Wednesday, 25 February 2015

About. Bloody. Time. (But not far enough.)

Clampdown on cold call companies unveiled by government. Not before time. Cold calls are a menace, and even more so this week: I've been on holiday. I'm trying to relax, but the phone at my holiday place rings every day with cold calls. In the end I set the ringer to zero volume, so if somebody called it who actually wanted me, they wouldn't get me.

Even within current legislation, the ICO's reponse has been pusillanimous. So, when it gets these new powers, it needs to start using them. Also, these powers only deal with cold calls within the UK. The faux Microsoft calls from India need to be dealt with too. At the moment phone companies have no way of filtering out withheld numbers from foreign places, because BT Openreach does not provide one. You can buy one to fit on your own phone, but why should we have to? It is a quick technical fix to provide a call blocking mechanism for withheld numbers but Openreach apparently have no interest in providing one. Ofcom should give Openreach a very hard kick up the backside on this one, and keep kicking till they provide it.

An addition to my election wishlist: MPs' jobs on the side.

An addition to my election wishlist. This has been in my mind for some time, well before the Straw / Rifkind hands in the honeypot debacle; I didn't remember it when I wrote my original election wishlist.

MPs can have any second job they want. Or third. Or fourth. But they cannot vote on anything in which they have an interest. (If the rule is good enough for councillors, it's good enough for MPs.) The Speaker's Office should have an arm devoted to determining who can vote on what, with stringent rules. Any bill brought before Parliament would have a list attached to it of MPs who cannot vote on it, with the reasons why. An advisor to a large multinational company might find themselves excluded from all the important votes.....

An objection will immediately be raised. What about people like doctors who need to do a certain amount of practice in order to maintain their credentials? As experts, they have specific contributions to make to debates in their specialisms. I don't think that is insuperable. Even doctors can't have everything. They have to make a choice; do they want to be a doctor or an MP? If they want to be an MP, they put their doctoring on hold. If they lose their credentials and have to get them back after they have ceased to be MPs, provision for retiring MPs is very, I mean VERY, generous - they have plenty of both time and money to re-credential themselves.

Also, I think the argument about having expertise in the house is overblown. 650 largely white, largely middle class, largely middle aged men will not have expertise on everything. They rely on outsiders for expertise, and perhaps should rely more. The medical profession, like any other profession, is an interest group. I would hate doctors to have some sort of claim to being listened to more than all the rest of us when it comes to legislation on medical matters.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

My election wishlist

None of the items below is sexy, but I think they are all necessary and will have a surprising effect on accountability, efficiency, the quality of the services we receive, and the amount of tax available to pay for them.

Welfare policy
Whatever the words employed, current welfare policy is about demonising and impoverishing claimants. We want a society where everyone who is not working, either because there is no work, or because they are too ill or disabled to work, is guaranteed a decent minimum without fear of constant harassment.

Civil service capacity
We've been outsourcing busily for thirty years. That's an entire generation. But the capacity of the civil service to monitor the tens of billions of pounds in those contracts remains unacceptably low. We need to beef up the contract control functions of the civil service so that it is capable of ensuring that every profit making contractor delivers the service that we are paying them for.

FOI for all government contracts
Much of our tax money is wasted through sloppy procurement of public services from private contractors. (Example: SERCO had to repay £200 million due to overcharging on offender monitoring contracts.) We need to extend freedom of information provisions to all contracts awarded by central and local governments, so that we can see what is going on with our money, and neither ministers nor contractors will be able to hide behind the fig leaf of commercial confidentiality. Yes,  it's not sexy, but it will make a much bigger difference to both our services and our taxes than most people think.

As many staff to tackle tax avoidance as benefit fraud
Benefit fraud costs us approximately £1.2 billion a year. Tax evasion costs approximately £70 billion a year. The DWP claims to employ 3250 people chasing benefit fraud; HMRC claims to employ 300 people chasing high earning evaders. (Other figures are available.) We need to ensure that as many resources are put into chasing tax evasion as benefit fraud. And we need to see that the proportion of tax evasion cases taken to prosecution equals or outstrips the proportion of benefit fraud cases.

And then when we wake up exhausted the day after election day, I wonder what our red lines should be. Just a few observations here. I have very few things that I would call red lines. I don't think our tax ideas need to be there (I don't think a further raise in the level of personal allowance is the best thing to do for low paid people). There has been a certain amount of speculation about the LibDems not having the stomach for another coalition with the Tories. I don't feel that way. If the electorate deals us those cards again, then we have to play them. The country is not in the delicate state it was in in 2010 so we can afford to take longer and play harder if we think it right to do so. Alternatives like confidence and supply are more open than they were in 2010. There is one area where I would foresee difficulty if I were in the negotiating team. I do not see how we could tolerate being in another government with Iain Duncan Smith. It's not about stomach: I can imagine being in the same room as him. But his lethal combination of vindictiveness and incompetence directed at the poorest and most vulnerable is the very opposite of liberal government. If we enabled him to take another five years to bully poor people, sick people and disabled people, we could no longer call ourselves liberals.

Friday, 19 December 2014

I wonder what the magistrates were thinking

So the three idiots who disrupted Tottenham's game against Partizan Belgrade have been fined £155 each. I have to say I was hoping for more, both as a Tottenham fan and a football fan. The magistrates appear to have swallowed hook, line, sinker and bait the defendants' story that this was a spur of the moment thing and not designed with any malicious intent. It's quite difficult to square “spur of the moment” with a video released beforehand to say they were going to do it, and then timed runs on to the pitch every ten minutes. They have also been banned from attending football matches till 2018. I don't think any of these numpties will view that as a serious burden. It is interesting to compare this slap on the wrist with the punishment meted out to the man who interrupted the boat race a couple of years ago. He got six months in prison. His actions were explicitly viewed by the judge as being anti-elitist. He was also deemed to have endangered his own life and the lives of others. He might indeed have endangered his own life, but with a whole flotilla of boats looking ahead to spot any dangers such as driftwood, it is difficult to see that this was really a significant factor. And even more difficult to see what the actual danger to others was. I think it more likely that this was useful to the judge in arriving at a heavier sentence than he might otherwise, despite the jury that found him guilty requesting lenient treatment. Yes, I am accusing the judge of being biassed. I equally accuse the magistrates at Highbury Corner of being biassed, but in the other direction. Their view seems to be that disrupting a football match just doesn't matter.

It's very tempting to view this through a Marxist lens. Disrupt the sport of the elite, and you will be heavily punished. Disrupt the sport of the working classes (yes, it still is despite the nouveau riche fan base of the Chelseas of this world), and who cares. Or indeed, disrupt for the purpose of drawing attention to injustice, and we will come down on you like a ton of bricks. Disrupt for the purposes of commercial marketing, and we will dismiss it with a blink. To be honest, I don't think the members of our organs of state have the capacity to think through a conspiracy on that scale, but some sort of ambience like that is there somewhere in the background. Either way, what the Highbury Corner magistrates have done is to give out an invitation. For the price of a night out (let's face it, £155 is a meal and a couple of Stellas in some places), you can disrupt any sporting event you like, as long as it's not an elite pastime, and get your five minutes of fame in front of tens of thousands of people. The idiocy of those who did it is almost matched by the idiocy of the punishment.

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Feeding Britain: blaming the victim?

It is quite difficult to characterise what the Food Poverty report, Feeding Britain, is. I can best say only that it is not what I hoped it would be. I hoped for a reasoned account of why so many people are forced to go to food banks, why that number has risen so much during the years of coalition government, and what can be done to eliminate the need. Some of those elements are there but poorly argued, badly evidenced and insufficiently marshalled into coherence. Most of all I expect some passion, but there appears to be none in this document. It starts with great ambition “We believe it is time to look again at the state of our country and to review the fundamental values that led to the creation of our welfare state. We propose in Feeding Britain a strategy for renewing the welfare state so it can better reflect and encourage the relationships which contribute to the well-being of our citizens, including the poorest. We think such a rationale is needed at a time when, sadly, we appear to be drifting towards more and more atomisation and less and less sharing of common values.” And then it delivers a series of bureaucratic tweaks to the current system while accepting all of the major forces that conspire to produce the poverty they hope to eliminate. In some ways, they have my sympathy. Many of their recommendations are for change in the way the DWP does things. Good luck to them if they are able to change Iain Duncan Smith's hardness of heart.

When such an eminent bunch of people gather to report, I expect something that goes behind the fa├žade and looks at the hidden structural issues. The phrase “food poverty” itself is the place to start. There is no such thing as “food poverty” or “energy poverty”, there is only poverty. People do not have little pots for each of their living requirements, one of which can empty without affecting the others. They have only one, inadequate, pot. So an investigation into food banks is really an investigation into poverty. Poverty in the UK today has two main causes, neoliberal economics, and the actions of the coalition government, specifically the Department for Work and Pensions. When even the OECD tells you that increasing inequality is the wrong way to go, it is time to sit up and listen. But this report largely ignores that whole issue.

What troubles me most of all is that, despite many fine words, the authors continuously fall into the discourse of individual shame, and they do so in a way that would make a Daily Mail journalist proud. In their initial survey they suddenly, on page 10, introduce the topic of addiction. They mention debt as a factor, then say “The other force at work is the addictions that many individuals and families have” and continue “A considerable number of our poorest families and individuals find themselves trapped, thereby, in a vicious circle of addiction fed by debt”.  There are no statistics to back up this audacious statement, no suggestion of exactly what proportion of food bank users are there because of addiction. But the suggestion is now planted in the reader's mind that it's all their own fault.

They do it again on p14 “there is a second group of our fellow citizens who rely on their local food assistance provider who it is important to distinguish for it has helped shape our recommendations. This second group consists largely of individuals with often highly complex needs that extend beyond their immediate hunger, such as mental illness, homelessness or addiction problems, and who require long-term assistance and support if they are not sometimes to be hungry. Many were reliant on food assistance before the most recent recession and many are likely to remain so in the years ahead.”  There is again no hint of what proportion of food bank users are in this situation, and no attempt to match this statement with the massive rise in food bank use that has occurred over the last four years (e.g. Huffington Post). People in this situation need intensive and personally directed help, but provision of this much needed help will not solve the problems of the vast majority of food bank users who are there for only one reason: neither work nor welfare provides enough money for them to survive..

Then, p29, they turn their attention to troubled families. They applaud the work schools do “We have had a great deal of evidence showing how imaginatively schools try to protect these vulnerable children from the consequences of the chaos that reigns at home. We applaud these efforts, would wish them to continue, and indeed be expanded to cover all children who arrive at school hungry. The aim should be for this response to be extended.” A couple of paragraphs later they admit that they have no idea how many people who go to food banks fall into this category.

They save their finest example to near the end of the report, p39. They discuss the impact of the sanctions regime, and start by saying “Some sanctioned claimants do not kick up a fuss because they may, for example, have been working on the side whilst claiming and see the sanction as part of the business plan of fraudulently claiming benefit.” They then go on to discuss the effect of sanctions on the (mostly) innocent victims. No evidence is cited to back up their imputation of fraud - absolutely none. But that impression has been planted in the reader's mind. The uninformed will far too easily be led to think that the sanctions regime is doing a great job punishing fraud and if a few unfortunate innocents fall victim, that is a price worth paying. Forget the simple, simple statistic, the DWP's own estimate that fraud and error take up a mere 0.7% of their budget. Forget the mountain of evidence of the random, arbitrary and vindictive nature of the entire sanctions regime. If one of my level one social science students made such a sweeping claim in their essay, backed up by absolutely no evidence, I would be round at their house strangling them with their own guts. That a group of authoritative people can do so in a public document fills me with fury.

There are some glimmers of hope, such as the recognition (p28) that mobile phones and internet access are more than fashion accessories. And there are many good recommendations, but they all seem to be piecemeal, unrelated pieces of a jigsaw with no picture. And for all those glimmers, the report is framed in a way that constantly diverts attention from the problem of poverty on to the failings of the poor. I had hoped for better.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Black Friday: birth of a retail festival

The year for most UK citizens is organised by retail festivals.

New Year's Day pumps up the sales fever generated by Christmas, at least for those whose credit cards are not maxed out.

Then we have Valentine's Day: big opportunity to sell cards and chocolate

Then Mother's Day: big opportunity to sell cards and flowers

Then Easter: more cards, more chocolate

Then things go off a bit, with no recognisable festivals for a while. They've had a bit of success getting Father's Day off the ground. Otherwise it's summer with promotions of barbecues, umbrellas and wellingtons.

Things pick up again around August and September with the start of the new school year.

Then we get Christmas #1, with puddings, cakes and crackers in the shops in September, which are then cleared from the shelves for...

Halloween: lots of opportunities to sell all sorts of tat. Closely followed by....

Guy Fawkes: plenty of sales opportunities there. And then....

Then it's Christmas #2 all the way to Dec 25th.

And now we have a new retail festival, Black Friday, which inserts itself neatly after Nov 5th, and kick starts the Christmas shopping spree.

There are three basic reactions to Black Friday a) I'VE GOT A 48” TV!!!!!!   b) wonder why we've taken up this American import and the country's going to the dogs  c) ignore it.

Personally, I'm in the “ignore it” category, but as a social scientist I find both the festival itself and the reaction to it fascinating.

I'm not sure about its genesis over here, but I suspect Amazon have a lot to do with it, and a lot of other retailers spotted the opportunity. So maybe it isn't because of the workings of any one organisation or group of organisations; it's just that retailers collectively noticed that this was something they could leverage.

I call it a festival because that is what it is. It is exactly the same as the other festivals - Christmas and Easter included, which have no religious or spiritual meaning for the vast majority of the country, but are an opportunity to throw off the normal routine of life and get expansive both spiritually and physically, for a short time, before going back to the drudgery of normality. And they signify that our entire society and economy are based on consumption. Citizenship and spirituality have both gone out of the window as a measure of any value. People in the UK value themselves by and large by what they spend, and these regular retail festivals are an opportunity to spend big. I say the UK because I think it's one thing in which we are world leaders. The rest of the world is not far behind but the Thatcherite implementation of neoliberalism has turned us into a nation that knows the cost of most things and the value of very little. So we buy stuff, and we love a bargain (whether or not we know a good one when we see it). And if people queue for hours, burst into the shops in a riot, get into fisticuffs with each other over the goods, what else should we expect. That is what our British values of consumerism and social disengagement encourage.

There is no point in blaming the Americans. The fact that it started in America is immaterial. It is not an import. It is here because it works, and it works very well. I am quite sure that this is now an established British retail festival, just like all the others, as I said earlier. And the biggest of all is Christmas, which has shed its religious meaning for all but a few. George Carey in the Daily Mail notes “A survey last week found that only 31 out of nearly a thousand advent calendars sold in Oxford Street had any religious references.” Why is that noteworthy? We know we are not a Christian country except in a nominal, traditionalist way. He tries to buck himself up by continuing, “But despite all this, churches and cathedrals will be packed for the darkness-into-light services.” Research suggests that maybe five million people will attend church during Advent. But that means that fifty five million don't. There is no reason why they should: advent has no meaning for them. The message of the gospel was lost some time ago, submerged by the message of consumerism. For those of us who are Christians (myself included) it is time to stop pretending that we live in a Christian country and recognise the reality of the current triumph of consumerism. Only when we do that will we be able to start fighting back effectively.