Question Time 23rd June 2022
Rachel Maclean (Conservative)
Nick Thomas-Symonds (Labour)
Anne Boden (Starling Bank)
Ben Habib (Businessman)
Mick Lynch (RMT)
Don’t mock our football team. Yes, three of us are older than the Prime Minister and when Justin Welby is replaced, this artisan full-back expects to be able to boast of being older than the Archbishop of Canterbury. Club history (purely oral and prone to revision) insists when a youngster called John Paul II was first elected by conclave, for one glorious, wonderful, possibly unrepeatable season, the backbone of our then team – centre forward, centre half and goalkeeper – were all older than the Pope.
Do not laugh. We have our successes. As well as the stiff limbs and aching muscles, the tackling also dates from the nineteen sixties and seventies. If you must ask about the knee, it remains a folding part of the lower limb useful for administering dead legs and extreme pain to the groin. Teams full of teenagers don’t like it. We win as many games as we lose. Added to which, half of the squad work on the railway. Ears flap. Intelligence is gathered.
As some may be tempted to laugh at our XI, likewise it is easy to laugh at the £90,000 a year handle pullers, formerly known as train drivers, who are striking for more pay. In reality, there is more to driving a train than pulling a handle. Likewise, there is more to the strike than a higher wage. Train drivers, signalmen and engineers might be difficult to replace but guards, caterers, manual track workers and platform and ticket office staff aren’t. Some could be abolished altogether and replaced by apps, automatic ticket barriers and driver-only operated trains. RMT members have already been replaced via ‘fire and re-hire’ at P&O Ferries.
What about the passengers? It is handy to have someone to ask on the platform, at the ticket office or in the carriage. Not everyone wants to use the latest technology, nor should they. In many circumstances it is fiddly, crap and the least efficient way of doing something (eg self-service checkouts in supermarkets).
Such ‘progress’ is not for the passenger’s benefit but to turn them into an effortless cash cow. Following recent near-nationalisation coronavirus upheaval, the Top Link parts of a hollowed-out non-unionised railway could be a money-making machine for the operating companies – with first-class seats reserved on their boards for the likes of Boris Johnson and Transport Secretary Grant Shapps.
A neutral might suggest sensible manning levels on trains and at stations, and that the union should be replaced by a staff association, no-strike agreement and binding arbitration. Are the present leadership of the RMT and the government (and the salivating capitalists waiting in the wings) capable of sensible? Find out on this week’s Question Time!
Question one and two. Does the RMT think it’s fair? And why are public sector workers so hard up? [What?!?]
Mick Lynch (RMT) said railway workers are tired of the way they are treated. They worked through the pandemic rather than being furloughed. He wanted to maintain their existing employment terms and conditions, a secure income and a secure job. Every worker should have that. Covid is a government excuse to rip out terms and conditions.
Rachael Maclean (Conservative) wanted negotiations. Terms and conditions are old-fashioned and need to be changed. A gentleman in the audience wanted to know what more the union could have done to avoid a strike. Mick replied they’d been talking to the bosses and getting nowhere. If anything, he regretted there wasn’t a better government.
Ben Habib (Businessman) recognised a bigger malaise. The Tories have taken us back to the 70s. Taxes, inflation and public debt are at 70s levels. What you get is no growth and deflation in wages. He sided with Mick and the comrades and predicted strikes from everyone he’d clapped for during the pandemic. He criticized the government as being tax, borrow and spend wallahs.
A railway worker spoke. He worked in a ticket office that he feared would be closed to the detriment of passengers. Rachael had a letter from Network Rail which she read out. They were hoping changes could take place without compulsory redundancies. But, pointed out Mick, Network Rail didn’t actually guarantee that in their letter.
Nick Thomas-Symonds (Labour) said Transport For Wales had sorted all of this out with a 3.3% pay rise for railwaymen in Welsh Wales. Grant Shapps won’t even pick up the phone. However, when asked, Nick wouldn’t commit to standing on an RMT picket line.
We’ve had a supply chain shock coming out of lockdown that the government had not planned for, observed Ben.
Although born in Karachi, Benyamin Haeem Habib is one of the Warwickshire Habib’s having been privately educated at £39,000 a year Rugby School. Mr Habib is a graduate of Robinson College, Cambridge, one of the newer Oxbridge colleges, embarrassingly formally opened as recently as 1981 following an endowment from a chap who made his money out of what was to become Granada TV rentals. Cringe.
Moving into finance, Mr Habib worked for Lehman Brothers and insurance brokers PWS Holdings before starting his own First Property Group. The company wholly owns seven properties in the office, convenience, retail, and logistic sectors. Valued at £37 million, they are in Poland and Romania. In addition, First has an interest in property investment funds.
According to Companies House, Mr Habib has held 124 directorships, many of them in nominee companies used to buy and sell properties within his other companies. As a Brexit Party MEP from 2019 – 2020, Ben was forced to disclose his income and declared an impressive €960,000 annual salary from his First Property Group.
While licking his lips at the real estate opportunities provided by a hollowed-out rail industry (especially as the likes of Shapps and Johnson owe the Brexit party bigly for the election landslide in 2019) one might also observe a bead of sweat crossing the brow of Mr Habib regarding his own company’s position. After paying himself nearly a million Euros in salary, the company’s annual report released last summer showed an annual loss of £5.1 million which precipitated a 16% drop in the share price.
A June 24th 2021 Investor’s Chronicle article by Simon Thompson regarded First as a ‘recovery buy’. However, more recent figures on the company’s website, dated up to March 2022, reveal remaining cause for concern. Nearly all of the company’s property value is tied up in two flagship Polish projects each with a book value of about £13 million. Their other bricks and mortar interests are three Polish convenience stores and an office and a shed in Romania which, between the five of them, contribute next to nothing to group profits.
The Gdynia flagship building, on the unfashionable Polish Baltic coast next to the much-reduced shipbuilding centre of Gdansk, sits at 12 ul. Podolska and can be viewed here.
According to Sharecast.com, last month only 20% of its floor area was let with rent and service charges covering just half of the operating cost of the building. As the main tenant is the District Court of Gdynia, First hope the building will turn to profit as other legal practitioners take space.
As for First’s managed property funds, some run at a loss. The combined market value of their holdings is stated at £30,595,000 with a contribution to post-tax profits of £1,118,000. A 3.6% return which would place Mr Habib’s vehicle close to the bottom of the Association of Property Unit Trusts’ league table for such things. Big fans of the private sector, all at QT Review HQ wish Mr Habib well in his enterprise while suspecting only the most sophisticated and well-informed investing Puffins might put a hand in their pocket on his behalf.
Mick pointed out that technological change happens all the time on the railway but under a policy of no compulsory redundancies. There used to be 400,000 union members, now there are about 55,000, but none of them left compulsorily. Conflict doesn’t solve anything, said someone rather naively from the audience. Everybody has to get together to transform the railways. How would a Labour government stop these strikes? Asked someone else. Look at Labour in Wales, said Nick, bring people together and cut VAT and business rates too.
QT Review HQ oft complains that panellists have never had a real job. Not so Mick Lynch of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers. Paddington born and one of five siblings, after leaving school at 16 Mr Lynch trained as an electrician, worked in the engineering industry and then moved into construction.
Rightly black-listed for his trades union activities, Lynch took up a position with cross-channel train operator Eurostar in 1993. Becoming involved in trades unionism again, he rose to the union’s executive and had two spells as Executive General Secretary. When General Secretary Mick Cash stood down due to ill health, Lynch was appointed in his place and was elected to the position in his own right in May 2021.
Since then, he has led the union to the biggest national rail strike for a generation and become a darling of the leftie media – for the wrong reason.
Lynch is popular with journalists as he presents as a quietly spoken sensible trades union leader. He is the non-threating Comrade in the same way that President Barak Obama was the non-threatening black man. However, there is a darker side to the RMT. A toxic atmosphere exists in the organisation, based upon political extremism. Mick Cash’s ill health was stress-related due to bullying and harassment within the national executive. Likewise, £124,000 a year Mr Lynch had to take time out more recently for the same reason.
Although this reviewer has nothing but respect for his railwayman teammates, the same cannot be said of some of their RMT colleagues. So-called days of action include setting up a stall in our town centre which involves a PA blasting out ‘The Internationale’ and ‘The Red Flag’. As well as being gold dust for our local Conservative MP, this is puerile and, regarding the countless victims of Communism, grossly offensive. Besides the thinly disguised political extremism, there is a ‘we are the people’ hereditary job for life entitlement at the heart of the RMT which needs to be squashed.
Anne Boden (Starling Bank) saw the cost of living crisis as coming from energy, fuel and food increases along with supply chain disruption and people not returning to the workplace after the pandemic. Not from wage increases. It’s not the 1970s, the laws of nature have changed.
Anne Boden is the Swansea-born daughter of a steelworker and a department store worker. A graduate of Swansea University, her degree is in Chemistry and Computer Sciences. After completing a graduate trainee course at Lloyds Bank, she commenced on a Cook’s tour of London financial institutions, specialising in transactions (ie cards and online banking), culminating in being appointed Chief Operating Officer of Allied Irish bank in 2012.
In 2014, Ms Boden founded Starling Bank, an entirely online and app-based service initially offering current and business accounts. As cash looks set to be abolished, Ms Boden will be salivating too.
Rachael Maclean, who was born in Madras, is a graduate of St Hugh’s Oxford and was an HSBC bank wallah before being elected to parliament, preferred to blame global problems. She valued public sector workers and had paid them during the pandemic.
Question three addressed Dominic Raab’s Bill Of Rights. Nick thought it a mistake. A PPE graduate of St Edmund Hall, Oxford, Nick was called to the bar in 2004 and practised chancery and commercial law before entering parliament in 2015 as MP for Torfaen. He thought Raab was shameful and referenced Churchill and the end of the war in defence of the European Court of Human Rights.
Ben thought Raab didn’t mean it and this was scapegoating for the Rwandan deportations disappointment.
Delaying Brexit had been a denial of human rights, pointed out an audience member, appropriately on the sixth anniversary of the Brexit vote.
At which point the Reviewers, Moderators and Trainspotters Union’s terms and conditions dictated that, no matter what was happening on the screen, it was time for me to go to bed.
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