The spotlight fell on migration across the Channel in the week of 19 August, when the body of Abdulfatah Hamdallah, a Sudanese migrant, was found on a beach at Sangatte, France. He was reported to be aged 16. There was empathetic outcry, with some outrage that a child had died, calling into question whether the UK is compassionate enough. It appears that in fact the victim of the sea was aged somewhere in his twenties, perhaps 28. He travelled from Libya, having left Sudan in perhaps 2014. He had been refused asylum in France. Had he succeeded in reaching the UK, it is unclear whether asylum would have been granted. Was he a refugee? Or was this desperate man just seeking a better economic circumstance than Sudan in 2014 offered? It is reported that UK social workers estimate that some 25% of those migrants purporting to be children are in fact adults. Without proof it seems age assessment is difficult in young men but acceptance for immigration is so much easier for children.
This year over 5,000 illegal migrants have crossed the Channel, with 1.200 in August alone. Reactions to this influx have included calls to cut off the path with more border force, using the Navy. Another suggestion by a French official was that Mr Hamdallah’s death was the fault of the UK as an application for asylum can only be made by a person present in the UK: maybe channel crossings would be discouraged if forms can be lodged from abroad, but strong arguments against that include potential inundation of asylum applications. Some say that the UK benefits system is so much more generous than many other countries that it acts as bait. Whatever the case, these migrants largely start their journey in North Africa, paying large sums to smugglers for hazardous passage. Most land in Malta or Italy, then make their way overland to their chosen destination. A relatively small number reach the Channel: this year it is estimated by the UN that so far 41,000 have entered Europe in small boats via the Mediterranean. It is important not to get the numbers coming to the UK (5,000) out of perspective as an issue.
An interesting fact is the diverse origins of the migrants. On 21 August the Times reported that only one boat arrived on 20 August, carrying 8 migrants from Nigeria, Guinea, Gambia and Sierra Leone. The same page reported that 45 people drowned in the Mediterranean due to a capsized boat when its engine exploded, with 37 people surviving. Their place of origin was mainly Senegal, Mali, Chad and Ghana. The Daily telegraph of 19 August records a UN High Commission for Refugees report which found that “70 per cent of those making the perilous journey from Libya were unlikely to qualify for asylum (in Europe) when they arrived”. These countries are largely not top of the refugee lists. So, are the migrants mostly economic who want a better life but cannot get a visa?
In the UK the asylum laws may need review, as after 2020, unless an arrangement with the EU is arrived at, there will be no sensible cooperation system in place, and the UK will be unable to argue that the place of first landing in Europe should take responsibility for these migrants. Apparently, the UK process for asylum applications is reasonably efficient, with about one third being accepted. However, the system falls down in that most failed applicants never leave the UK as they should. Such people can meld into society and never be found: it is unclear to what degree resource is devoted to repatriation of illegal immigrants. But there are tens of thousands in the UK, and they can be badly exploited. Perhaps, the system needs tightening, but with an amnesty to grandfather in those here and so begin with a clean slate. Being a soft touch can only encourage more to seek refuge in the UK.
Economic migration, as well as flight from countries which treat their citizens with disdain, is bound to increase, whether through climate change, lack of water, economic tragedies due to wars, corruption and a sense of hopelessness for young people in certain countries. International, particularly European, committed cooperation to change things in the countries concerned is required. But there seems as of now to be no coherent plan or strategy as yet. Of course, a much bigger refugee problem is the 4 million or so people, parked in Turkey.
MYTHOLOGY OF UNIVERSITIES
A Levels have been awarded on the basis of teachers’ estimates, rather than on exam results, as another casualty of Covid 19(CV). Ignoring the traumas of the journey to that decision, the result is that many students received higher grades than they merit, and so too many students will go to Universities, which have been told to make room.
Some of these students, who might be better off developing their skills in a different way, will struggle and will have to live later with the disappointment that the future may bring: no favour has been done to them. Perhaps it could be that some teachers had regard to the offers from Universities in setting grades, which would be a professional error. In addition, many students will do subjects which will not lead to decent employment. The Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that 20% of students would have been financially better off had they not attended University.
The myth has developed that a degree means a better job, which is not true. An article by Emma Duncan, British Editor of the Economist, in the Times of 15 August was entitled “Many degrees are a waste of time and money.” The same article observes that some Universities do not produce good research, teach well or produce employable students, concluding that such Universities should be allowed to go under. Every University is a public spending choice. Douglas Murray makes a like point in the Sunday Telegraph of 23 August – that some churn out automatons, not open-minded, perceptive and creative individuals and he concludes that many could do with contracting or disappearing altogether. Also, will a lot of Universities give value for money when the best lectures can be accessed online from anywhere?
Tony Blair, when Prime Minister, adopted the line “education, education, education” as the ultimate priority. And it is a good line, as it is education which, for example, enables individuals to lift themselves out of poverty, to have opportunity, and to make sensible choices. Perhaps however he was wrong to obsess with attending University as an educational answer for all. Boris Johnson sees education, including non-University skills training, as a key to levelling up society. And that seems right perhaps. Most of all going to University should not of itself be seen as a necessary path for talented people. Some professions, possibly wrongly, require a degree as a prerequisite, which is a barrier for many with talent. Why for example should a degree be necessary to be a nurse or a lawyer? The best higher education option needs assessment individual by individual. In many cases a non- University path will be right, instead of spending 3 years at a less than average University or on a subject which will be of no ultimate use for getting employed. For some of the class of 2020, it may be too late before they realise it.
A result of the CV pandemic will be at least a temporary collapse in prosperity in a number of countries, increased unemployment and bankruptcies, and in poorer countries a setback of many years in the progress being made.
But the U.S. stock markets are hitting record highs. This seems counter-intuitive and some predict a bursting bubble. But it is an ill wind that blows nobody any good. In fact, lockdowns, under which nations have chosen stemming CV and minimising the early deaths of largely the elderly over economic and cultural benefits, have been good news for some businesses, and bad news for a lot more. Maybe to some extent all that is occurring is an accelerated change that would have happened anyway over time. Take Apple, an extraordinarily successful corporation, which recently became the first company to hit a market value of $2 trillion: it is now worth close to the market value of all the companies in the UK FTSE-100 put together, being the 100 largest UK listed companies.
Also, on closer examination, Apple, Google, Alphabet, Amazon, Facebook and Microsoft represent around 25% of the S&P 500 (the top 500 U.S. listed companies). This is exacerbated by the fact that many traditional industrial giants have been losing value fast due to lockdowns and so there is a double hit effect. It is perhaps a cause for major concern in the UK that its biggest company by market value is now Unilever, which makes consumer goods. At £200 billion it is dwarfed by the high-tech U.S. companies, and there is no comparable UK company to compete with the six mentioned above. It is at least fairly clear that reaction to CV has brought about vastly accelerated change to so many industries and investment opportunities. While there could be a reversal, a bounce back, it will perhaps require a vaccine or a more courageous international attitude to CV, or maybe both, to achieve that reversal.
Accordingly, for example, the Chief Executive of BP, still an oil company, has pronounced that it will become a very different energy company: after a record £13.5 billion loss, it is to increase its investment in low-carbon energy 10 times. Tesco’s Chief Executive records that its plan to double its delivery capability was due over 4 years and would have cost hundreds of millions, but during lockdown it achieved the plan in 5 weeks at a cost of £4million. It just announced creation of 16,000 new jobs.
Many well-established retailers have been bankrupted or drastically reduced in size, over a few months: but was it not the case that the high streets were full of far too many shops selling the same stuff, often of low quality, and that these businesses were adding no real value? Marks & Spencer and Boots are shedding jobs. Many changes were inevitable in due course. It is tough and sad that many jobs will be lost, but arguably if the affected people retrain and move into more productive areas with a real long-term future, they will ultimately be better off as will society in the UK generally. UK Government, in conjunction with the commercial sector, will need to provide the re-skilling opportunities, but it is individuals who must embrace them.
Airlines, travel, tourist and leisure industries and others are in survival mode. Some will need and will get Government support but to what extent will investors assist? Tesla now has a market value of over $300 billion: it is an electric car maker which has only just begun to make a profit and is now worth more than the combined market values of Toyota, Volkswagen and Honda. Visions of the future, which may or may not be right, are shaping investor decisions.
The Sunday Times of 23 August, in a Business section article, records “The pandemic has crunched years of behavioural change and tech disruption into months. It’s a challenge for leaders”. A recent “Money” page article in a major daily paper advocated that the time to invest in Bitcoin is here. Is cryptocurrency worth another look?
LEVEL PLAYING FIELDS
A major barrier to the success of the EU/UK trade talks is the EU requirement that the UK adopts, in effect, EU rules in areas such as competition and State subsidy. UKGOV is adamant that is not acceptable, and it never should be. This issue is part of the EU negotiating stance that a few big issues must be settled before detailed progress is possible. Rightly this too is resisted as the EU is adopting its normal pose of “salami slicing” the opposition. Taking but giving little in return. The EU’s level playing field concern is that the UK acts fairly and does not, through lax regulation for example, gain competitive advantage. The EU’s own credibility is undermined however by the massive Government subsidies individual nations of Europe, particularly Germany, are providing to threatened industries. Another area in this negotiating bucket is taxation.
An interesting cameo is occurring around Unilever’s plans to reorganise in its shareholders’ interests so as to have a single headquarters in the UK, replacing its dual-headed structure of separate headquarters in the UK and Netherlands. Factions in the Netherlands want to prevent companies from reducing their Dutch presence in this way. They propose a new “Dutch exit tax”, the effect of which would be a tax bill of some Euros 11 billion if Unilever implements its proposal and so make its move commercially damaging. This would be blatant National protectionism through an abuse of tax. It ought to be impossible under EU law if there are to be level playing fields. But it seems that, if the legislation is passed, the Netherlands would succeed in this unfair process. This makes the argument of level playing fields by EU trade negotiators laughable.
The response of medical research to CV is exhibiting great creativity: possible vaccine in record time from Oxford University; Cambridge University, with UKGOV funding, is reported to be developing a vaccine to protect people from CV and future pandemics. See Sherbhert https://www.sherbhert.com/covid-learning-to-live-with-it/ But medical good news beyond CV is being delivered all the time. The Times and the Guardian hailed good news for breast cancer sufferers on 20 August. Presently, after surgery, radiotherapy treatment can involve up to 30 doses over 3 to 6 weeks, requiring a patient to visit hospital 15 to 30 times. A new technique has been developed, called targeted intraoperative radiotherapy, involving a single shot of radiotherapy immediately following surgery, taking 20 to 30 minutes with a success rate of 80 per cent. So, women are able to get back to their lives more quickly.
Then the Times of 22 August had a headline “Game-changing cystic fibrosis drug available on NHS”. A drug, Kaftrio, which transforms the lives of cystic fibrosis sufferers by improving lung function, has been approved for immediate use in Europe, including the UK. Thousands of children will benefit.
And wild polio has been eradicated in Africa through vaccination programmes.
It would be good to see more celebration of such discoveries and events. And less focus on the wringing of hands by people deciding to dwell on being miserable because of CV, which barely affects the vast majority of people.