What a New York scandal can teach us about the poorly paid

I should think there are good people in both Delhi and Washington who are clutching their heads and trying to work out how the conditions of employment of one maid in New York have caused such an extraordinary diplomatic debacle; and so I hope I am not being opportunistic – while they scrabble to sort it out – in reminding my Indian friends that this would not happen in London (the world capital of finance, culture, arts, etc etc, lengthening its lead over New York). And yet I should also be clear exactly what I mean when I say we would do things differently.

You wouldn’t expect any Indian diplomat to be treated that way in London, partly because we do not have a tradition of avowedly political public attorneys – as they do in New York, some of whom may or may not be aiming for higher office. I cannot imagine that British officials would think it necessary to strip-search a diplomat over a case such as this. The Indians are doubtless right to protest about the handling.

But then this is about more than just the handling of a diplomatic spat. It is also, at root, about the ever more urgent question of how a great city tackles the gulf between rich and poor. Whatever one may think about the methods and motives of that US attorney, there is a great deal to be said for a city that takes active and vigorous steps to vindicate the rights of the lowest paid; and here it may be that London has something to learn from New York.

We have a statutory minimum wage, but how is it enforced? There is growing evidence that HMRC could do more to ensure that workers receive their due. Even when they do get that minimum wage, there are many people who find it is just not enough to allow them to live in London. That is why we have the London Living Wage – set this year at £8.80 an hour, to reflect the sometimes exorbitant cost of living in the world’s most desired and desirable destination.

The London Living Wage was the brainchild of a pressure group called London Citizens. It has been running for six or seven years and is now really beginning to take off. In the past year there has been a 450 per cent increase in firms signing up – the total now stands at 432. Those companies find that paying the Living Wage makes sense for them, too. They build loyalty and commitment in staff who feel properly valued; they reduce staff turnover; they end up actually saving in labour costs.

I will not pretend that every small or medium-sized employer in London could afford to pay that rate – and that is why it is important that the scheme should be voluntary. But there are plenty of companies that could do so, very comfortably, and the chances are that you will come into daily contact with at least one such firm.

Think of the people who clean your office, long after you have left at night or long before you arrive in the morning. Think of the people who work in your supermarket or who get your lunch ready in your sandwich bar. These are the people who keep the London economy whirring. They are often facing enormous hardship to do these vital jobs. The Living Wage could make all the difference to their lives – without damaging the bottom line of the companies concerned.

So come on, everyone. The moment for new year resolutions is upon us. The Living Wage is a simple and elegant way of helping some of the hardest-working people in Britain. It is a principle that any Conservative, surely, would want to support.

My new year resolution for 2014 is to find even more supporters for the London Living Wage – and especially from those key sectors, such as retail, that have been hardest to win over; and if you happen to be a corporate titan, I hope you will feel the same. Happy New Year!

Add the EU to the list of myths we’re brainwashed to believe

The experts solemnly assured us that something was vital for our safety and security – and it turns out that they were talking through the backs of their necks. I wonder, sometimes, whether we will see the same phenomenon in our discussions of the EU. Like the old-fashioned cork or the ban on mobiles on planes, the EU has been assumed to be indispensable. For more than 50 years we have been told that it is a vital part of the “security architecture” of the world.

It was set up by idealists, in the shocked aftermath of the Second World War, to “lock in” Germany: to make sure that no German leader ever went mad again; to stop Germany rolling around the continent like a loose cannon. Well, look at Germany now. Does anyone fear German military revanchism today? The idea is bonkers. Then we were told that the EU was vital as a “bulwark” against the Soviet Union, and communist aggression.

Well, look at Russia today. The main dispute is now about whether Ukraine should be more aligned with Brussels or with Moscow, and even then, no one in western Europe is much exercised. Communism is dead. The threat has been exploded. The “bulwark” argument has been shown to be, er, total bulwarks.

In the next couple of years we are entitled to pose the question: what is the POINT of the EU? I don’t mean, what ghastly penalties will Britain suffer if we should decide to get out. We all know the kind of scaremongering we can expect from the likes of Nick Clegg – the “millions” of lost jobs, the vanishing foreign investment, the giant mutant rats with gooseberry eyes: the kind of stuff they said would happen if we failed to join the euro. I want to hear the positive arguments FOR the EU.

Why have we bubblegummed together this hapless congeries of independent states? Is it to be a united force in international trade negotiations, when the EU’s agricultural subsidies so royally stuff the farmers of developing countries? Is it to have a joint foreign policy, when the EU has been so ludicrously disunited on everything from the Falklands to Libya? Is it to agree standards for widgets, when that could surely be done without this apparatus of supranational law?

Maybe there is a positive vision to be set out – I am just not hearing it yet. Let me give a final example of this phenomenon – the lingering of old ways of thinking, old habits, to the point where they become superstitions. As I was writing this, there was an unfamiliar ringing noise behind me. Prooot proot, it went. It was the landline! I don’t know about you, but in our house the landline has passed into virtual disuse.

The only people who ring it are cold callers; everyone else calls the mobile phone of the person they want to reach. I am starting to wonder whether the landline is actually necessary these days. Is there some elf ’n’ safety reason why a household needs a landline, as we career towards 2014? Do we need a fixed line telephone, or can we do perfectly well without?

I am not sure: but at the moment it feels as if the EU is the Bakelite handset of 21st-century geopolitics, yesterday’s answer to the problems of the day before yesterday. If there is a positive case for this spatchcocked federation, we need to start hearing it now.

Boris Johnson: Vince Cable is ‘stupefying and ridiculous’

An aide to Mr Cable defended his comments today, saying: “Vince is speaking for the whole of Britain. Boris is speaking for one city.”

The comments came as Nick Clegg indicated that the Liberal Democrats could be ready to abandon their pledge to oppose any airport expansion in the South East.

The deputy Prime Minister suggested that he had been persuaded by some of the arguments laid out in an Airports Commission report for a second runway at Gatwick airport.

However in their election manifesto in 2010 the Lib Dems promised to “cancel any plans for the third runway at Heathrow and any expansion of other airports in the south-east.”

This week an interim report by Sir Howard Davies, the head of the commission investigating where to build new runways in the South East of England shortlisted a second runway at Gatwick and two options to expand Heathrow.

Mr Davies said that airports would see growth in point-to-point flights where a passenger flies straight to a destinations rather stopping at a “hub” airport and catching a connection and suggested that a second runway at Gatwick would be a sensible way to meet this demand.

Discussing this section of the report on his regular call in radio slot on LBCV Radio, Call Clegg, Mr Clegg said: "I am the sort of person who generally tries to be led by the evidence … In his interim report he [Davies] actually makes some quite subtle arguments.”

Stop pussyfooting around on airports, warns Boris

“It is pretty obvious to me what is going on,” Mr Johnson told the Parliamentary Press Gallery.

“I think the reality is that Sir Howard started with a short list that did not include much except Heathrow and I think he has been told to have another think.”

Mr Johnson has previously accused the Government of setting up the commission to give it “cover” to reverse its opposition to new runways at Heathrow.

He said on Tuesday that any expansion of Heathrow is not “politically deliverable”.

“I don’t believe it’s going to happen,” Mr Johnson said. “I just don’t see how you can get it through.”

Mr Johnson said that Heathrow is "the wrong way forward for the country" and pledged to fight on to win support for his Thames estuary airport scheme.

“The sooner we get a clear answer from the Government, in my view, the better,” he said. “We can't keep pussyfooting and fannying around forever."

He added: "Everybody in my party and indeed in several other parties, so far as I can remember, were elected on a manifesto to oppose a third runway at Heathrow. That happens to be the correct policy. Why change it? Why dump it? The sooner we get back to that, the better."

Responding to Mr Johnson’s comments, Downing Street said that the Mayor can “speak for himself”, but that the commission should be left to “complete its work”.

Mr Cameron’s official spokesman said: "I will let the Mayor of London speak for himself. It's important that these big long term decisions are got right. And that's why it's right to have this commission. There is a commission looking into this and it should complete its work."

Sir Howard’s report said that the UK should build a new runway by 2030, with another likely to be needed by 2050.

A final decision on which airport to expand will not be taken until after the 2015 election.

Zac Goldsmith, the Conservative MP for Richmond upon Thames, has suggested he could quit the party if the Government supports expansion of Heathrow.

Mr Goldsmith on Tuesday questioned Sir Howard’s independence and added: "If my party changes its position on Heathrow expansion – the ‘no ifs, no buts, there will be no third runway’ position – if that changes, then yes, I’m obliged to trigger a by-election.”

Sir Howard rejected any suggestions that his commission had been influenced by ministers.

He said: “We have talked to a lot of people and people offered their views, this is a perfectly normal process in the course of producing a report of this kind, but the decisions are ours and made by us alone.”

Stop pussyfooting around on airports, warns Boris

“It is pretty obvious to me what is going on,” Mr Johnson told the Parliamentary Press Gallery.

“I think the reality is that Sir Howard started with a short list that did not include much except Heathrow and I think he has been told to have another think.”

Mr Johnson has previously accused the Government of setting up the commission to give it “cover” to reverse its opposition to new runways at Heathrow.

He said on Tuesday that any expansion of Heathrow is not “politically deliverable”.

“I don’t believe it’s going to happen,” Mr Johnson said. “I just don’t see how you can get it through.”

Mr Johnson said that Heathrow is "the wrong way forward for the country" and pledged to fight on to win support for his Thames estuary airport scheme.

“The sooner we get a clear answer from the Government, in my view, the better,” he said. “We can't keep pussyfooting and fannying around forever."

He added: "Everybody in my party and indeed in several other parties, so far as I can remember, were elected on a manifesto to oppose a third runway at Heathrow. That happens to be the correct policy. Why change it? Why dump it? The sooner we get back to that, the better."

Responding to Mr Johnson’s comments, Downing Street said that the Mayor can “speak for himself”, but that the commission should be left to “complete its work”.

Mr Cameron’s official spokesman said: "I will let the Mayor of London speak for himself. It's important that these big long term decisions are got right. And that's why it's right to have this commission. There is a commission looking into this and it should complete its work."

Sir Howard’s report said that the UK should build a new runway by 2030, with another likely to be needed by 2050.

A final decision on which airport to expand will not be taken until after the 2015 election.

Zac Goldsmith, the Conservative MP for Richmond upon Thames, has suggested he could quit the party if the Government supports expansion of Heathrow.

Mr Goldsmith on Tuesday questioned Sir Howard’s independence and added: "If my party changes its position on Heathrow expansion – the ‘no ifs, no buts, there will be no third runway’ position – if that changes, then yes, I’m obliged to trigger a by-election.”

Sir Howard rejected any suggestions that his commission had been influenced by ministers.

He said: “We have talked to a lot of people and people offered their views, this is a perfectly normal process in the course of producing a report of this kind, but the decisions are ours and made by us alone.”

George Osborne ‘almost certain’ to cut the top rate of income tax to 40 per cent before 2015, says Boris Johnson

He was asked: “As a low tax Tory, as I am sure you will describe yourself, should our attention now turn to cutting personal income tax?”

Mr Johnson is not known to be close to Mr Osborne and is considered to be a rival with Mr Osborne to succeed David Cameron as party leader.

Last week Mr Cameron revealed that he would ultimately like to cut the top rate of income tax to 40 per cent, but he did not give a timescale.

Asked if cutting the top rate to 40p was the next step after it was cut from 50p to 45p in last year’s Budget, he told The Spectator magazine: “I will leave tax as a matter for the Chancellor. I am a low-tax Conservative.”

Boris Johnson will NOT be an MP in 2015

The Mayor of London’s comments are the first time that he has directly said whether or not he will be wants to be an MP in 2015 and are likely to bring an end to months of 'will he, won't he' speculation about a return for Mr Johnson to Parliament at the 2015 general election.

Asked at a lunch of the Parliamentary Press Gallery if he will be an MP in 2015, Mr Johnson said: “No - because I have got a huge amount of work to do and I can’t see how I could. I have got to go on and deliver a colossal amount of stuff in London.”

However Mr Johnson, who was MP for Henley between 2001 and 2008, was more equivocal when it came to whether he would like to be an MP after he stands down as expected as Mayor in 2016.

He said: “What happens after two and a half years of being mayor, something will crop up, I have always wanted to have a career in romantic fiction, or something like that.

“I think most people would agree that I have been very lucky to be mayor, and what I have said about it since I got elected, was that I thought it was probably the last big job I do in public life and I stick to that, so there you go.”

Mr Johnson first said that he would like to be mayor again in the summer, after he watched MPs debate whether Britain would intervene militarily in Syria.

In an interview with the Financial Times’ Magazine, Mr Johnson said: “During the whole Syria thing, for the first time in years, I wished I was in Parliament. I watched that and I thought ... I wished, I wished."

I was planning on a dash for the aspirin – and then you rang in

Then there are hundreds and hundreds of old soldiers – some of them physically or mentally scarred by their service – who have no one to take them off for a concert or knees-up of any kind. So – zap – you can send them the cash for an outing or day trip, organised by the Not Forgotten Association, founded in 1920.

Then, of course, there are the legions of children who are born in Africa with club feet or bow legs or spina bifida, and no realistic chance of medical treatment. Click click: you can send them a doctor from Cure International UK with the skill to transform their lives.

You can see the deep happiness these charities bring to those who give – the knowledge that just a little cash can do so much good. But I also noticed something about my interlocutors: that they were giving quite large sums, when they were obviously on pensions and when many of them did not earn enough to pay tax.

One couple told my neighbour, Richard Preston, that they had just celebrated their diamond wedding anniversary and had £750 to spare – and so they decided to give it to the appeal. They certainly didn’t sound like millionaires.

As I talked to people and listened to the conversations around me, I remembered one of the interesting features of charitable giving: that it is people on lower incomes who tend – proportionally – to give the most. A 2010 survey showed that the figures for Britain are roughly the same as in America: the poorest 20 per cent of society give about 3.2 per cent of their income to charity, while the top 20 per cent give 0.9 per cent. The middle 60 per cent give about 2 per cent.

All sorts of explanations have been given for this. Some say that poorer people are more likely to show empathy with those in need of charity, since they have direct experience of suffering and want. Studies have shown that rich people tend to be more generous if they live in areas with a spread of income groups; and that, conversely, the more insulated rich people are from poor people, the less altruism they exhibit.

According to Paul Piff, a psychologist at the University of California at Berkeley, the explanation may be even more unflattering. “The rich are way more likely to prioritise their own self-interest above the interests of other people,” believes Piff. He goes on to say the rich are “more likely to exhibit characteristics that we would stereotypically associate with, say, ---holes”.

Now this is strong stuff from Mr Piff. I in no way endorse or support this theory of acquired wealth. The money-making instinct is a valid driver of economic activity, and for better or worse we have found no other way of efficiently running our societies.

But, as I said the other day, we need to recognise that there is a problem of growing inequality in this country, and if we are going to have a great new fizzing Eighties boom, and a new breed of Gordon Gekkos, then they need to show – this time round – that they understand they are part of a wider society that is in many cases having it very tough. They need to prove Piff wrong, and there is one obvious way to do it.

So come on, you hedgies and you rainmakers and you masters of the universe – just get on to the Telegraph appeal, by visiting telegraph.co.uk/charity or calling 0151 284 1927. All you need to do is match the proportion of your income that is now being given by the poor. Take it up from 0.9 per cent to 3.2 per cent, and you will be helping the needy in Britain and around the world. You know it makes sense.

Click here for more details of the Telegraph Christmas Charity Appeal

Is it beyond the wit of tech wizards to stop phone theft?

How on earth, you might wonder, could he make money on that? How could he pay a top-end retail price in London for an iPhone, and then hope to sell it for more in some other part of the world? It turns out that the answer is simple. Apple don’t release their new models simultaneously around the planet. The Chinese are made to wait: and in the consequent period of iPhone famine they are willing to pay crazy prices for the new model. So that’s the opportunity. Buy ’em dear in London; flog ’em even dearer in China.

It began brilliantly, said this north London businessman, and then the Revenue decided to shaft him. They told him that there was fraud in some parts of the market, so they were going to withhold his VAT. Normally he would have been able to reclaim VAT on the iPhones sold overseas, since goods are traditionally zero-rated for export, and the upshot was he had about £1 million parked with the Revenue and total disaster staring him in the face.

Could I help? he asked; and, as I say, my sword half-leapt from its scabbard. I generally think small and medium-sized businesses are getting a pretty raw deal. Their business rates are too high, they have to comply with more and more regulations (paternity leave being the latest example), and it now transpires that some banks may actually have conspired to close them down in order to lay their hands on their property, so as to replenish the banks’ own balances – and if that is so, then the culprits should be sent to prison.

I believe we should support the mavericks and the risk-takers who come up with new businesses, because it is these SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises; 800,000 of them in London alone) that are the motor of the economy, accounting for 80 per cent of employment. It is also small businesses that are capable of taking on young people, and giving them opportunity.

And so I was about to go into overdrive, and dial the Revenue to plead this man’s case, when I had a small, niggling thought.

It came to me that I was also leading a campaign to stop the theft of iPhones and other smartphones of all kinds. Now, I had no reason to doubt what this fellow said. His business was wholly legitimate and above board, if what he was saying was true. He was exploiting a variation in iPhone price between Britain and China. But it is also true that people are nicking iPhones on an industrial scale, and indeed the theft of phones – categorised as “theft from the person” – is one of the few types of crime to be increasing.

That is because there is very little reason for the manufacturers or the service providers to do much about it. They don’t make money on the sale of the handsets so much as from the apps they provide and the service charges they exact. It suits them, in a way, to have more and more gizmos in circulation – because the more machines that are being used, the more dosh they rake in; and in that sense it doesn’t really matter how many are stolen.

I am, of course, sure that this man’s business was genuinely exporting machines to China; but there are plenty of less scrupulous people who have tried to claim back VAT for goods that are not really exported. One thinks of all those cows that the Italian farmers pretended to have exported to the Vatican City, in order to claim a VAT refund.

There is one change that could help solve the whole problem: devise a clever kill switch, so that a stolen mobile could be made effectively worthless. I cannot believe this is beyond the wit of the tech companies. Look at what they can do already. Until they provide a real remote auto-paralysis mechanism, we will be forced to suspect that they have no commercial interest in doing so. Theft of smartphones will continue to be rampant, and genuine businesses will be under suspicion.

Technology defeated car theft; technology can defeat smartphone theft – but only if the tech companies so desire.