Tuesday columns for Newcastle Journal by George Hepburn

Month: April, 2016

Dave’s financial affairs distracted from the real culprits

Can you think of a five letter word beginning with a D and ending in a Y to describe the Prime Minister? Dainty, Dingy, Dumpy, …

The Speaker left us all guessing last week at Prime Minister’s Questions. He invited Dennis Skinner to withdraw the D word he had just thrown at Dave but didn’t want to repeat it himself.  The Beast of Bolsover can be seen on You Tube leaving the chamber muttering D***y Dave over and over again. The term may well stick.

I felt sorry for David Cameron. In the shocking revelations from the Panama Papers, his financial affairs distracted attention from the real culprits. As so often, the cover up was worse than the offence as Downing Street issued a series of statements  incrementally owning up to the extent of the affair.

I felt sympathy for Jeremy Corbyn. His hastily handwritten tax return was sent in late. We have all been there. His extra parliamentary income of £1850 was modest compared to Boris’s half million but will Corbyn’s endearing approach to finance give voters confidence?

Then it got out of hand. In defending his mother’s generous lifetime gifts which will not be taxed, David Cameron proclaimed the right of hard working parents to pass their money down to their children without paying inheritance tax.

I hope this was a heat of the moment remark and does not herald the government’s intention to abolish inheritance tax. It  only applies to one in twenty estates and to well off families. Inheritance tax make us squirm but it is only fair that gifts of whatever kind should be taxed.

Back in the Commons, the Conservatives then accused Labour of wanting the House to be “stuffed full of low achievers” who had not earned a fortune and Labour retorted that you didn’t need to make a million to do well in life. The tribes took up their well known stances when the evidence suggests that we don’t really judge politicians on their wealth, morality or behaviour as opposed to whether they deliver the goods.

I suspect a lot of British voters rather like being governed by people who used to be called ‘gentlemen’ in much the same way as the French secretly admire a President who has an affair. It is almost de rigueur at the Champs Elysee.

Always one to spot a conspiracy, I was more worried by the Marquis de  Whittingdale’s behaviour last week. It left him open to the accusation of being soft on the press and hard on the BBC to cover his own back. He may not previously have been the most flamboyant member of the Cabinet, but John Whittingdale needs to beyond reproach to handle the moguls of the media world.

( new piece)

For the last few months, I have been purposefully told at the chemist that it is time for my medication to be reviewed. So last month I caved in.

Through no fault of the pharmacist, the consultation was not a success. In hindsight, it may have been a mistake to say that I did not respect her company for moving its world headquarters to Zug, Switzerland in order to avoid paying tax.

The conversation became rather terse. “Do you take the pills?” the pharmacist asked. “Yes” I replied. “Do you have any side effects” the pharmacist asked. “What sort might I expect?”, I asked. “You tell me” she said.

I reviewed my minor aches and pains but  could  not attribute any of them to the sort of pills that a man of my age is offered at the NHS’s expense. “ None” I said. I  was out of the door  within five minutes thinking it had been a complete waste of time for both of us.

It turns out that I am not alone. In an excellent piece of investigatory journalism for The Guardian, Aditya Chakrabortty reports that  pharmacists find that ‘medicine use reviews’ (MURs)  are a burden imposed by their management.  Professionally trained pharmacists are expected to work single handed against their code of practice, hand out make up vouchers, and meet a target of 400 MUR consultations a year.

Boots of Zug receives £28 from the NHS for each consultation. The NHS pays Boots of Zug £2bn a year which is about 40% of its UK income. According to a War on Want report, it has avoided paying £1bn in tax.

Boots of Nottingham was one of the most trusted brands on the high street. The company culture changed after it was purchased in 2007 by Monaco based, Italian billionaire Stefano Pessina, with funds from the Cayman Islands. He was one of a select group of British business leaders that David Cameron and George Osborne took to China in 2010 to promote British trade.

If NHS wants to save money, it could cut out MURs as far as I am concerned. If the government wants to tackle ruthless corporate practice, it should turn its attention to Stefano Pessina as much as to Mike Ashley. If it is serious about tax avoidance, it should head off to Zug. Any of the above would be better that haggling over politicans’ tax returns.

What five letter word beginning in B and ending Y might Dennis Skinner sling at  Boots?   Bonny, Barmy, Baddy?

published n Newcastle Journal 19th April




We’ll all get a better night’s sleep when we’ve ditched Trident

James Chadwick started taking sleeping pills in late 1940. It was, he later wrote, the only way to cope with the knowledge that a nuclear bomb was not only possible but inevitable. It might be produced as early as 1943. Earlier in the year, two German emigres scientists at Birmingham University, Otto Frisch and Rudolf Peierls, had thought of a way of turning uranium into a practical explosive device.

Chadwick was a Nobel prize winning physicist who had just drafted the report of the top secret Maud Committee on building a nuclear bomb. No one now remembers whether Maud was an acronym or a codename. Niels Bohr, a famous physicist, employed a governess named Maud. Le Carre did not need to make it up.

The information was immediately shared with the Americans and, to even up the odds,  leaked to the Russians by Donald Mclean. The report was locked away in a safe in Washington until another member of the Maud Committee, Mark Oliphant, flew to the United States to tell the Americans in no uncertain terms that Britain could not afford to build a bomb and that the Americans, who had not then entered the war, must do so.  The Maud Report eventually reached the President’s desk. He issued orders events that led to the Manhattan Project’s launch in early 1942 and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.

Britain has never claimed the credit. William Walker, Emeritus Professor of International Relations at St Andrews University, wondered why we were so modest when he gave a fascinating history of nuclear policy at the latest Hexham Debate. If Frisch and Peirels, Chadwick and Oliphant had not played their parts, Japan may never have been bombed.

But then, Walker pointed out, the United Kingdom has always agonised over nuclear policy in a way that would never happen in France or the United States. To that extent, he said, we should pat ourselves on the back. The anguish continues.

Decisions about nuclear arms have continued to be made in secret. In the fifties, the MacMillan government was worried about falling behind in the arms race and signed a treaty with the United States, providing favoured access to American nuclear and missile technology, that remains secret to this day. In the seventies, James Callaghan  modernised the nuclear arsenal without consulting his Party, Cabinet or the Parliament.

Parliament is still largely an onlooker to the seemingly inevitable progress towards a new generation of nuclear submarines. Tony Blair made a decision to renew the Trident submarines in 2007  and then got it endorsed by parliament. David Cameron promises a debate which will rubber stamp the huge investment required to manufacture the submarines but the  Strategic Defence and Security  Review last November says unequivocally that “we will replace the submarines”.  It curiously overlooked  the question of how it would deploy the weapons  if the SNP closes the bases on the Clyde.

Even advocates of nuclear arms admit that you would not now start from here but the beast  cannot now be turned  back without enormous political fall out. The armaments manufacturers, trade unions and nuclear dependent towns like Barrow in Furness would be, pardon the expression, up in arms.

To my mind, it is even more disturbing that for over seventy years a closed political elite can have controlled a policy that could annihilate us all without greater public scrutiny. Jeremy Corbyn is brave to stand out.

It is puzzling that the Conservative Party has always been so totally in favour of the bomb, Walker said.  It is thought only one Tory MP may vote against the policy. But he suggested reasons why the political will may be waning.

Firstly, the cost of the new submarines plus their support flotilla is spiralling. Estimates vary but everyone expects the sum to rise to well over  £100bn over the system’s lifetime. This looks bad in an age of austerity and may not be popular with the armed forces as it will restrict funds for other weapons.

Second, technological change may soon render the submarines obsolete.  The Ministry of Defence has recently stated that it “believes” that technological advances to detect underwater monsters are “unlikely” but some defence experts forecast that satellites and drones will soon be able to pin point them in the deep, enabling their destruction.

Thirdly, cyber warfare threatens to disable the command and control on which the submarines depend. The Chancellor recently increased the budget for cyber defence by a further £1.9bn.

Supporters of nuclear weapons will say that Russia, China and India are all stepping up their nuclear programmes; that Russia is returning to its old ways and North Korea is a wild card.  Others will say that nuclear weapons secure Britain’s status in the world and keep us tied in with the Americans.

Would it affect our national security if we disarmed? Trident is not an important part of the European defence system or of much influence in world politics. Would a unilateral decision have any beneficial influence in the world?  William Walker believed a nuclear weapon state’s decision to give them up would send a powerful signal, especially if it were the state where it all started. In my view, we have nothing to lose and much to gain. We could give up the sleeping pills and all get a good nights sleep.

A video of William Walker’s talk, which is the main source of this column, is at

Published in Newcastle Journal on 5th April 2016