Let’s Debate…

Ed Miliband accuses David Cameron of not wanting to “debate him”.

It’s a strange one. I – and many others, judging by my Twitter conversations on the subject – would have thought you debate something, not someone. In other words, the object of “debate” should be a topic, not a person.

A similar issue was raised a few weeks previously over the use of “protest” with a direct object – e.g. “they are protesting cuts”. Many would suggest this makes no sense – you protest for something, or you protest against something, but surely you cannot protest something?

What is the linguistic issue here?

The issue concerns something called valency. To explain this, let is deal firstly with something else, related, called transitivity.

Verbs (in English and most similar languages, anyway) are either transitive or intransitive.

Those which are intransitive, such as sleep or rain, cannot take a direct object at all: ‘I am sleeping'; ‘It rains on the roof’.

Those which are transitive, such as like or break, can (and, generally, must) take a direct object: ‘I like it'; ‘I spoke English to the woman’.

There are some verbs which may be used transitively but it is not obligatory: ‘I helped him’ (transitive), ‘I helped with the move’ (intransitive).

There are also some verbs in Modern English which can be transitive or intransitive: ‘I’m boiling the water’ (transitive), ‘The water is boiling’ (intransitive). In older Germanic, such verbs were distinct from each other, and occasionally this distinction is retained, although usually unstably: the ‘sit’ versus ‘set’ distinction is now regarded as having developed to a semantic distinction (specific versus general); the ‘lie’ versus ‘lay’ distinction is very unstable in contemporary Spoken English, with the latter generally taking over from the former. [German retains, more stably, the specific original intransitive versus transitive distinction: ‘sitzen’ versus ‘setzen’ and ‘liegen’ versus ‘legen’.]

Then there is the issue of valency, which includes the subject plus any other “argument” that can follow the verb. For the sake of this post, we will limit these to indirect objects, which in Modern English must be introduced by a preposition: ‘I am sleeping’ (valency=1); ‘I like it’ (valency=2), ‘I spoke English to the woman’ (valency=3). Typically, valency=3 includes a subject (‘I’), an unmarked direct object (‘English’), and an indirect object marked by a preposition (‘to the woman’). An object is always required with transitive verbs, but with some verbs this need not necessarily be a direct object – ‘I spoke English’ (direct object) is a complete meaningful clause, but so is ‘I spoke to the woman’ (indirect object).

However, valency=3 is arguably possible even with intransitive verbs, for example ‘I went to Belfast by car’.

It is generally accepted that the maximum in Modern English is valency=4: ‘I bet him fifty quid on Arsenal’ (the four are ‘I’, ‘him’, ‘fifty quid’ and ‘on Arsenal’). This is odd, however, because ‘bet’ appears to have two direct objects – ‘him’ and ‘fifty quid’. Many languages would not allow this (and would require it to be rephrased), but Modern English now appears to.

Some other verbs are unstable here: ‘He gave the chair to him’ is standard transitive valency=3; however, ‘He gave him the chair’, with word order changed, is now valency=3 but with what appear to be two direct objects. One analysis is that ‘him’ is still an indirect object (in this and the ‘bet’ example above), even though it is unmarked – its status as indirect object is arguably marked by word order, with the indirect object always appearing in English before the direct object (you can also say ‘I gave the man the chair’ and ‘I gave him it’).

[Fellow Germanic language, German, allows this but marks it not by word order but by using a different case for each of subject, direct object and indirect object (underlined): ‘Er gab ihm den Stuhl'; ‘Er gab dem Mann den Stuhl'; ‘Er gab ihn ihm‘ (the word order is actually different when two pronouns are used versus two nouns; pronouns always appear before nouns regardless).]

So, what about debate and protest?

In prescriptive grammars and dictionaries, debate is like help – it may be used transitively or intransitively. However, according to both the Oxford English and Webster Dictionaries (perhaps the best authorities in British and American English respectively), its transitive meaning refers to a topic, not a person: to ‘debate David Cameron’ therefore means to debate about the Prime Minister, not with him, in both varieties. It would be possible to ‘debate with David Cameron’ or perhaps even ‘against David Cameron’, thus making him an indirect object, but the preposition is required if he is to be the opponent rather than the topic. Valency=2 either way, but the transitive meaning is specific to a thing rather than a person; of course debate could be used with valency=3: ‘Ed wants to debate the standard of living with Dave’ – a subject, a direct object, and an indirect object marked by a preposition.

According to similar authorities, protest is intransitive in British English but transitive in American (inherently, in American, it means specifically ‘protest over’ in British). Thus, ‘protest cuts’ is good American English, but would (prescriptively, at least) be ‘protest over cuts’ in British English. Valency=2 either way, but one is transitive and the other is not.

That said, the above usage is prescriptive – it is laid down by academic authorities, but there is no “Academie Anglaise” to enforce it. If the British decide to adopt the American usage of ‘protest’ to mean inherently ‘protest over’ (thus becoming transitive), it will not be the first time and the dictionaries and grammars will soon catch up.

The usage of ‘debate’ with a personal direct object will probably become common too. It is possible for verbs to move from requiring clearly marked indirect objects to allowing the indirect object to appear direct (as we saw above with ‘I gave the chair to him’ and ‘I gave him the chair’). It is even more common in American English, where this is allowed for standalone indirect objects: British English has ‘write a letter’ but ‘write to me’ (indirect object clearly marked with preposition), but American allows ‘write a letter’ and ‘write me’ (presumably an indirect object, but deemed obvious from the context). This is probably why ‘debate me’ sounds like an Americanism. Its future is less certain in British (which, after all, has not yet adopted ‘write me’), but if the Leader of the the Opposition is using it, it will probably become common over the next generation. In fact, I bet you fifty quid on it (valency=4)…

Debt defines the economic situation

The headline here, that the UK has the fourth highest household debt in the world, is slightly misleading but the basic point stands: household debt is a huge problem – perhaps more so than government debt.

We talk a lot about government debt or “national debt” and rightly: ultimately in comparison with elsewhere the government can only spend what it can raise (including what it can borrow), and if it loses control of its debt it will run out of money altogether – cf. Greece and Venezuela.

However, the key there is “what it can raise”, most of which still comes from you and me. If you and I are ourselves hugely indebted, however, we are practically limited in what we can pay – in other wises, significant tax rises become impossible.

The figures are unclear, but all the evidence suggests that Northern Ireland is in an even worse place, in terms of household debt, than England, Scotland or Wales. This makes sense – spending in Northern Ireland is 4% higher than the UK average but household income is 4% lower (each excluding household taxes, as they are effectively irrelevant to the comparison).

Advice Centre will confirm the huge numbers coming through their doors with debt problems – from problems arising from endless pay-day loans right through to desperate attempts to cancel phone or TV contracts. This problem is largely classless too, affecting all social backgrounds.

A lot of this does come down to expectations. The accepted “middle-class” lifestyle – several holidays a year, premium-brand cars on the driveway (and there is a driveway), household mod-cons, regular changes of furniture and frequent nights out and city breaks – costs considerably more than the average “middle-class” household actually earns. The pressure to keep up with (or even access) this lifestyle is evident – pressure which can result not in sensible restructuring of household finance but in the development of addictions as a way of escaping the reality of the debt, which themselves add to the debt. Everyone in Northern Ireland will know people in this predicament.

This is no one’s fault in particular – it is the inevitable consequence of a consumerist culture.

The best we can do for now is identify the issue and try to be more honest about it. All thoughts welcome!

Corporation Tax reduction impossible without tackling Division

The case for a Corporation Tax reduction was seriously hindered by the delay in implementing Welfare Reform. There are all kinds of reasons for this – not least that any delays in the latter cost money in so-called (but not actual) “fines” paid out of the NI Executive account to the UK Treasury.

I am not at all sure, however, it is wise to link the two at all. Rather, Corporation Tax reduction should be linked to tackling the Costs of Division.

This is not because there is a link between an open, shared, multi-cultural society at ease with itself and successful enterprises – although there is, of course. It is because the Executive needs to prove it can reform public services and make them more efficient. “Costs of Division” is a prominent, easily measurable, easily identifiable means of demonstrating this.

Fundamentally, the Executive has a choice to make. Is it going to tackle the Costs of Division?

If it is not – and so far, it is not (it cannot even save £2.2 million on unnecessarily segregated and inefficient teacher training) – then it needs to admit it will never have highly efficient public services and will have to accept that hindrance when attracting potential investors. Those investors will be entering a permanently pillarised society where social, political, educational and potentially even economic choices are dictated along ethnic fault lines, about which they will have to learn. Many will not be bothered with the hassle, of course.

If it is, then it will have to prepare to take on the vested interests and deliver real reform. That does not just mean taking on the interests of independent teacher training colleges (who will have to merge into Universities in this new, efficient world which requires fewer teachers trained anyway to free up space for engineers and designers). It ultimately means a change in direction, where no public service provider of any kind is able to deliver that service other than in an open and integrated fashion. In practice, the Costs of Division will not be saved overnight; but this would begin a process guaranteed to save hundreds of millions a year, while also delivering a wider understanding of diversity among the population and thus a more open society in which people (either from inside or outside Northern Ireland) may consider investing. Such a society would be one in which it would be worth the risk of £325 million a year for reduced Corporation Tax, and in which that money would already be in the process of being saved from the overall devolved Budget.

Without tackling the Costs of Division, the reduction in Corporation Tax is unaffordable and close to pointless, as we would not be in a position to capitalise fully on it anyway (thus the risk inherent in it increases). This is not just a budgetary point; it is a point which emphasises that open, tolerant societies are in any case the likeliest to develop prosperity. In other words, Good Relations and a Good Economy (in every sense) are inextricably linked…

The case is clear. Who is going to make it?!

Pacts are sectarian

Peter “Dry your eyes” Robinson thinks Unionist pacts are not sectarian. No, apparently integrated education is “not realistic” but Unionist pacts are all-encompassing.

Except that all four candidates thus chosen are members of the overtly sectarian Orange Order, which does not even allow its members to marry Catholics.

Perhaps our esteemed First Minister also believes Gerry Adams wasn’t in the IRA?!

Pacts disastrous for UUP

I don’t think sectarian electoral pacts are a good idea, not because I have any objection to pacts (I haven’t, in the context of X-vote elections), but because I object to sectarianism. This is not a matter only of preference; it is a straightforward social and economic fact that sectarianism – and the inevitable exclusion of other groups which go with it – is bad for prosperity and equality. It is also a particularly foolish route to go if you are decreasing in number.

Leaving that aside, however, what does the past tell us about how sectarian pacts skew voting intention?

Thus far, that question has been posed only with reference to the four constituencies in which the pact applies, and only with reference to the 2015 UK General Election. Posing it with reference only to a one-off election was the Ulster Unionists’ first mistake. In fact, the most important election in a devolved setting is the Northern Ireland General Election (i.e. the Assembly Election) due in May 2016.

Furthermore, polls and surveys consistently point to a hung parliament and instability. Realistically, to last five years, a UK Government needs not just a majority but a majority of at least 20 (elected with a majority of 21 in 1992, the Conservatives didn’t make it to 1997 without a deal with Unionists towards the end). Although a majority may be possible to cobble together on “confidence and supply” to form some kind of administration, it is not likely to go full term. In other words, even with reference to UK General Elections, a “replay” is likely, possibly even coinciding with the 2016 Assembly vote.

The big short-term error the UUP has made is to withdraw from three constituencies just a year ahead of an Assembly Election in which it was defending vulnerable seats (below quota) in two and had a reasonable hope of a pick-up in one. The obvious example here is the Alliance Party, which stood aside for pro-Agreement Unionists in three constituencies in 2001 and saw its vote halve in all three at the subsequent Assembly poll. The chances are, looking at local election results, that the UUP will escape with two narrow holds, but it will be close and it has probably thrown away any prospect of a gain in Belfast North.

They may argue, conversely, that they have improved their chances in Fermanagh/South Tyrone and Newry/Armagh. In the former case, they may have a point but it is unlikely given the two DUP incumbent MLAs. In the latter, they have no real chance – they have soared past the DUP in recent years but it is extraordinarily difficult with only two quotas between two parties to beat a party by 2 seats to 0 under six-member STV. So neither is any more probable than it would have been otherwise.

The other issue that is clear from the past record is that pacts do not play well for those entering them, but do reinvigorate those excluded from them; and that this applies across Northern Ireland. The Ulster Unionists had put up two presentable candidates in South Antrim and Upper Bann against two poor DUP incumbents, but were reliant on “Liberal lending” of votes to overtake them. Such liberal lending will now be much less pronounced than it would have been. That is the worst short-term error of all.

However, the short term is not even the issue. The bigger point is that pressure for “Unionist Unity” will not subside, and will apply to the race to “secure the First Minister” at the subsequent Assembly Election – and even more so in the event of a UK General Election “replay”. The UUP does not appear to have realised it is now permanently hooked in to sectarian pacts – and primarily on the bigger party’s terms.

The bigger difficulty arises with UK General Elections, where there is no prospect of UUP candidates ever again in two majority Unionist constituencies – for which the DUP has traded two majority Nationalist ones. The UUP abandonment of half the capital city is forever – even if they did wish to mount a comeback against the DUP in those areas, they have no grounds on which to build one, as they are cooperating with the DUP anyway.

In other words, the Ulster Unionist Party is finished as an independent electoral entity, doomed now to negotiate pacts forever more with the very party it should be opposing tooth and nail.

Where the Unions have a case

There are many problems with the Unions’ current tactics in Northern Ireland, but the largest of them is the range of various (and occasionally even competing) demands they are making. The problem with this is it reduces support for any of their case – after all, despite its large size, most people do not work in the public sector and even many who do recognise it is too large and needs significant reform.

There are two specific areas where, it is clear, public sector workers have a case.

Public Transport

This is a straightforward case that the Assembly has not budgeted properly and has left Translink underfunded.

It is a serious problem, because once you begin cutting routes you will only continue doing so – this is, after all, precisely what happened to the railways right across the UK.

Seemingly “unviable” routes are essential to keeping currently viable routes viable. People travelling on viable routes are often doing so to get to connections on the “unviable” routes. Take out the “unviable” (typically peripheral) routes, and it is like taking a table leg from a table.

In addition, those who use public transport are disproportionately those who are working but on low income – the very group who need services most. Withdrawing them will make it harder for people to get to work (or even to take jobs in the first place), harder for people to get to leisure opportunities (making them more inclined to stay in, with effects on health etc) and harder for people to access services themselves (many rely on public transport for hospital appointments, job interviews and so on).

To be clear, Friday’s strike was wrong because it punished the very people with whom the Unions should be building a coalition on public transport funding. However, the basic case stands.

Teachers’ Pensions

The issue of Teachers’ Pensions specifically is one where Unions have catastrophically failed to make their case.

Pensions themselves are not a legitimate public sector gripe. Public sector pensions were set up in an era of people working from 16-65 and then expecting to live, on average, only another 5-10 years; by the late 2000s, people were working 21-65 and then living another 20 years. There is not enough filling in the sandwich – the final salary pension scheme had effectively become, on average, three times as expensive but contributions into it remained much the same. This meant it had to be subsidised by taxpayers, most of whom cannot dream of the same arrangements (as no company can make the same guarantee with people living so long after retirement), when there were ever fewer taxpayers as a proportion of the population to start with.

However, the arrangement for teachers’ pensions specifically is outrageous. Here, teachers have been let down by the campaign in general because their legitimate pensions issue has been lumped in with less legitimate public sector gripes in general.

The problem is specific: teachers now lose 5% of their pension for every year early they retire. Far from being encouraged to retire, they will have to work all the way to 68; retire even at 60, and they lose nearly half their pension.

This is ludicrous, not only because teaching is not the type of job you can reasonably be expected to keep at for fully 46 years, but because it reduces the gaps in the system for younger teachers to enter (rendering decisions to train too many even more ludicrous, of course).

There is no issue with people being expected to retire later and contribute more – this is, in fact, necessary. The issue is with the outrageous share of the pension lost for every year short of retirement age. To be clear, it is not only teachers who should be enraged by this – young people, again denied access to the job market in key professions, should be furious too.

The Government is indeed doing some mad things – but when we protest, we need to be specific about what they are and about how they can be put right!

Mythbusters – “Taking us back to the ’30s” and other nonsense

I am pleasantly surprised at how readily people in Northern Ireland are seeing through some of the nonsense put out by outdated Socialists posing as trade unionists over the past few days.

Let us be clear, Trade Unionism is a good thing. It remains essential that employees can unite to oppose poor work practices, discrimination and unfair pay. Many Unions remain constructive and effective.

Unfortunately, some Trade Unions are allowing their agenda to be set by people with outdated political ideologies rather than the real interests of workers at heart. It is, for example, completely impossible for a true advocate of workers to defend the current welfare system in Northern Ireland, which openly impedes people (potential Union members!) from entering the workplace.

It is noteworthy also that the Unions were so unwilling to publish exactly what the vote was for strike action; or to public their Leaders’ salaries; or indeed to publish exactly what the goal of the strikes is.

Let us, for the record, dismiss some of the nonsense…

“These cuts are taking us back to ’30s levels of poverty”

My father grew up in a series of orphanages in the 1930s, so I find the notion that any worker suffers anything remotely close to the circumstances in which he grew up personally insulting.

The origin of it appears to be the suggestion by a senior Conservative that government spending as a share of GDP should be 35%. Someone, somewhere noted that it was 35% at the end of 1939. However, it was actually 36% in 2001, after a full term of a Labour Government!

This is to leave quite aside the point that making the correlation between government spending as a share of GDP and levels of poverty is ludicrous.

“This is the bankers’ fault, so why should we have to deal with it?”

Even if the crisis is the bankers’ fault, it is specifically the fault of lax banking regulation.

But here’s the thing – we all gained from lax banking regulation. It enabled us to take out mortgages we would never otherwise have been allowed; to go on two holidays every year rather than one holiday every two; to buy a premium brand car. It also enabled businesses to pay for new offices, improve terms, and take on new workers. All of this greatly increased the tax take – in VAT receipts, National Insurance contributions and corporation tax. But none of this was “earned” (the UK did not suddenly become a more innovative, export-driven country) – it was borrowed.

When the system fell apart (what you borrow you must eventually pay back after all) and stricter banking regulation was imposed (quite rightly on the Unions’ own terms) this meant it became tougher to keep up the mortgage, tougher to spend on leisure, and tougher to manage car repayments. Businesses could not access credit (banks had to keep more deposits), take on new workers (as there was no case for taking the risk) or even tread water (as customer spending collapsed because people could no longer borrow). As a result, Government tax receipts vanished.

This means two things. First, we all gained from the boom and thus it was inevitable we would all suffer from the bust. Second, Government is not excluded from this – just as every household and business has had to trim down and cut out inefficiencies, so must the Government. This latter is even more important since the Government now receives less in tax as households and businesses reduce spending as a result of not being able to borrow; and also because in theory the Government itself cannot borrow so easily (although, for complex reasons, the UK and a few other countries have not had this problem).

“This is about public services”

If it were about public services, you would not withdraw them causing great irritation and inconvenience.

No, it is about fear among public sector workers that their pay and jobs are less secure. No one would not sympathise with this. However, as noted above, it is the same for us all. Let us at least be honest about it.

“This is about low-paid public sector workers”

Yet apparently it is also about the loss of “20,000 well paid jobs”…

“We are taking 20,000 well paid jobs out of the economy”

There’s that “out of the economy” line again. They are not being taken “out of the economy”, because the economy already pays for them – the salaries, most of the pensions, all the added extras (including workplace, training etc) are paid for by the tax payer. If the job no longer exists, the tax payer will no longer have to fund it and the money will go back into the pot.

“This is about the tax dodgers”; “This is about the Stormont House Agreement”

Well it cannot be both, for a start! The Stormont House Agreement is about devolved institutions which do not have tax powers.

As I have discussed many times before, the rate of conviction for tax evasion is increasing and the UK is in fact better at collecting tax and stopping evasion than most (notably better than Ireland and Germany, for example). Yet even if the UK managed to get to zero tax evasion (which no country does), it would still be averaging a 2.2% trade deficit every year – in other words, it would still be becoming poorer versus the rest of the world. That has consequences – not least on the availability of revenue to pay for public services.

This is the crux of the problem – for every 20 strikers, there seem to be 21 different reasons for being on strike.

“It’s about the politicians…”

Then why are you allowing politicians from the parties implementing the budget reductions on your picket lines?!

To be clear, some of the reasons for frustration among public sector workers are entirely legitimate. This only makes it worse that those legitimate reasons are being lost in a fog of populist deception led by people whose motivations are to do with political ideology (and, frankly, ego), not practical representation of workers and delivery of outcomes on their behalf.

Why Labour is likely to lose

The forthcoming UK General Election is too close to call, and only a fool would make any definitive claims about the likely outcome. However, my instinct is that Labour will lose. This is partially because it chose the wrong Leader, but even that is not the real reason. The real reason was summed up in one tweet last Saturday:

“On this day in two months’ time we’ll be voting out the Tories — join us now” from UK Labour (let us leave aside for now the laughable claim to be UK Labour when they only stand in Great Britain).

The assumption, as with almost everything the Labour Party does when you look at it, is that “not-Tory” is equal to “Labour”. This is incredibly out-of-date and out-of-touch!

We can be certain of very little on 7 May, but we can be pretty certain of one thing: the majority of voters who do not vote Tory will NOT vote Labour either.

Where Labour has completely lost its way is the assumption firstly, that people are fed up with “the Tories”, and secondly, that those people will automatically vote Labour.

On the first of these, it is evidently decreasingly the case that people are fed up. Increasing numbers across the UK see the country’s and their own economic fortunes on the turn (this may well be wrong, in fact, but the point here is that it is an increasingly widespread belief). But let us even assume that it is so.

On the second, there is no reason for someone fed up with “the Tories” automatically to switch to Labour. In fact, Labour has given them very little reason to.

In Scotland, we find the most obvious example – the SNP has successfully pinned Labour together with the Tories, painting them as effectively the same thing. If you are fed up, they say, you may blame the Tories for five wasted years – and Labour for 13! It doesn’t matter which one you have, they say, ultimately it is all the same.

In England, however, it is not much different. But for the most incredible incompetence, the Greens would now be eating well into the Labour vote on much the same basis as the SNP is – if you are fed up, you may as well be fed up with both of them. Of course, however, the issue most quoted by people who are fed up is in fact immigration (or a broader cynicism about the direction in which things are going) – in which the case the “not Tory” option is not Labour, but UKIP.

In fact, if I lived in Watford (as I once did), I could think of some very good reasons to vote Conservative (most obviously broad economic competence), UKIP (to promote old-fashioned values – if I were that way inclined, which I am not remotely), Green (to promote a real radical alternative – if I were that way inclined, which again I am not remotely) or Liberal Democrat (which, amusingly, is probably what I would do, given I think the Conservatives have lost the run of themselves on immigration and Europe, and given the LibDems should be rewarded for making some tough choices and – unlike the Greens and UKIP – have no doubt learned their lesson on making daft promises they cannot keep).

Yet I cannot think of a single stand-out reason I or anyone else would vote Labour. Evidently, from that tweet, nor can the Labour Party. Yet politics in the UK has moved on – where once 97% voted Conservative or Labour, this will probably now be below two thirds for the second election running. It is simply not good enough to be “not something”. You have to be “something” – and no one believes Ed Miliband is.

Pretending private sector will grow with no reform of public remains cop-out

One of the features of today’s strike is the underlying notion that “It is not that the public sector is too big, but the private sector is too small”, often stated as “We shouldn’t get rid of 20,000 public sector jobs until we have private sector jobs to replace them”. Usually, advocates of this stance also oppose welfare reform.

This is a total cop-out.

The private sector can only create jobs if it is allowed to – most obviously, if people are encouraged to work in it.

The current huge public sector combined with a welfare system which actually impedes people getting into work directly hinders people from working in the private sector, and thus from having any chance to create further jobs.

Growing the private sector actually means encouraging people to work in it. The admission, even by the Unions, that public sector jobs are “high-paying” (it is funny how they say “low-paid” with regard to those on strike but “well-paid” with regard to the 20,000 jobs due to be cut through the Voluntary Exit Scheme…) is one impediment. Maintenance of a welfare system which pays even those who want to work to remain out of work is another. It is a disgraceful double whammy – and those advocating its maintenance are only trapping people in poverty, not helping them out of it.

It is perfectly understandable that so many people want to work in the public sector – it is, generally, where the best paid most secure jobs are. This reality cannot be left unreformed if we are serious about growing the private sector. To suggest otherwise is the ultimate irresponsible cop-out.

Reform or Privatise – Public Transport

My Devil’s Advocacy on social media last Wednesday started a fascinating and informed debate about public transport funding in Northern Ireland, which homed in on the idea that, bizarrely, removing concessionary fares at certain times of day or from certain ages would not in fact gain more money for public transport. In other words, counter-intuitively, there may be no difference between allowing certain people to travel for free and actually charging them fares. It is perhaps apt to discuss this further, given the planned strike action tomorrow.

The argument goes as follows: currently, anyone over 60 is entitled to a smart pass and thus to free public transport at any time, which in effect means that the ratepayer pays their fare every time they use it (although actually the payment is not the full fare that Translink would otherwise have received from that passenger had they actually paid, given that there are season ticket and returns which are cheaper anyway); however, removing that right during peak hours would simply force them either off public transport altogether, or on to non-peak hours (when the fares to be recouped are lower in any case).

I was inclined not to believe this and, actually, I’m still not, having discussed it even with people on doorsteps. My detailed market research (ahem, okay, my raising the issue with about six people) has revealed that my instinct was probably right. Almost anyone over 60 using public transport during peak hours is in fact a commuter (in fact, every retired person I raised this with didn’t even know their pass applied during peak hours – how’s that for top-notch research?!) and therefore, if the concession were removed either from 60-65s or from peak hours, would simply pay the fare in full (or whatever equivalent season ticket). The fundamental difference here is between necessary travel at peak hours and optional travel at non-peak hours – there is not much point in removing the concession for the latter because then people will likely opt not to use public transport at all (so there is no gain or loss to Translink either way), but during peak hours the journey has to be made.

There was some dispute about “evidence” either way but there is certainly no evidence that removing concessionary fares during peak hours and/or from non-retired people above 60 would cost Translink money. The likelihood seems to be that it would save roughly £8-£10m – nothing like the entirety of the “fares” because they are not paid at some rate, but enough to cover almost entirely the budget cut (accepting that there is in effect another £14m-£16m to find this year on top of that due to other predominantly capital-related costs arising).

Arising from the same point was the argument that fare rises will actually be counter-productive. My own instinct is that this point is very important, particularly in the context of relatively low fuel prices. The real risk is that if the margin between using public transport and using the private car becomes ever lower, people will opt for the freedom of the latter. Already, I have noticed my own mileage creeping up as fuel costs reduce (something which must be multiplied for other drivers, as my car is a hybrid and thus the gains are not as marked as for most people). There is a real possibility that what Translink should be doing now is reducing fares, particularly during non-peak hours when buses and trains are nowhere near full. Sensible MLAs and journalists should now be demanding the detailed business case which suggests income will be increased through fare rises – my instinct, as the smallest of small businessmen, is that it will not.

Other correspondents made the broader point, which is probably more relevant here – that Translink seems to be being starved of money in such a way that privatisation becomes inevitable. We should be very clear that privatisation would, in all likelihood, be a complete disaster (from the point of view of the customer). It would inevitably lead to minor competition becoming monopolies even on profitable routes (operating at much higher cost to the consumer in the longer term), while loss-making routes would simply not be served at all.

We seem to have forgotten that the point of public transport is that it is public. Yet we also need to note that Translink has two options – reform and remain public, or be privatised.

Here are some thoughts about that reform that should at least, in my view, be debated:
– fare reductions in non-peak hours may in fact raise income;
– removal of concessionary fares during peak hours would surely raise income, even if not as much as at first appears to be the case;
– efforts to ensure greater punctuality on bus routes would reap significant dividends (as has been the case on trains); and
– for all Translink’s arguments that it has integrated management, it has not integrated ticketing – integrating bus and rail tickets (and conceivably even air and ferry tickets, as is the case elsewhere) would in fact enable a more efficient service and give a clearer indication of how many buses should run and when.

Over to you…

(For the record, I have a lot of sympathy with the workers’ point. A properly managed Assembly Budget, including reasonable revenue raising and fewer giveaways, would not necessitate such drastic cuts to public transport, which in fact needs investment not further withdrawals of service. However, a strike, which punishes the same people punished by service withdrawals, is not the way to go about it.)

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