump.

“The grim reality is that the perception from overseas is we are xenophobic, we’re racist, and the pound has plummeted too,” said John Hardman, director at Hops Labour Solutions, who also estimates a 20% shortage of workers. “We’ve gone with Brexit and that makes us look unfriendly.

Seasonal farm workers rank friendliness of a country highly on their list of criteria? Who knew? It’s bollocks: this Hardman twat is facing extra admin. costs to import his labour and he doesn’t like it, so he’s decided to insult those who brought it about. The Guardian, true to form, has swallowed it whole and slapped it in their headline as if he’s stating an empirical truth.

Hardman said people who thought the shortage of farm labour could be filled by UK workers were “delusional”. He said: “There is no appetite in the UK labour pool for seasonal agricultural work.” The hospitality industry was more attractive for temporary work and unemployment is low in key areas, like Kent, he said.

So start paying wages that compete with the hospitality industry, then. Or will that mean the missus can’t get that new Aga until next year?

What’s strange is fruit and vegetable picking isn’t badly paid. Yesterday I read a load of people on social media, who had never harvested a vegetable in their lives, imply that the workers are paid less than minimum wage. There was no minimum wage when I was a farm labourer, but the hourly rate wasn’t bad, especially if you were a student like I was. And if you’re on piecework you can make way more than the minimum wage, as my Chinese pal Zu found out. And if I’m honest, it isn’t that much hard work: yes, picking potatoes hurts your back and none of it is much fun, but you get used to it. And I was 19 and fit as a fiddle, so who cares? That’s half the fun of being young, you can work like that and get smashed that night, and shrug it all off. It’s a summer job, not a career. Don’t kid yourself it’s similar to mining coal by hand.

And of course, there is always the possibility that you might get promoted, and here I must make a slight confession: I didn’t actually do a lot of vegetable picking that summer*. They stuck me out in the fields for the first couple of weeks, and then one day the bloke who drove around the farm delivering packing materials and crates of ice couldn’t make it in. The farm manager asked if I could do it, told me once what I needed to do, and I just got on with it. Driving a tractor and trailer around was a lot more fun than picking bloody vegetables, so I did a good job of it. I was therefore asked to do it each day for the next week until the regular chap come back, and when he did he’d lost interest so the farm manager just told me to carry on. And that was my job: driving packing materials, ice, and produce around between the fields and the farm.

Having demonstrated that I was (just about) responsible (there were some hairy moments with the tractor) and I was reliable and organised, I got myself a much better job than everyone else. My fellow students didn’t mind because they were more interested in the higher-paying piecework; I was more interested in driving tractors. But to get that “promotion” I first had to turn up at the farm and scrape around in the dirt. Demonstrating reliability and responsibility is essential when starting out in employment, and a farm is as good a place to do that as any. The farm manager wrote several references for me in the years that followed, mainly for jobs in Manchester.

A few people said that the yoof cannot be expected to work on farms because they live in cities, and can’t get there. Well, I didn’t live in Pershore either but surprisingly those who run multi-million pound labour-intensive farming operations have thought of this and provide accommodation on the farm. Where do Guardian readers think all the Romanians and Bulgarians live? In the nearest Travelodge? The accommodation was pretty good, a shared room in a catered residence. A few others lived in fixed caravans nearby. I was 19 for God’s sake, who cares what the accommodation was like? But then I’d been an army cadet and done boarding school, so perhaps I was less fussy.

As I said yesterday, it’s why I enjoy articles about farming: almost every word is written by somebody who’s never done a day of it in their life, and that includes the commenters.

* Trust me though, I have picked a shit-load of new potatoes by hand.

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Fruit & Veg

I always enjoy articles like this:

UK summer fruit and salad growers are having difficulty recruiting pickers, with more than half saying they don’t know if they will have enough migrant workers to harvest their crops.

Many growers blame the weak pound which has reduced their workers’ earning power, as well as uncertainty over Brexit, according to a BBC survey.

About 80,000 seasonal workers a year pick and process British fruit and veg.

Most of them are from the European Union, mainly Romania and Bulgaria.

I like them because, unlike 95% of people who comment on the subject of picking fruit and vegetables, I have actually done the job in question. I spent a lot of time on a farm when I was a kid which included vegetable picking, mainly potatoes. This experience landed me a job on what was (and maybe still is) Britain’s largest vegetable farm in the summer of 1996 between school and university.

The farm, situated near Pershore, Worcs. was absolutely massive by British standards, thousands of acres. It produced damned near every vegetable I could think of, and I remember picking lots of broccoli, runner beans, dwarf beans, cauliflower, asparagus, and cabbages. The produce would be put on ice and packed in a plant on the farm and collected by lorries belonging to the UK’s supermarket chains. My fellow workers were mainly students, most of whom were young Brits. There were about ten or twelve of us. We had a Chinese guy called Zu who had taken part in the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, and was studying at an agricultural college nearby. If you put him on an hourly rate he would snooze all day. Put him on piecework, i.e. pay him per kilo of produce picked, and he’d be like a man possessed. We’d have to drag him out of the runner bean fields at dusk, slashing at the air with his knife. Apparently the year before the farm had employed a lot of Polish and Bulgarians but the summer I was there none showed up, or they had problems recruiting them. I don’t know, but the farm ended up with a handful of Brits and the odd foreigner.

They called us the “student workers”, but there were others. A gang of gypsies used to pick broccoli and cabbages, but it was in the spring onion fields where the real labour was carried out. Gangmasters from nearby Birmingham used to come down with vans filled with Indians, both men and women, who would work all day in the fields under a blazing sun. I understand the farm paid the gangmasters and they in turn paid the workers, probably thruppence. The gangmasters also kept order. This system of companies keeping the labourers at arms reach gained notoriety in the 2004 Morecambe Bay cockling disaster, and I believe legislation was tightened in its wake. I was probably one of the few who knew what a gangmaster was when that story hit the news. I have no idea if they’re still used on the farm I worked on in Pershore, but I suspect so.

About 80,000 seasonal workers a year pick and process British fruit and veg.

Most of them are from the European Union, mainly Romania and Bulgaria.

Well, what did they do before Romania and Bulgaria joined the EU in 2007?  Unfortunately, British Summer Fruits, the body which represents soft fruit growers, doesn’t seem to know and would rather engage in scaremongering:

It warns that soft fruit prices could rise by up to 50% if the UK relied solely on imports.

“It is inconceivable that people who voted to leave the European Union wanted to destroy an iconic and incredibly competitive British horticulture industry,” said Laurence Olins, chairman of British Summer Fruits.

“Failure to secure the future of soft fruit production in the UK will have a negative impact on the economy, family budgets, the nation’s health, UK food security and the environment,” he added.

The incredibly competitive British horticulture industry which appears to be utterly dependent on cheap foreign labour. I wonder if construction companies in Dubai boast of being incredibly competitive, too?

The BBC asks the obvious question:

So why doesn’t horticulture, now a £3bn industry, simply try to employ British workers?

The answer is straightforward for Beverley Dixon, from G’s Fresh, which employs some 2,500 seasonal workers growing salad crops across large areas of Cambridgeshire and Norfolk, as well as other farms dotted across the UK.

“We operate in areas of such low unemployment, so here in Cambridgeshire, it’s less than 1.5%,” she said.

“So there simply aren’t the people available to do the work, added to which UK people tend to want permanent year-round work and this is seasonal work.’

But doesn’t follow it up with the other obvious question: why don’t unemployed people from the cities go and work in the fields like I did? Perhaps because they won’t like the answer: they don’t want to, and benefits mean they don’t have to. Whatever the reason, this is not an argument for keeping Britain in the EU.

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Two Approaches to Safety

Tim Worstall makes the following remark in response to a column by Polly Toynbee:

There was significant regulation here. What there wasn’t was responsibility. And a little more of the second can be very much more important than the first. Whether we call it the Clerk of Works, or professional responsibility, whatever, that one individual–and yes, making it one person does concentrate minds wonderfully–owns a project, the benefits and failures of it in that liability sense, tends to make things safer. On the very sensible basis that someone with their knackers potentially in the vice tends to pay attention. Box ticking doesn’t have quite the same effect.

This is absolutely correct.

In the wake of Piper Alpha, the regulations governing North Sea oil and gas operations were completely overhauled to address the many, many shortcomings that had led to the world’s worst oilfield disaster. One of them was to adopt what is known in the industry as a risk-based approach to safety, and put the responsibility to implement it on the shoulders of the operating companies.

What this means in practice is this. Each company must demonstrate, to the satisfaction of the UK HSE and – God forbid – a tribunal or court in the event of an accident, that the residual risks have been minimised to a degree which is As Low As Reasonable Practicable (ALARP). Residual risk is the term used to described the risks associated with a facility or operation which remain once mitigation and prevention measures have been implemented. This is important: playing around with highly volatile hydrocarbons is an inherently dangerous business, and there will always be risks associated with it. The requirement is not to eliminate risks entirely, as that would entail leaving the hydrocarbons in the ground, but to minimise the risks that remain once you’ve done all you can.

This is the principle of ALARP: “reasonably practicable” is an open term with no strict definition, but is well understood in the risk management industry. It recognises the fact that money spent on safety and minimising risks is a scarce resource and must be properly targetted. If open-ended safety obligations are demanded of an oil company, commercial operations will cease.

Most important is the word demonstrate, which is why I emboldened it. How a company demonstrates that it has minimised the risks associated with its operations is largely up to them, but the North Sea has developed a standard process (with associated tools and techniques) which all operators now follow. In short, it consists of:

1. Identifying potential hazards and the events they could lead to.

2. Identifying the consequences of such events should they occur, in terms of effects on humans, the environment, the asset, and the company reputation.

3. Identifying what can be done to prevent the event (preventative measures).

4.Identifying what can be done to mitigate the impact of the event, should it occur (mitigation measures).

5. How the company intends to manage the residual risks of their operations once 3 and 4 have been implemented.

This process focuses the minds of those charged with designing, building, and operating the installations to ensure the residual risks are ALARP, and can indeed be demonstrated to the satisfaction of anyone who may ask (e.g. regulatory bodies). I am heavily involved in this entire process as my day-job, and have been for years. I take the approach that if I find myself hauled in front of a court facing twenty to thirty years in an African prison for manslaughter, can I demonstrate that I did everything I could do minimise the risks associated with the installation? I am not exaggerating, I really do think this. In Nigeria I was responsible for signing off designs. Gulp.

By telling companies that they have to demonstrate their facilities and operations are as safe as they can be, and all potentially catastrophic scenarios have been thought of and addressed, it forces them to take responsibility for the complete design and operation. Moreover, it forces them to consider the installation as a whole, i.e. how the different systems interact with one another, and address the unique complexities of their particular situation.

The alternative system is one whereby clever people draw up a set of rules and regulations that must be followed, and if a company does then – in theory – the installation will be safe. This is called a prescriptive-based approach to safety. In effect it’s a giant box-ticking exercise, which involves little actual thinking on the part of the design engineers and allows them to shift responsibility to those who drafted the regulations if something goes wrong. As far as I am aware, this is how most industries are regulated: companies obtain a set of prescriptive rules and regulations and if they follow them to the letter, they are covered. Indeed, this is how the American Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) works, and this approach is applied to their own oilfields.

The shortcomings of the prescriptive-based approach are obvious, but a risk-based approach is more complicated and expensive to implement. However, the lessons from Piper Alpha might well be dusted off and re-learned in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire. I highly doubt that the British building regulatory regime allowed banned cladding to be installed: I am reasonably certain that it was quite legal. However, they were clearly not suitable for the application, because nobody considered the cladding system as a whole as it was installed on that particular tower, and what might happen in the event of a fire. All they did was select a panel type that was approved by the regulations, comply with all the other regulations, and assume they were safe.

The problem with prescriptive regulations is that they cannot anticipate every scenario, and it only takes one unique application of a certain product or system to leave the whole thing prone to a catastrophe. Or course lessons will be learned from the Grenfell Tower fire and that particular gap will be closed, but others will remain so long as we insist on a prescriptive-based approach to safety. The irony is that all those people calling for companies to take greater responsibility for the works they carry out are likely to be the same people calling for greater regulation, which will inevitably be of the prescriptive type. The two demands are not compatible: either we tell companies to follow the regulations, or we tell them to proceed as they see fit but demonstrate to the regulators that they’ve done the job properly and take full responsibility if it later proves they haven’t.

My guess is we’ll end up with an unhealthy mess of both: companies told to follow regulations but also carry the can when those regulations prove to be inadequate, leading to increased prices, a lack of transparency, and yet more cosy partnerships and conflicts of interest between private businesses and those writing the regulations. None of this will make the public any safer.

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Modern Britain on Display

Yesterday evening I did what I rarely do, and that was watch the TV news. I switched it on because I was reading reports on Twitter that a riot was going down in Kensington, egged on by Sky and BBC reporters.

What I saw was illuminating if one wishes to see what modern Britain is like. I don’t mean understand what it is like, just to see what it is like. A protest had been organised against the local council in response to the Grenfell Tower fire by a man with an Egyptian name whose accent suggested he’d lived in London for a while but wasn’t native born. He was surrounded by people waving crudely-printed A4 signs with people’s photos on, presumably those missing or dead. He was speaking in a stuttering, disjointed manner but with plenty of passion into a loudhailer, cheered on by the crowd. It looked very much like the protests you see on TV taking place in Pakistan, the Middle East, or North Africa. Which is about as surprising as British football hooligans looking like British football hooligans even when they’re in Portugal.

The protesters had submitted a list of demands to the council, one of which was that all those effected by the fire be rehoused immediately in the same area. Within 30 minutes – which must be an all-time national record – the local government responded saying they will rehouse everyone and do their utmost to make sure people can stay in the same area. The protesters rejected this, presumably because they have knowledge of an empty tower sitting nearby into which all residents can move immediately.

They then interviewed several people who were complaining about the information regarding the number of dead. The police said they can only confirm each death once they have a dead body – a reasonable argument, one supposes – but warned the number will probably rise. The people interviewed didn’t like this approach and would prefer the police speculate as to how many people might be dead. The leader of the protest said he was upset because the police said six people had been confirmed dead and he’d thought that was the lot. People who had not heard from loved ones since the fire, and were sure they were inside when it happened, blamed the police for keeping them in limbo. To be fair, these individuals were highly distressed and I can’t blame them for lashing out: they get a free pass.

As the evening wore on the protest morphed into one calling for the resignation of Theresa May, seemingly on the grounds that she had won the election last week but Labour had done better than expected and this fire ought to reverse the result. I have no idea how many people protesting were residents of the Grenfell Tower or their relatives with a genuine grievance, and how many were simply hard-left rent-a-mob types who have taken a lead from their cousins in the US and decided to make the country ungovernable.

Browsing Twitter, many people felt an inquiry into the fire is not required because even if the cause is not known the solution is: the Tories must be replaced by Labour in national government. For those who did venture a theory as to the cause, it was a muddle of technically incorrect information regarding sprinklers, cladding, and insulation mixed in with general cluelessness about how installation works are priced, subcontracted, and carried out. The Daily Mail didn’t help things by spouting absolute bollocks on the subject, as usual.

I thought the whole thing was a wonderful illustration of modern Britain, and few came out looking good. Having a bunch of foreigners submitting a list of demands to a local council who, when they respond almost immediately with a reasonable statement, see fit to reject it is indicative of the sort of people who are in that council, and the people who voted them in. They’ve spent so much time, effort, and money in pandering to the feelings of minority groups that they’ve allowed these mobs to develop; this hasn’t just occurred overnight. The irony is that in doing this, the council has neglected more pressing tasks – such as ensuring people are not living in tower blocks shrouded in flammable materials.

You have the police issuing reasonable statements, seemingly bewildered that the mob in front of them jeers and throws things at them. Could it be that the touchy-feely Met police who are quick to throw people in jail for racist Tweets aren’t actually liked or respected by the diverse mobs whose arses they’ve been licking for the past twenty years? Yet only last week I had a bunch of policeman assure me public opinion of them is rising.

Then you have the mob of white, middle class hipsters wandering through London shouting “Tories Out!” Where are their parents? Inviting them around for Sunday dinner and doing their laundry, I expect. They probably think it’s perfectly fine that Toby is out calling for violent revolution against the ruling classes who engineered the house price increase that paid for their son’s “education” in the first place. And he wants a new iPhone for his birthday, but not the shit one with no memory.

I was just a kid in the 1980s when we had that seemingly endless series of disasters: Piper Alpha, the Herald of Free Enterprise, the King’s Cross fire, the Marchioness, the Clapham Junction rail crash. These were catastpophes of enormous consequence with all the emotional and human aspects of the Grenfell Tower fire, yet we did not see third-world style mobs whipping up anger and making ludicrous demands, nor perpetual adolescents demanding the government be replaced by one headed by a bunch who’d just lost an election. Sensible heads prevailed, inquests were held, genuine lessons were learned, and the rules changed so they didn’t happen again. In those days the adults were in charge.

Is Theresa May in charge now? Hardly. It appears that nobody is, and every time somebody opens their mouths they are already compromised by being complicit in the sort of blithering incompetence and half-arsed dithering that brought this entire situation about in the first place: the unfettered immigration, the pandering to minorities, the emphasis on feelings, the win-at-all-costs politicking, the ludicrous housing and welfare policies, the stuffing of councils and companies with inadequate people who are incapable of doing the job and – most importantly – the voters who put them there, kept them there, and shit their pants at the first sign that anyone, anywhere, wants to do things differently.

I watched the news last night and realised I have no dog in this fight. I have nothing whatsoever in common with any of the people involved, the whole thing might as well be being played out on Mars. I’m not just talking about the people who lost their homes, I’m talking about the protesters, the media, the politicians, the police, the middle class voters, and most of those commenting on social media. I feel like I’m standing on the edge of a witch’s cauldron, looking at some bizarre concoction being prepared and wondering how it’s all going to turn out.

Badly, would be my guess. See if I care.

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Further thoughts on the Grenfell Tower

Over the past 24 hours social media seems to have been inundated with experts on structural engineering and fire protection. I am no expert in either, but I know a bit about the latter – a career in oil and gas will leave you with more knowledge on fires and explosions than most. I probably know more about structural engineering than most people, too.

When I was involved in the construction of a residential unit in Sakhalin, I was told the fire protection was not there to protect the asset, it was to buy enough time for everyone to evacuate. Once everyone is out – well, let it burn, claim the insurance, and build another one. Of course, it was designed not to burn, but if it did the priority was to get everyone out ASAP. Being owned by an oil company, the unit we built had alarms and a full evacuation plan.

I have no idea what the philosophy was in the Grenfell Tower, but it should have been to get everyone out ASAP in the event of a fire: you hear the alarm, everyone evacuates, the firemen turn up to see what’s what. From what I’m hearing, people believed they should stay in their apartments because the flats were designed to contain fires, or something like that. Even if they were designed to contain fires, you should still evacuate. Yes, it’s a pain in the arse standing in the carpark in your pyjamas at 1am, but it’s better than burning to death.

Back when I worked for a Shell-affiliated company, an email went around about two Shell employees who were staying in a hotel in (I think) India. When you work for a major oil company, particularly Shell, safety is dinned into you from day one to the point that it becomes second-nature even outside your workplace. Next time you see Rex Tillerson boarding or disembarking from a plane, notice how he always holds the handrail: he got that from ExxonMobil. Anyway, these two guys were in their hotel rooms when the fire alarm went off. Most people would have just thought “sod it” and stayed in bed, but these boys were good little soldiers and grabbed their passports and left via the fire escape. They got outside and found the whole building was alight, and some people died. Shell saw fit to circulate this in an email, and it made an impression on me. If you hear an alarm, get the hell out of there. Better to look a fool than be dead.

Anyway, my point is that fire protection is usually installed to slow down the spread of a fire, and give people enough time to get out. A lot of people are asking why sprinkler systems weren’t installed in the Grenfell Tower. Contrary to what most people think, sprinkler systems are not supposed to extinguish fires: they are activated by heat and designed to keep surfaces cool, thus preventing the fire from spreading. You know when you see the firemen spraying water at a fire? Most of the time they’re not aiming it at the flames, they’re soaking the areas around it. They don’t have enough water to put the fire out, so the best they can do is try to keep the surrounding surfaces cool enough so it won’t spread. Eventually the fire will spread, if it’s hot enough and there is enough fuel, but it will take more time and hopefully everyone will be out by then. All the firemen do from then is to try to stop the building collapsing and the fire spreading to other properties.

I doubt there are many residential buildings in the world which have the sort of evacuation procedures you see in offices and hotels. Perhaps this will change, or at the very least people will be advised to evacuate rather than stay in their apartments. There is not much point installing sprinkler systems which buy people time to evacuate if everyone is staying put.

I confess I was surprised that the cladding was flammable. This is a rather colossal failure of the building regulations, and raises the question how much of this stuff has been installed already. Quite a bit, would be my guess. It is possible to get cladding which has insulating properties and is also fireproof, and we use it extensively on oil and gas facilities. It is usually a form of mineral wool, but it is probably too expensive for large-scale residential use. You also need to keep the stuff dry: it isn’t much good when sopping wet, meaning the external cladding needs to be watertight, i.e. properly designed and installed.

I have heard reports that £9m was spent refurbishing the Grenfell Tower recently. What isn’t clear is how much of that went on purchasing certified materials and paying qualified, experienced tradesmen and how much went on kickbacks, admin fees, consultancy, fees, and audits to ensure the companies involved had diverse management teams and recycled their office waste properly. As I learned in Russia, spending $50m on a building doesn’t always give you $50m worth of building.

Finally, Twitter user Old Holborn has discovered that the monthly rent in the Grenfell Tower was £1,625 per month. It might be slightly less now, but this is London so perhaps not. I’m wondering why this tower, sitting in one of the most expensive boroughs in the country and consisting mainly of social housing, was occupied almost exclusively by immigrants from the poorest parts of the world. Actually, I know the answer to that.

This whole incident raises so many questions it’s hard to know where to begin.

And this:

On Thursday, the first victim of the fire was named as Syrian refugee Mohammed Alhajali, 23.

In a statement, the Syria Solidarity Campaign said Mr Alhajali, a civil engineering student, had been in a flat on the 14th floor when the fire broke out, and had spent two hours on the phone to a friend in Syria.

He had been trying to get through to his family while he was waiting to be rescued.

“Mohammed came to this country for safety and the UK failed to protect him,” the group said.

Speaks volumes.

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Of Sub-Letting and Scams

Back when I lived in Lagos I had an English friend who was married to a Nigerian-born British lady. Because of this, they interacted a lot more with the locals than the rest of us expats. We lived in a compound on a private island in accommodation that by any standards, let alone those of Nigeria, would get called luxury (lest you think we were spoiled, one of the issues that plague developing world cities is that there are generally two types of housing: total shitholes and ludicrously expensive luxury apartments).

My friends got chatting to some Nigerian neighbours and discovered that one of their income streams was sub-letting council properties in London to other Nigerians. They’d gone to the UK, got themselves a council house or flat, rented it out to somebody else, then came back to Lagos. When my friends started getting cross at this, the response of their neighbours was along the lines of:

“Why are you mad at us? Why aren’t you mad at the idiots who put this stupid system in place that allows Nigerians to get council houses and rent them out? Frankly, we can’t believe that they let us do this!”

They had a point. One of the worst aspects of the British welfare system isn’t that so many people game it, but that it does not adequately provide for many of the deserving poor either. Yet we’re always being told it’s a funding issue, rather than an organisational one.

I was reminded of this story when I read somebody on Twitter saying that in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire, some poor sod is going to have to work out who was actually living there. I don’t know the mix of private and social housing in the block, but you can be sure that sub-letting of council flats was going on. Although disallowed, the practice is widespread, particularly among immigrant communities. Even identifying the dead might be difficult if the person living in a particular flat wasn’t the person whose name is one the lease. No doubt insurance claims will be affected as well, assuming they even had any.

This in turn reminded me of something else, bringing me back to Nigeria again. On the only occasion I flew from Lagos to Port Harcourt, i.e. an internal flight, I was surprised to find my boarding pass – handed to me by a Nigerian who was assigned to “look after me” – had somebody else’s name on it. Apparently middle-men buy up all the plane tickets the moment they’re issued by the airline and re-sell them at a marked-up price. That this is allowed to go on says everything you need to know about Nigeria, but it’s not just a cost issue. It occurred to me as the plane lurched and weaved its way towards Port Harcourt that if it crashed nobody would have any clue who was on it. There was no record of me being a passenger, some chap with a Yoruba name was supposed to be in my seat. People would assume he’s dead, which I’m sure would open up all sorts of opportunities for additional scams.

I’d not be at all surprised if opportunists seize on the Grenfell Tower tragedy to perpetuate various scams, either.

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Deadly Fires

Back in 1989, when I was about 11 or 12, a chip pan caused a 2-storey house to catch fire in Pembroke Dock, near where I lived. The house belonged to a family of six: the parents, a daughter who was my age, two boys who were below ten, and a toddler. The parents and the toddler were on the ground floor and they got themselves to safety, but the two boys were trapped in an upstairs bedroom. They pawed at the window as their room filled with smoke in full view of horrified onlookers below. Their father, Brian, tried to get into the house with a wet blanket over his head but was beaten back by the heat and smoke, and injured his ankle in the attempt. The two boys died, mercifully from smoke inhalation. The daughter was out of the house visiting a friend, so was safe.

The deaths of Luke and Lee Roberts made the front page news of the local paper, and shocked everyone in the area, particularly as many of my schoolmates lived on the same estate and one or two had known the boys and witnessed the tragedy. The daughter, Helen, was in my year at school. I got to know Brian a short time later: he was a farmhand and over the next four or five years we’d work together on a nearby farm. During harvest time he’d bring his wife along, and sometimes his daughter and youngest child. I never heard him mention the incident and if I’d not known about it I wouldn’t have guessed it occurred by his demeanour, but I’m sure it haunted him and does to this day.

House fires were fairly common back then. Somewhere outside Kilgetty there was the shell of a burnt-out house that stood for some years before it was restored, and every few months the papers would carry a story of a terrible house fire. It occurred to me quite recently that you don’t hear these stories in the UK very often any more, and such tragedies almost seem confined to the developing world. I would guess there are several reasons for this. Chip pans – a saucepan full of boiling oil on a stove – have been replaced by much safer electric ones; people don’t smoke as much indoors any more, meaning no more cigarette butts dropped in bed or down the side of sofas; almost every material in a home (e.g. curtains, sofas, upholstery) is flame-resistant; and building standards have improved massively especially where electrical wiring and fireproofing are concerned. I heard that most house fires these days are caused by candles, which suggests the problem is largely solved.

This is why I found this so surprising:

Thirty people are in hospital and there are fears that more may be unaccounted for after a huge fire raged through the night at a west London tower block.

Firefighters are still tackling the blaze at Grenfell Tower in north Kensington, where hundreds of people are thought to live.

Eyewitnesses reported seeing people trapped inside their homes.

The BBC’s Andy Moore said the whole 24-storey block had been alight and there were fears the building might collapse.

This sounds absolutely horrific, and it looks as though there will be many casualties. My first thoughts were to the age of the building: this will give some idea as to how well it was designed to resist fire and prevent one spreading. It was built in 1974, long before modern fire-safety standards were incorporated into the building code. I would doubt, or at least hope, that such a fire could not occur in a modern building.

Some retrofitting work ought to have been done to bring elements of the building up to modern safety standards, but gaps will remain. Plus, it also assumes that the remedial work was properly carried out. There are other issues too, unrelated to the design: I have been in tower blocks in the Middle East where the fire escapes were used to store furniture, and junk routinely blocks exits. Keeping the fire escapes clear and ensuring the equipment and other infrastructure (doors, vents, etc.) are in working order is as important as a good design.

The Grenfell Tower is managed by a company called KCTMO, and if this blog post from November 2016 is anything to go on, they may have some explaining to do:

It is a truly terrifying thought but the Grenfell Action Group firmly believe that only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord, the  KCTMO, and bring an end to the dangerous living conditions and neglect of health and safety legislation that they inflict upon their tenants and leaseholders. We believe that the KCTMO are an evil, unprincipled, mini-mafia who have no business to be charged with the responsibility of  looking after the every day management of large scale social housing estates and that their sordid collusion with the RBKC Council is a recipe for a future major disaster.

It is our conviction that a serious fire in a tower block or similar high density residential property is the most likely reason that those who wield power at the KCTMO will be found out and brought to justice! The Grenfell Action Group believe that the KCTMO narrowly averted a major fire disaster at Grenfell Tower in 2013 when residents experienced a period of terrifying power surges that were subsequently found to have been caused by faulty wiring. We believe that our attempts to highlight the seriousness of this event were covered up by the KCTMO with the help of the RBKC Scrutiny Committee who refused to investigate the legitimate concerns of tenants and leaseholders.

We have blogged many times on the subject of fire safety at Grenfell Tower and we believe that these investigations will become part of damning evidence of the poor safety record of the KCTMO should a fire affect any other of their properties and cause the loss of life that we are predicting.

The Executive Team of KCTMO is shown on their corporate website:

I wonder how many of them thought they’d take a cushy job in an air-conditioned office, unaware of what responsibility rested on their shoulders? The board of KCTMO, to whom they presumably report, looks like this:

How many of the above mugshots do you think are of people who are goal-driven, versus those for whom the process is everything and the outcome immaterial? How many do you think have the welfare of their properties’ residents at the forefront of their minds, and how many are in it for themselves? You can’t tell? Nor can I, but one of their towers is on fire with people inside it.

I suspect the subsequent investigation into this catastrophe will find massive deficiencies in the fire protection in the Grenfell Tower that have been known about for years but nothing was done. An inspection of similar buildings in London will be carried out and will reveal that a lot of them are death traps in similar condition or worse. Like the Kings Cross fire in 1987, this incident will bring in sweeping changes to how residential apartment blocks are managed and maintained from a fire-safety point of view. Incidents like this simply should not happen in the UK in 2017: somebody has fucked up, massively.

I suspect the root cause of this disaster is wholly inadequate people holding management positions who are unable or unwilling to carry out their responsibilities towards those depending on them. The report will use words like “managerial failings” but what this boils down to is the practice of employing useless people. Given how widespread this is and how unwilling organisations are to address it, we can expect more such incidents in future.

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A French Lesson

In the comments under this post, dearieme makes the following remark:

It’s not that The Young are radical, though they certainly are prone to hysteria (American influence?); they don’t want to pull the whole system down. They are conservative; they think that the present system is just hunky-dorey but they want to replace their parents as beneficiaries of it.

I fully agree with this, and was indeed the point I was trying to make. What is interesting is that there is a precedent for this, albeit we must cross to my side of the channel to see it.

Back in 2006, Dominique de Villepin, the French prime minister, attempted to relax the country’s notoriously inflexible labour laws in the following manner:

The law is intended to encourage the hiring of people under 26 by allowing employers to dismiss them without cause within two years.

Youth unemployment in France was, and still is, very high mainly because once a company hires somebody they are impossible to get rid of. Therefore the incentive to hire a youngster with no experience or track record is low, and companies prefer to hire a handful of graduates who studied sensible subjects in the top universities and forget about the rest. De Villepin was an experienced and well-regarded politician – no bumbling amateur he – and believed that by allowing companies to fire any youngster they took on who turned out to be useless they would hire more of them. In other words, this change in the law was ostensibly proposed in order to benefit students.

So what happened? This:

A 36-hour strike, which began Monday night, set the stage for demonstrations in more than 250 towns and cities across the country that brought more than a million people into the streets, according to the police. Some of the labor unions put the figure much higher — at close to three million.

The worst violence occurred in the heart of Paris, as the demonstrations were winding down and groups of youths confronted the riot police. One police officer was reported seriously injured when a large firecracker thrown by protesters exploded in his face. The police eventually turned to tear gas and water cannons to clear the protesters away.

The turnout was the largest since protests against the new law began last month, gradually backing Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin into a corner. France’s students and unions are demanding that he rescind the law, which he pushed through Parliament without consulting the public.

The main opposition to de Villepin’s law aimed at helping students find jobs came from students themselves. The message was clear: France’s unemployed youth don’t just want jobs, they want jobs with exactly the same terms and conditions their parents enjoyed. If they can’t have this, they prefer to be unemployed. The proposed law was scrapped and little has been done to address the problem. A graph of France’s youth unemployment in the years since looks like this:Perhaps Macron can succeed where de Villepin failed? Time will tell.

At the time I though the French students were utterly deluded, but an illuminating post written by the now-silent Oilfield Expat made is worth considering:

In effect, France’s major corporations often seem more like an employment vehicle for the graduates of their grandes écoles than commercial enterprises.  And as with the government and the electorate, stuffing the upper echelons full of well-connected elites results in a huge disconnect between the management and the workers.  For it is largely true that, no matter how hard one works and how brilliant one is, you will never surpass the chosen few from the grandes écoles in terms of promotion and prestige.  For sure, many try, and considerable efforts are made by the company management to convince the ordinary folk that if they show sufficient compliance, obedience, and work themselves to death they will be admitted to the hallowed ranks of the chosen few.  But in reality, they are being sold an absolute lie.

What we are seeing in France is the result of workers having realised that they are being treated like second-class citizens in the workplace by a small bunch of privileged elites who have been parachuted into management positions for which they are wholly unsuitable, and have decided that they need to get aggressive if they are to have any share of the spoils.  No wonder France has militant Unions that demand ever-increasing benefits for their members when the ruling elites treat them with such contempt.  They’d be pretty foolish to rely on the good nature of this bunch to take care of them: they’d end up with nothing.

Perhaps the British youth feel the same way about their own ruling classes?

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Let’s not delude ourselves about today’s youngsters

I confess, I am still reluctant to label all those youngsters who voted for Corbyn as IRA-loving Communist anti-semites. The American left like to portray anyone who voted for Donald Trump as an ignorant racist who must clearly hate women because this is easier than trying to understand who voted for him and why. Plenty of decent, ordinary Americans voted for Trump, as they did for Clinton: let’s not pretend that every Hillary vote came from a deranged, blue-haired feminist living in a 20sqm apartment in Brooklyn with seven cats for company.

I am too old, out of touch, and bone idle to actually do any research on this, but I can think of a few reasons why a half-decent twenty-three year old might vote for Corbyn’s Labour. I’m not saying they are right, mind. I’m just saying what they might think.

I believe economics, and the way economics has shaped society in the past 15-20 years, plays a major role. Sure the young Corbyn supporter doesn’t understand economics, but point me towards a demographic that does. Every government in every western country is staring down the barrel of ballooning deficits, a debt which will take millenia to pay off, and not a single major party anywhere wants to even talk about it, let alone do anything about it. A simple reduction in planned expenditure increase is dressed up as a savage cut by damned near everyone: the Tories’ supposed austerity isn’t some fringe issue on the left, it is a widely accepted truth across the whole electorate. The people pointing out that these cuts are anything but are basically a handful of cranks on the internet. Like, erm, me. If any government program is threatened with a cut taking expenditure levels back to what they were in, say, 2010 half the country screams that medieval times are making a comeback and the other half believe them. The knowledge of economics among electorates is woeful, and almost all of them have signed up fully to the belief that all government expenditure is necessary, good, and wise and any cuts are bad. Nobody wants to even think about the size of the deficit and the national debt, it just keeps racking up. So if we’re going to criticise the young Corbynistas for not understanding the consequences of unsustainable economics demanded by ignorant voters, we might perhaps want to first ask where they got such ideas from. It’s too easy to blame Marxist indoctrination in schools when supposedly conservative governments, backed fully by the supposedly conservative middle classes, have been so irresponsible with public finances for several generations. Conservative governments might not be quite as reckless as Corbyn would be, but we’re talking about the difference between disaster and a catastrophe here.

So our youthful Corbynista looks to the generations above him and what does he see? Well, mainly a bunch of people who have gotten moderately rich by not doing very much. I’m going to be honest here: I am no great example of somebody who has done quite well by working very hard. Sure, I did what was necessary and sometimes went beyond that. I dragged myself through a mechanical engineering degree that was bloody difficult, and then I made some decisions (i.e. moving abroad and living in shitholes) which took some effort but I went largely for the adventure. And yes, I’ve laboured on farms and building sites and worked in shitty retail jobs to make some spare cash so I knew how to work when I was younger.

But on the measures by which a youngster will think I’ve “done well”, i.e. career path and wealth accumulation I have done so mainly because somebody has paid me to sit in an office, send emails, shift paper about, take part in meetings, and do what my boss says. This is what everyone in a modern business or public sector job does, even in something as supposedly “real” as oil and gas engineering. Sure, people might do some programming or calculations or some other task with genuine added value, I’m not denying that. But please, could my generation and that above it stop kidding ourselves that we are some kind of Lewis and Clarke pioneers who built log cabins with our hands while fighting off savages and created something to which future generations can aspire? We didn’t strike out for distant shores, risking all and having only our wits to rely on. I know people – mainly first-generation immigrants who are now retired – who really did this. People who moved from Greece to the USA with two toddlers and nothing else, worked like hell in restaurants until they could buy their own – and continued to work like hell because that’s all they knew. Teenagers who fled the Salazar regime in Portugal on foot, came to France and worked as taxi drivers, hospital porters, and the like and never got above that station yet still managed to buy a house and raise a family.

Sorry, but my generation of Brits didn’t do that, nor the one before it. Perhaps my father’s generation did, I don’t know. But what we have now is a system which rewards dithering, compliance, following procedures, arse-licking, and arse-covering. Do you see anyone making bold decisions that bring about radical improvements and taking responsibility if it all goes wrong? No, me neither. It is possible, nay easy, to make yourself rather wealthy in this day and age by sitting in a comfy, air-conditioned office shifting paper and saying “yes sir” when required in the fulfillment of a bureaucratic task that didn’t exist a decade ago. In fact, if you strip down what middle class professionals actually do these days, this accounts for well over half of it. And this applies to both the private and public sectors.

So what impression do you think this makes on the young Corbyn fans? Do they look at their older peers and marvel at what they have created, in the way tourists marvel at the Hoover dam? No, they see people – their parents, for instance – take twenty minutes to describe what they actually do all day and still leave them none the wiser, yet notice they always have the latest iPhone and seem to be doing all right. They see them living a lifestyle largely funded by government debt – free healthcare, free schooling, (often) entitled to an unfunded state pension, endless sops and subsidies which keeps them voting for more of the same instead of dipping their hands in their own pockets – and think why the hell can I not do that? And why not indeed? If it’s unsustainable and provides all the wrong incentives, it’s up to the middle classes to surrender it first, not expect the young to simultaneously pay for it and exclude themselves from the party.

When I think about it, I think it’s probably a good thing that the young don’t understand economics. If they did, heads would roll. It is they, and future generations, who are on the hook for unfunded pension liabilities, interest payments on government borrowing used to bribe the older generations and provide them with cushy jobs, and who are (as I wrote in my previous post) locked out of the housing market by the very same people who have demonstrated all the financial responsibility of a sailor on shore leave. And then they get called selfish because they “want it all” and “don’t know the meaning of work”, this coming from a generation that shoves paper around in an office and voted for more government largesse every time it was offered. I could stomach somebody who dodged machine-gun fire at seventeen saying “you don’t know you were born”, or someone who lived through perestroika and the period that followed. But somebody born in the UK after 1970? Please.

If I were a young person today I’d be voting a lot worse than Corbyn. I’d read the opinions of the metropolitan elite and look at how the middle classes are living and the system they’ve built for themselves and say “fuck that” and vote for whoever will pull the whole rotten system down so that I benefit. Selfish? Yeah, just like everybody else. It seems that today’s young aren’t as keen on Attila the Hun as I am and so they’ve voted for somebody who appears to be promising more of what everyone else has enjoyed for years. What do we expect them to do? Vote for “conservatives” who have proven interested only in feathering their own nests albeit using slightly different language than Labour?

Sorry, but if the middle-aged middle-classes wanted the young to vote responsibly, maybe they ought to have done so themselves. It’s time they stopped kidding themselves that they are something to aspire to, instead of the root cause of the whole fucking mess.

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