The case of Caroline Petrie, the nurse suspended for offering to say a prayer for a patient, discloses something of which most people may not have been aware. To work in the National Health Service, it is officially stated, you ‘must demonstrate a personal and professional commitment to equality and diversity’. It is remarkable that there should be a state rule about what you can think (the ‘personal’ commitment) before you can be employed. I also wonder if it is possible to have a commitment to equality and diversity at the same time. For instance, if, as Brighton and Hove Council tried to insist against a Christian care home, you must question your octogenarians every three months about their sexual orientation, what are you supposed to do with the results obtained? If you must treat all people equally, regardless of their sexuality, why do you need to know their sexuality? If you are committed to respect the diversity of religious faith, why should you be punished for expressing your faith? The only form of equality which is essential for nursing is surely the belief that all patients are equally deserving of care. But it is this type of equality which is now most neglected in the NHS. Children, rightly, are still quite well looked after. Old people are frequently left almost literally to rot. Some nurses in the Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells NHS Trust hospitals in which C difficile ran rife told them to ‘go in their own beds’. If you Google the Maidstone Trust, you will see that it has a Race Equality Scheme, a Disability Equality Scheme and a Gender Equality Scheme, all required under the Equality Act of 2006. At the time these policies were being formulated, at least 90 of the Trust’s patients died of C difficile.
When you read attacks on Ryanair, Primark, JD Wetherspoon’s, Tesco, and other popular companies, they are often about ‘irresponsibility’ — towards the environment, or towards people who might get drunk — or about ‘sweatshop’ labour. Some of these concerns may be justified. But there is something else going on here. What really annoys the critics is that these companies sell products that are cheap. Prince Charles even speaks disparagingly of ‘our obsession with cheap food’, as if the common lot of man would be improved if only food were expensive. To produce something cheap, so long as you produce it honestly, is a great emancipation of mankind. Why is there much less relentless media attention on, say, the polluting and tax-wasting effect of government officials who fly business class on full-price airlines to conferences which need not take place? Why is it all right for a rich man to get drunk on a £100 bottle of claret, but wicked of Wetherspoon’s to offer pints for 99 pence? Why are the pleasures of the (Western) poor uniquely disapproved of?
I have recently heard a well-informed explanation for that puzzling decision of Nat Rothschild last autumn to write to the Times and denounce his friend George Osborne for betraying conversations with Peter Mandelson while both men were his guests and Mandelson was staying on the nearby yacht of Oleg Deripaska. Mr Rothschild and Mr Deripaska, the story goes, were very successful associates, with Mr Rothschild’s fund using Mr Deripaska’s special knowledge of the Russian scene to nurse a healthy nest-egg for him. Things went awry, though, when Mr Rothschild switched into financial investments at the wrong time. Mr Deripaska then needed money and found that it was not there. His wrath against his former friend was very terrible. Mr Rothschild calculated that he would be safer in resisting punishment from Mr Deripaska if he could attach his name (and Mr Deripaska’s) to well-known political figures. So he was treating Mr Osborne rather like those men in films who, when chased, hold a gun to someone else’s head as they try to escape. I do not know whether this is true, but it does explain his otherwise crazy decision to breach the discretion by which financiers live.
I am not normally a great believer in the competence of the clergy, but is it a coincidence that HSBC is one of the very few big banks to have avoided scandal in the credit crunch and that its chairman, Stephen Green, is an ordained priest (Church of England)? No doubt Mr Green is subject to the normal temptations of Mammon, but his holy orders will have tended to provide a still, small voice of warning if he felt like paying himself £50 million a year, and they may have made his staff feel just that little bit more abashed when demanding money for themselves.
The Sunday Times chose to highlight the finding of its opinion poll that 58 per cent were ‘shocked by the revelation that peers would accept payment for amending legislation’. But the much more striking figure in the survey is that 75 per cent wanted hereditary peers to remain in the House of Lords. If you are worried about ‘sleaze’, this is a wise intuition. Obviously hereditary peers are no better, on average, than any other group of human beings. But since they sit in the Upper House by accident they are less likely to have collusive relationships with ministers and officials. They are also more likely to be able to earn money from sources outside the world of politics. It is not by chance that all the latest crop of bent peers are lifers and Labour (if the Conservatives were in power, they would be lifers and Tory). If you want a House of Lords which is clean and cheap, bring back the hereditaries.
A friend who has become self-employed reminds me of how your attitude to tax changes completely when you actually have to write it out as a cheque. This is why people resent the Council Tax or the TV licence fee, but why, through PAYE, the government deducts sometimes more than 40 per cent of people’s income with remarkably little complaint. PAYE is a massive administrative convenience and, for that reason, should be abolished by anyone wishing to empower the citizen. It occurs to me that there might be a ‘human rights’ angle to this. Is not your salary your property? Although you have a duty to pay tax, do you not have the right to the enjoyment of your lawful property before you part with it? Surely, at the least, your consent should be sought before PAYE is applied. It would be an interesting legal case.
One little-noticed point about the wonderful Big White Horse proposed for Ebbsfleet is that the white horse is the symbol of Ebbsfleet’s county, Kent. This should set a precedent. In Sussex, we want a colossal statue of our martlets. And Lancashire and Yorkshire should erect 200-foot steel red and white roses, glaring at each other across the county boundary.