Monday 17 December 2012

Benefits and taxes

Fairness and effectiveness are often at odds in the distribution of benefits. There is always a tension between giving away too much and too little. If benefits are means tested, there will always be some people who desperately need them but don't claim them for a variety of reasons including the complexity of the process and the stigma. If you make a benefit universal, there is a lot less stigma attached, and it tends to be less complex, and so take up rises. Child benefit, for instance, in its various guises, has had near 100% take up, thereby insuring that it goes to everyone who really needs it, because of universal availability. The problem with that is that a good deal of our taxes then goes to supporting people who don't need the support.

You can deal with the problem to a certain extent by making benefits taxable. If you do that, you may need to increase the benefit to take into account the effect on lower earning tax paying households. It can be done, but the politics of turning a non-taxed benefit into a taxed one are fraught.

I wonder if another way of turning the circle into something like a square might be to apply a variable upper rate of tax. As it stands, in 2012-13 taxable income between £34371 and £150,000 is taxed at 40% and above £150,000 at 50%. Increasing those taxes across the board to recognise the benefits paid to high earners is generally seen as unpalatable, because it disincentivises earning and over-incentivises tax avoidance behaviour. Whether you agree with these or not (I don't agree with the first, I do agree with the second to an extent), they are so widely accepted on both the conservative and what passes for the progressive wing of the political elite that they are all but unchallengeable.

A variable upper rate would apply a higher rate of tax to small bands within the upper bands. Thus, for income between, say, £80,000 and £90,000 the rate could be 45% which would net an extra £500. People in that bracket, who probably think of their earnings as “modestly high” could be confident that when their earnings passed £90,000, the extra would revert to the 40% tax rate. There might be another band, say, between £120,000 and £130,000, netting another £500. And more at appropriate intervals further up the scale.

The idea is not to arrive at individual fairness in the sense that those who benefit pay it back. It is a sense of collective fairness in that those who earn large sums of money can be seen to redress the balance as a group for benefits received. The extra cost of a universal benefit is seen to be recouped, or at least partially recouped, by the variable tax. It seems such a simple idea that I am sure other people must have thought of it before and rapidly come up with reasons why it would not work, so if anyone can enlighten me, I would be grateful.

Tuesday 4 December 2012

IDS's crocodile tears

I am following up yesterday's post about International Day for Disabled People – all over the world except in the UK. Yesterday was a day that every Liberal Democrat in the country should take notice of, because the government – in this case Iain Duncan Smith and the Department for Work and Pensions – is doing dreadful things in our name and with our support.

For all the rhetoric Iain Duncan Smith and his department have one objective, which is to reduce the benefits bill. They have no care for how they do so, or for the dreadful impact that has on the lives of the people they deprive of income. In the last few weeks he has made great play of the number of people he has got off benefits, despite the government's actual figures demonstrating really poor performance. But even where the Work Programme has got people into work, it has not reduced the benefit bill one penny. With two and a half million people chasing a few hundred thousand vacancies, not one new job has been created. Under normal circumstances, when a vacancy arises, an unemployed person applies for it, and gets it. When A4E get involved, they pick which unemployed person goes into the vacancy, leaving another unemployed person unemployed and claiming benefits. To do this they get paid, so the Work Programme creates no jobs but works as a mechanism for transferring money out of the pockets of taxpayers and into the hands of very profitable private companies. The work A4E is now charging us through the nose for was being done very capably by charities and NGOs before Iain Duncan Smith decided the private sector needed a boost.

In fact far from creating jobs, the Work Programme destroys jobs. Companies like Poundland now know that they can fill 10%, 15%, 20% of their labour needs through the Work Programme. So they no longer need to advertise those posts and pay people to fill them. So the taxpayer gets shafted twice. We are directly contributing to the profits of companies like Poundland by paying the wages for them, while also paying A4E for choosing which unemployed person will go there. There is more detail here.

Meanwhile Lord Freud thinks that poor people should take more risks. It is tempting to speculate about which planet he was on when he said that, certainly not this one. I would like to think that the rich might be inclined to take more risks, but there is no sign of them doing so. The Director General of the BBC is just the latest case in a long line where people are given contracts that fireproof them against failure of any kind. The DG's contract was such that the BBC were required to give him a year's pay if they sacked him. Why? If he is not capable of putting something away for a rainy day on a salary of £450,000, what on earth is he doing in a job of such responsibility? The same goes for every single bonus and every single feather bed contract given to directors and CEOs since the crash of 2008. No high level contract should ever carry more than the legal minimum benefits: they are well enough rewarded by the rate of pay. The bankers and the directors have gone on doing business as before, except for the occasional shareholder revolt, and the government has done nothing to ensure that when people play with other people's money, they take responsibility for what they do. If they did that, they would make better decisions, and companies would be more profitable. Subject to the government's laissez faire attitude towards taxing multi nationals, the tax take would be higher, and the government would lose their excuse to screw poor people even harder. Which is of course why they're not doing it.

So all in all, government policy towards the rich and the poor is not just not helping with the recession, it is actually making it worse. We've known for a long time that the Conservative part of the government has no intention of actually making rich people take the consequences of their actions. It becomes clearer every day that their intention is actually to make the poor pay for the actions of the rich, by hounding and harassing them off benefits.

These are not isolated cases - every day up and down the country, disabled and sick people are being told they are fit for work, and being made to - pardon the pun - jump through hoops to re-establish their need for benefit. Try this one for size: "A blind, deaf, tube-fed, non verbal, disabled man from Scotland has been deemed fit for work" - this is not an aberration, it is normal procedure for ATOS, aided and abetted by Iain Duncan Smith's DWP.

Brian McArdle died when his disability benefits were stopped. His son wrote to Iain Duncan Smith, and got back a clunkingly self justificatory letter written without a hint of compassion.

Karen Sherlock died in the middle of an entirely unnecessary battle with the DWP over the income she needed.

I say again, these are not aberrations. Between January and July last year 1,100 claimants died after they were put in the “work-related activity group”. Yesterday, on the International Day for Persons with Disabilities, by an exquisite irony, the DWP brought into effect a provision that people on ESA, and in the WRAG - deemed by the DWP's own system to be unfit for work - can be mandated to go for work, without any time limit.  Jobseeker's Allowance claimants who are mandated to go to Work Programme placements have a time limit of three months on those placements. But if they have decided you are unfit for work, you can be made to work to the end of your days, or lose benefit. There is certainly no compassion, but neither is there any logic or any competence in these provisions. In fact quite the opposite - these measures hinder economic recovery for one purpose only - to hound the poor and the sick, with all the perverted moral zeal that Iain Duncan Smith can bring to the task.

Yesterday I wrote as a human being. Today I write as a Liberal Democrat. Liberal Democrats must withdraw all and any support for Iain Duncan Smith's poisonous schemes, and work to put some compassion and rationality back into the benefit system.

Monday 3 December 2012

The UK government and International Day of Persons with Disabilities

Today is International Day of Persons with Disabilities – all over the world except in the UK. In the UK Iain Duncan Smith is marking the day by continuing and intensifying his campaign against unemployed people in general and disabled people in particular.

Every disabled claimant now has to undergo a Work Capability Assessment (started by Labour – who have yet to apologise for it). The WCA is in fact a BDS – a Benefit Denial System. Its purpose is to get people off benefits by any means possible. The claimant's own description of their condition is not credited, medical evidence is not accepted. If a claimant gets to the assessment room, that proves they can walk. If they sit in the chair throughout the process, that proves they can sit at a desk. Then they are deemed capable of work. Iain Duncan Smith's department is doing this quite deliberately, to reduce the benefit bill, regardless of the cost to disabled people. Terminally ill people are being found fit for work. People with the most horrible conditions are being found fit for work. Yes, some terminally ill people work till the day they die. But only a small proportion of them. At the moment, the DWP's own figures show that 70 people a week are dying within a short time of having their WCA. You read that right. 70 a week – 3500 a year.

Work” now means you can lift a pencil. It does not mean that you are employable. That is Iain Duncan Smith's great trick, completely divorcing the idea of “work” from the idea of being profitably employable for a company. If you have not worked in this sphere it is difficult to imagine, but please bear with me. Think back to the worst flu you have ever had. If you've never had flu, think back to the worst hangover. At some point you hauled yourself out of bed, tottered downstairs and made yourself a Lemsip. According to IDS that means you were capable of walking, and of operating machinery. You were fit for work. But you didn't go in to work, did you? Now imagine feeling like that all the time – every day, 24 hours a day, no let up, ever. Sorry, but you're fit for work.

Scene 1
Applicant: “I've come for the job.”

Employer: “Sure, we have vacancies.”

Applicant: “I'm terminally ill with cancer, by the way.”

Employer: “What?”

Applicant: “It's OK, I'm fit for work, The DWP says so.”

Employer: “Er...”

Applicant: “I need to take ten minutes out every couple of hours to vomit, but I'll make up the time.”

Employer: “Um....”

Applicant: “And I'll be dead in about three months, but it's being off benefit that's important. I'd much rather be here stacking shelves and coughing all over the customers than spending my last few weeks with my family.”

Scene 2
Applicant: “I'd like a job.”

Employer: “Sure, we have vacancies..... What's that smell?”

Applicant: “Oh, sorry. I just shat myself again. I'll clean up, then I'll be ready. It's OK, I'm fit for work, the DWP says so”.

Scene 3
Employer: “We start at 9”.

Applicant: “I should be able to get in for that some days.”

Employer: “We start at 9. That's when the phones start ringing”.

Applicant: “I have ME. I never know from one day to the next when I'll be able to get myself out of bed. I can manage 11 most days. It's OK, the DWP says I'm fit for work, so can I have the job please”.

It's all happening because the benefit bill is unaffordable, right? We can afford to spend billions and billions and billions fattening bank balance sheets. We can afford to spend billions on the Olympics. We can afford to see billions and billions disappear in unpaid corporate taxes. We can afford to see companies still run inefficiently, and billions in bonuses paid to people who cannot demonstrate that they have earned them. We can even afford £5 million a year to subsidise the alcohol in the House of Commons bar where Iain Duncan Smith toasts himself with a glass at the taxpayers' expense on disappearing yet more people from the benefit rolls. But we can't afford to treat our disabled people with a minimum amount of decency.

Friday 2 November 2012

Guardians of what exactly?

If the world is a consistent place, I am about to bring myself to the attention of the police. So be it. A disabled activist in Wales posted on the web some stuff that was critical of ATOS, the company carrying out Work Capability Assessments on disabled people on behalf of the Department of Work and Pensions. Let's leave aside for the moment that it's difficult to say anything truthful about ATOS without it being critical.

To her astonishment and distress, she received a visit from the police. Not just any old visit. By her account she lives on her own and had two police officers knock on her door at midnight. They told her that they had received a complaint about criminal activity on Facebook. They asked her to show ID. She refused (which she had a right to do). They said her refusal amounted to obstructing the police in their duties. They refused to say who had made the complaint about her activity on Facebook. Despite her repeatedly asking them to leave they stayed for some time and continued to question her about her activities. The full details are here.

So let us tell the truth about ATOS, the DWP, and the Work Capability Assessment (WCA). The aim of the WCA is to remove people from the benefit system. (The stated aim is to get people back to work. Iain Duncan Smith has yet to comment on how disabled people are supposed to get back to work with half a dozen able bodied people chasing every vacancy.) The test is administered according to a computer, and extraordinary judgements are made about people's ability to work according to whether they are able to get to the interview, sit in a chair, pick up a pencil, and so on. Medical evidence is not taken into account. Medical evidence is in fact actively refused. They also make the whole process immensely obstructive for the claimant. Many, many people are inaccurately put into the Work Related Activity Group of ESA (Employment Support Allowance), or not allowed ESA at all, and told they must apply for Job Seekers Allowance. This is done in the knowledge that some will accept their lot even though they are incapable of work, some will fall out of the system altogether, and become destitute, and only the persistent and the well advised will go to appeal. The level of successful appeals indicates how badly the system is working. Or perhaps I should say how well it is working, because it is clear in my view that the ATOS assessment system is perfectly fit for purpose – the purpose being to remove people from benefit, whatever the cost to them and whatever the accuracy or otherwise of the assessment.

There is growing evidence that the way the WCA is being carried out is detrimental to people's health, and indeed to their lives. There is a steadily increasing body of accounts of people dying shortly after being told they are fit for work. There are numbers of examples of people with terminal illnesses being told they are fit for work. Now it is quite possible, logically, that any one person is fit and capable up to the day that they die. But how many would you expect to do that, especially among those who have been diagnosed with a terminal illness? The latest figures suggest that over 70 people a week are dying shortly after being told by ATOS that they are fit for work. It will be difficult for people working for ATOS to hear this, but that means that seventy times every week an ATOS assessor drives a person through a series of questions which are designed to give a false picture of the claimant's health, and shortly after that the claimant dies.

It would be bad enough if this were simply a persistent series of assessments so inaccurate that dozens of people close to death were being treated every week as if fit for work. But there is more to it than that. Again, a growing number of incidents suggest that ATOS is actually driving people to their deaths. Here is the latest from Scotland's Daily Record. “Kieran McArdle told the Daily Record in a harrowing letter how his father Brian, 57, collapsed and died the day after his disability benefits were stopped. He had been assessed by Atos and deemed “fit for work”.” It is of course difficult to prove how much the stress of the process contributed to Mr McArdle's untimely death. But how many coincidences do there have to be before ATOS and the DWP will accept that their process which was merely vicious and vindictive before has now become murderous? Yes, the evidence points very strongly towards the fact that ATOS do kill people.

OK, so now I've told the truth. If you want to send the police round, ATOS, please tell me first what I've said above that is inaccurate.

Tuesday 16 October 2012

End of an ordeal

Just this once, and probably not for very long, Theresa May, I love you. Conservative Home Secretary displeases America, and stands up forhuman rights and disabled people all in one go. Put that in your pipe, right wingers, and smoke it.

While I'm very glad to see that the UK Home Secretary's eyes have been opened to the idiocy of both the extradition treaty,and this particular exercising of it, I am very afraid that the Americans are still walking around with their eyes shut. I have said all along that, if I were in charge over there when the extent of McKinnon's hacking was revealed, I would have taken the first available plane from over there to over here in order to shake McKinnon by the hand and thank him for exposing the dangerous incompetence of the numpties in charge of the nation's security. (That would be the first plane after I had called all those responsible for leaving computers open without firewalls, passwords etc, into my office for a chewing out session that would have left the carpets ankle deep in blood.)

Instead of that, they're still saying the hacking was "intentional and calculated to influence and affect the US government by intimidation and coercion" – remember, he was after details of UFO sightings. It is deeply worrying that the country which still aspires to lead the world can behave in such a narrow minded and short sighted way, fuelled by vindictiveness rather than a rational assessment of their own interests, as well as everybody else's.

Thursday 30 August 2012

My church: Chichester found wanting

I have lived in the diocese of Chichester for thirty years. This is my church, my diocese, my patch. I have been uncomfortable here since Chichester became one of the havens for priests who think that the universe will crumble if someone receives communion from a woman. But it is my home, just as the Church of England is my spiritual home. So today's news, "Archbishop of Canterbury condemns child abuse failings", is a cause of sorrow and grief that strikes far too close to home. I feel hurt, I feel bruised, I feel angry. Not nearly as angry as those who suffered the abuse in the first place. But angry that this has been covered up by people acting in my name.

I have known for some time, as we all have, that there was much amiss in the way the diocese handled disciplinary issues with its priests. Much like the Catholic church on a larger scale, the diocese seemed to think that a) buggering boys wasn't that big a deal and b) the reputation of the church was much more important than the lives and souls of the many children abused by priests for whom the diocese was responsible.

Lives have been ruined by priests who pretend to be godly. Those priests have been knowingly, deliberately and persistently protected by others who pretend to be godly. We have even seen an abuser of children ordained as a priest, despite four bishops and an archbishop knowing the truth about him. That was thankfully a long time in the past, but the most horrifying thing is that we cannot be certain even now that such a thing could not happen again. Wallace Benn, the current bishop of Lewes, was recently criticised for sitting on a CRB check that revealed data he did not want to have to act on. The complaint had to come from his own diocesan safeguarding group. The most horrifying section of the BBC report, to my mind, is this: “The inquiry by the Archbishop of Canterbury's office said "fresh and disturbing" aspects of the way abuse claims were handled keep surfacing.” They keep surfacing – this suggests that, not just bishop Wallace, but people all over the diocesan hierarchy still have not told the truth about what they know, and are still not prepared to act to prevent further abuse.

Where is the Christianity in this? Where is the principle, the godliness?  In my view – nowhere. The most charitable explanation involves the idea that it was a slippery slope, that one minor action led to another minor action, and that it all escalated to a point that nobody ever meant it to. It probably involves ideas about naïve forgiveness, thinking that someone may have been bad in the past, but that he'll be better now, won't he. It's also probably tied up with the fact that Chichester has been designated as a refuge for those in the church who just can't deal with women, and it has therefore collected more than a few. What we have in the diocese now is a toxic pile of people who are unable to deal with sexuality and power in any way other than patriarchal misogyny. What that often hides, and does in this case, is a persistence of sinfulness that the ungodly can only dream about.

Sin is very often not major, not transcendent. It is in the minor actions, the scores of cheap decisions we make that gradually weave a web around us. But that is precisely why every decision matters, every single small step takes us either towards evil or towards good. And the people who hold office and are trained and practised (allegedly) in the ways of Jesus – our bishops, priests,  synod members, and so on -  ought to know better than to allow things to slip, because, slip by slip, sin becomes monstrous. Everybody who has been involved in the continuing and deliberate protection of the abusers is part of a nest of vipers that needs to be cleansed. That means everyone who ever made any kind of positive decision to keep things quiet for the good of the church, and thus denied truth and justice to all the abused. If that includes any of the current incumbents, so be it. I hope that this clear and pointed report will be followed by equally pointed action. I know that as a Christian I am supposed to forgive. But forgiveness has to be sought, and it seems clear that those involved still do not seek forgiveness. And in any case, forgiveness does not involve leaving people in a position to commit the same follies again.

My final thought is this. Many, many people have criticised Rowan Williams for being too wishy washy, not showing enough leadership as archbishop. I have not agreed with that, and this scandal is a very good example of why. I cannot think of any archbishop in my lifetime who would have been willing to issue such an uncompromising report. I will be sorry to see him go when he steps down as archbishop. I will be much less sorry to see the back of every single so called Christian in this diocese who has had anything to do with this monumental scandal.

Saturday 28 April 2012


I had a good Easter, thank you very much. I am a Christian of the Anglican variety – squashy, middle of the road, (I know that makes me sound like a hedgehog with a short life expectancy) and with a high tolerance for ambiguity. You don't hear much about me in the media though. You do hear lots about other kinds of Christianity. This Easter was a time of joy for me, as Easter always is. Jesus rose. Everything was renewed. Suffering did not go away, but my sense of purpose and my sense of life were reborn. At the same time, though, this Easter summed up for me a lot of what is wrong with both my religion and my country.

The headlines:

These are fairly typical. They come round over and over again. There are many Christians who are not like me. Unfortunately they are the ones who tend to get in the headlines. The rest of us, myself included I'm afraid to say, tend to keep quiet and hope they will go away. But they never go away because they have axes to grind. And this meme of Britain's poor suffering persecuted Christians gets an outing in the papers whenever they feel like it. I don't know what George Carey was on when he gave that interview, but he should stop taking it. Or if he wasn't on anything, maybe he should start taking something. The subheading “Christians are being “persecuted” by courts and “driven underground” in the same way that homosexuals once were” was particularly ironic, given the amount of gay bashing that Christians still do. I would like to make clear that my world, including my God, does not fall apart if I see a couple of men holding hands or a couple of women snogging. If they want to get married, that's fine by me. And, as far as I know, it's fine with God too.

Carey talks about a religious bar to employment if wearing crosses is banned. (The actual banning of crosses is itself a highly exaggerated story, but that's just the media for you.) Last time I looked the Bible didn't command us to wear crosses. Some people choose to. Fine. They can still wear them under their clothes or they can wear them when they're not at work. My faith does not need a cross on a pin on my uniform to prop it up. Neither should anyone else's. If they choose to wear a cross, that's fine, but they have no right to insist on different treatment to anybody else. Like too many Christians today, Carey is trying to maintain a position of superiority by claiming to want only freedom of expression.

And then there is money. This “whatever it is costs umpteen billion pounds” trots out over and over again. We are told the cost of everything and the value of nothing. Somebody somewhere made less money than usual at Easter. Oh dear. Somebody somewhere else made more money than usual. A lot of people got a break. The weather was fairly nice for once, and millions of people got a day off, got to be with their family and friends for a little bit longer than usual, and got happier. In my opinion, that's worth a couple of billion. We'd be a lot better off if our media celebrated the fact that we got a couple of days off rather than moaning about the cost.

Our churches ought to be saying that, but they don't. Many of my co-religionists are too worried about homosexuality, as already adumbrated, or too worried about women actually having control over their own reproductive organs (heaven forfend!), or too worried about hiding the facts about child abuse, to say something sensible like that. They are also too bothered about money. When Occupy was at St Pauls, I was angered, but sadly not surprised, that my church should have taken the action it did to try to get rid of the protesters rather than welcoming them. At the time they were doing that, they were also accepting a grant of £40 million to get their stonework cleaned. £40 million. Think how many houses could have been built with that money, how many teachers, doctors or nurses paid. I want to say it made my blood boil, but it didn't. I'm used to it. I just thought, “That's typical”. It's the church I'm in. It's not the church I want to be in. But every journey starts with a single step. This week's step is to start the organisation of Christian Aid Week for the village. Without that money people will die who would otherwise be alive to support their partners and raise their children. I'd rather be talking about that than who has their hands in who else's pants. I think Jesus would too.

Tuesday 24 April 2012

I want to hack my ears off with a rusty butcher's knife

I am used to rubbish on TV. I watch quite a lot of it; when the brain needs a rest and doesn't want silence, there is a wealth of soothingly meaningless TV to watch on any number of channels. And if you missed anything particularly soporific, you can watch it on +1 or +2 or iplayer or whatever. But on Sunday I had a moment of horror which has rarely if ever been surpassed in all my TV watching history. (I'm a pensioner now, so my TV watching history is quite long.)

I don't normally do reality TV. Boring. Relentless minute peering into the tawdry mental crevices of people I'm not remotely interested in. But yesterday I walked into the room while one was on and had one of the most horrifying experiences of my life. It was the kind of moment that ordinary life does not prepare you for, frankly, a moment of earth moving proportions that even a man of my decades of experience should not have to suffer. Ever.

It was The Voice. There were three of them. Yes, they had big voices. Yes, they had energy. But all of that was as empty of merit as the life of a mayfly for all the good it did in the face of the awful treatment they gave to an iconic song. That sort of thing should simply not be allowed. It was massacre, a soulless, plastic demolition of one of the songs that defined its era, made worse by the specious energy with which the massacre was carried out. They attempted to perform Springsteen's Born To Run, and they strangled it with a noose turned tighter with every overemphasised vowel and mispronounced consonant.

It should be enshrined in human rights legislation that people should never be condemned to have this type of travesty thrust upon them. It should be a cornerstone of our constitution that such a misbegotten endeavour should never see the light of day, and if we have no written constitution, we must write one just so that we can incorporate this principle.

Born To Run has soul, it has poetry. It is born from the streets that Springsteen and his band trod. It flowers from the lives that he recorded and celebrated so concretely and so poetically. It was not and would never in a million years be so plastic, so fake, so harrowingly overdone as it was on Sunday night. Springsteen spoke for a generation because he was that generation. The first line “In the day we sweat it out in the streets of a runaway American dream” (a single voice with spare orchestration behind it). People loved that line because it was his experience and it spoke to theirs. Sunday night's lot haven't sweated anywhere except under stage lights. They have made a plastic, fake, phony, sham, mendacious, distorted forgery of a true poem. To reduce that to the fraudulent, meretricious counterfeit that was served up on Sunday night with such hollow zest is a cultural betrayal, an act of destruction beyond wanton.

Just about everything gets copied nowadays, but there are some things that just don't copy. A true original isn't just the words and the music on a page. It's life, belting at you from the stage, out of bone and sinew, out of the raw experience of being alive in that place at that time, of feeling the hopes and the fears of a generation just finding its feet in a time of turmoil, and beginning to wonder what comes next.

It’s a death trap, it’s a suicide rap
We gotta get out while we”re young...”

And these three Sunday night simulacra, with their big voices and their complete lack of connection with the fact that art emerges raw and tumultuous from life, and they turned it to trash. The idea behind The Voice and all those other reality contests is that you can somehow turn ash into diamonds. All they did was turn a diamond into ashes. Please don't tell me who they were. I don't want to know. I don't ever want to hear anything like that done again.

I'm going to listen to Bruce.

Monday 16 April 2012

They snoop to conquer

I left it a while before blogging this, and I thought my moment had passed, but today's news that MI5 had failed to renew their security certificate gave my thoughts a new lease of life. A furore greeted the government's publication a few days ago of its plans for an inoffensively named “Communications Capabilities Development Programme” i.e. giving themselves the ability to spy on who you're talking to and when and by what medium in real time without having to ask anybody's permission. There was a rapid pull back when they realised that they couldn't just push it through without anybody noticing. Reaction in the LibDem half of the government was satisfying. I sense some coalition politics going on here – probably the Conservative half seeing how far it could get before the LibDem half noticed or reacted. Hardly an inch, I'm pleased to say.

If you do nothing else today, you should sign the 38 degrees petition about it. Here's why.

Rather than just looking at why we might be against these proposals, I want to look at things we like, as Liberal Democrats, and assess whether the proposals match those.

There are things that Liberals are in favour of - things that work, respect for people as individuals, respect for the power of the state, and a relationship on which citizens control the state, not the other way round.

Generally speaking, liberal democracy being quite a pragmatic philosophy, we are for things that work. So that translates into a question: how workable is this idea?

Secondly, we respect people, and therefore we respect data about them. How does this idea deal with our data?

Thirdly, we respect greatly the power of the state. It's only a tool, but it's a massively powerful one that needs to be kept in check, otherwise it can too easily wreck people's lives. So do these proposals apply enough checks to the power of the state? (Some people might say they fear the state. I don't, it's just a lot of people trying to do their jobs. I'm just very, very careful with it, like I would be with a loaded gun.)

Fourthly, we like a system in which people are in charge of the state rather than vice versa, one in which the state works on behalf of the people, not on behalf of itself. Do these proposals do that?

So first I look at these proposals in the light of things that work. This falls into three categories - intrinsic worth, opportunity cost and effectiveness.

Intrinsic worth weighs the cost of doing it in both time and money. Given the amounts of data that people produce, the storage costs will be phenomenal. The biggest data drive I am aware of holds 120 petabytes(120 million gigabytes). The people on my twitter stream could fill that in a week. Multiply that by everybody on Twitter, on Facebook, on Flickr.... Massive data banks in massive buildings, all taking space, all needing to fuelled, all needing to be maintained - the costs will be astronomical. Then there will be the cost of finding data. To track a single person means getting the data via their home ISP, their mobile ISP, and any Internet cafés they use. The data will have to be trawled out of all the billions of other messages. It can be done by computers but there is still a cost. Estimates have been made of the costs of a google search. If the security services are incurring that kind of cost for every search they make, that cost will also be significant. Is it worth it? Some would say security is worth any cost, but our budget is limited and we need to choose what to spend it on, which brings me to the next question.

Opportunity cost means what else could we do with that money. The cost will mount into billions over the years. No doubt the government will try to avoid paying some of the cost by hiving it off on to the ISPs. There is a limit to how far they can do that, and some hundreds of millions will fall on the taxpayer. That money could arguably be spent much better on other forms of policing. There is a role for data gathering to play but it works best as an adjunct to intelligence led policing. Knowing where to look for data is much more effective than a series of fishing expedition. If the police aren't getting the intelligence they need, then they should put more effort and more budget into it. No guessing where I think that budget should come from.

Then I question the effectiveness of the plan. The services will have at their disposal a great deal of information about people like me, who do not choose to disguise our whereabouts. Those who want to disguise what they're doing need only go to local Internet cafés and create extra gmail addresses. With only marginally more sophistication, they will start to use the dark web, and be completely beyond the purview of a scheme like this. The services will spend a mass of their time investigating the innocent in the touching belief that they will accidentally light on somebody guilty when anyone with a modicum of nous will be able to subvert their surveillance with ease. It will be a massive waste of their time, and of our security.

The “does it work” test alone should see off this proposal. But there are other issues - the integrity of our data for one. Of course the services will assure us that our data is completely safe with them. (MI5, where is your security certificate?) The Leveson enquiry should have disabused us all of that one. Any system is vulnerable to both corruption and hacking. Tabloid papers have been able to corrupt any police officer or DVLA clerk they fancy. They won't turn a hair at suborning data clerks in ISPs or whatever corrupt private organisation the government chooses to give this responsibility to - A4E perhaps (demonstrated to have big problems with corrupt practices - still getting government contracts).

Anonymous and others are daily showing that they can get round even hardened security systems. Even a low level hacker with an axe to grind can unlock data with frightening ease. It wasn't just a charity. According to the Guardian, “Jeffery also admitted to detectives that he had identified "vulnerabilities" on a string of websites of major international organisations including the FBI, CIA, West Midlands police, the Houses of Parliament, the US navy, Arizona police and Spanish police.”

Mentally challenged people can get into the Pentagon, with very little trouble. The existence of so much data on so many of us will be like a honey pot to anyone who wants to do mischief. And they will succeed. Our data will not be comprehensively protected.

And while we're on the subject of Gary McKinnon, I cannot believe that:

a) the government of the USA is so asininely blockheaded that it still wants to prosecute him, rather than flying over here, shaking him by the hand and thanking him for demonstrating so openly and conclusively that they needed to take their own security more seriously, and

b) that Teresa May is so craven that she STILL hasn't told the Yanks where to stuff it. A British citizen who, if he has committed a crime, has committed it on British soil, should be tried in Britain. A vulnerable British citizen even more so. She exercises no sense, no reason and no compassion.  You can tell her what you think at the Home Office contact page.

The fact that our data will not be protected links to the third question about the power of the state. When the state makes mistakes, the results can be little more than annoying but they can also be downright catastrophic. The Guildford four and the Birmingham six will vouch for that. Jean Charles de Menezes will vouch for that. Today we hear about ex police constable Sultan Alam, who will vouch for that.The opportunities for the state to make mistakes will be multiplied many times if they are allowed to go on fishing expeditions without having to account for and justify their interest in any specific person. Even now without this legislation, the services want too much. Trevor Timm says in “The UK government's war on internet freedom”: “According to their most recent Transparency Report, Google refused to comply with 37 per cent of user data requests they received from UK authorities in the first six months of 2011, because they didn't comport with "the spirit or letter of the law", likely indicating overly broad requests or that the authorities provided no reasonable suspicion of a crime occurred.” They're already fishing in more than a third of their requests.

Fourthly, we stand for a particular relationship between the citizen and the state. The state should be at the service of the citizenry, not the other way round. It should be answerable to its citizens (and not just once every five years). Citizens, not the state, are the most valuable thing a country has. Citizens should have accessible and practical means of control and redress. That gives rise to the question: how would this proposal affect that relationship? It will inevitably cause a distancing, particularly when the state finds giving us information about it so distasteful (viz constant attempts by many government organisations to block FOI requests).

This also influences deeply the effectiveness of the proposals. Received wisdom of policing is that it works by consent. If citizens do not consent, policing does not work, because information and support simply does not come the way of the police. That principle is formed out of the principle of intelligence led policing, which is the most effective kind. It requires the assistance and confidence of the public at large in order for intelligence to flow towards the police. As long as they are poking about in our data at their discretion, they are, at least potentially, damaging the confidence in the which they need in order to work most effectively.

There may be some powers the services need – it may be sensible to ensure that the scope of legislation is wide enough to encompass all forms of internet communication when necessary, but never without good reason and never without judicial oversight.

Thus, on four counts these proposals fail. Sign the 38 degrees petition about them – you need to keep your privacy in order for policing to work its best.

Wednesday 11 April 2012

Hope and fear

This post is part film review, part social critique.The two went together so they're getting blogged together. My daughter made me go to see Hunger Games with her, and I'm very glad she did. I knew it would be OK really, as Jennifer Lawrence is watchable in anything. But it has rapidly found its way into my flexible top 100. I was thoroughly absorbed from start to finish – a credible story, credible characters, credible special effects, and gripping music (bought the soundtrack, have it glued to my ears). It's best described as The Truman Show meets Winter's Bone. It's been analysed in great detail by lots of people already. Wikipedia gives a very passable summary so I won't go into detail on that here, but just make a couple of observations. The first is that with all the emphasis these days on special effects, Hunger Games shows that it pays not to overdo them. If you've got a story, a setting and characters that you can run with, you don't need anything else. Hunger Games does have its fair share but doesn't make the effects the star as so many movies seem to nowadays.

The second is to do with how the film reflects or speaks to current reality. This is dealt with quite sharply in the Wikipedia article referred to above. Hunger Games won't count as a great film, but it does deal with great themes and there are parallels to be drawn with current reality, and better still lessons to be learned (if only those who need to learn will be open to doing so). The themes sketched out in Wikipedia are feminism, politics and religion.

The feminist issue was interesting for me. I have to confess, mea culpa, that when I watched the film, I didn't notice. It's a great story and she's a great character. It didn't occur to me that there would be anything more to it than that. It's obvious though that, given the gender unfairness that still permeates the world, Katniss will be a hero for those who still have to fight those battles every day. It becomes even plainer when it is noted, per Tom Long in the Detroit News that “of the top 200 worldwide box-office hits ever ($350 million and up), not one has been built around a female action star”, which means that Hollywood still has a very long way to go. (I've no idea where he gets that figure from.) That the film's feminist undertones are not more pointed is partly due to Suzanne Collins' strategy of putting in plenty of violence but no sex, which had two effects, noted by Kate Heartfield in the Ottawa Citizen. First of all it meant patriarchal parents would not refuse to let their teenage daughters read it, (thus contributing to the success of the trilogy) and secondly the concerns of the book did not directly address the arenas in which gender battles are currently being fought in America – primarily reproductive control.

For the record, in my view, one of the most feminist bits in the film is the first music to go with the credits at the end, Arcade Fire's Abraham's Daughter – worth hanging around just to hear that.

Religion is notable in The Hunger Games for its overt absence. But there is plenty that can be painted in, and Amy Simpson in Christianity Today does a pretty good job at that. For me the resurrection allegory is a bit of a stretch, but the imagery of the bread works pretty well. I think, though, that any religious meaning is one of those make of it what you will themes. Amy Simpson also discusses hope, which she understandably puts in a religious framework. But for me, hope is one of the key ingredients that makes the film politically powerful.

As with feminism and religion, it is possible to read into the film whatever you want politically, and, apparently, left wingers, right wingers, liberals and libertarians all have. The overt themes are obvious – mistrust of government, intolerance of inequality and oppression, and a belief that people can stand up for themselves even under the most tyrannical circumstances. The moment that clicked for me in the film is where the President and the Head Game Maker discuss how to end the game satisfactorily. The President criticises the Game Maker's strategy, saying that he has allowed the players, and by extension, their people in the Districts, hope. And hope, he says, is the one thing that is more powerful  than fear. His job is to keep the majority in check, and he does it with a massive police force and pervasive surveillance, maintaining the supremacy of the Capitol with casual brutality. In one scene a salute from Catniss direct to one of the many cameras tracking her movements sparks a riot in one of the districts, which has to be put down by the police. I saw the film just as the final report of the  Riots, Communities and Victims Panel on the riots of last August was published. In some ways those riots were a blip, an inexplicable and complex occurrence which every commentator was able to interpret in their own way (in much the same way as they have been doing with Hunger Games). I think people generally see them as a blip – the very detailed Final Report has sunk without trace. Perhaps that is because the report itself lays the blame in so many places –  more or less everywhere but with the government. It takes up the theme of hope – “Many young people the Panel met expressed a sense of hopelessness”, and one of its main sections of recommendations is entitled “hopes and dreams”.

The riots came in the middle of a series of protests that were altogether more purposeful: about education, about the NHS, about cuts to welfare, that saw some premeditated, persistent and casual brutality meted out by the police charged with ensuring the safety of the public. Those protests have tailed off as the objects of their anger have ceased to be amenable to change – student fees, the privatisation of the NHS, reductions in welfare are done deals. But I would not be surprised if there were more protests, and more violent reaction to them in the summer months.

Hope and fear are currently submerged for the majority in this country under a blanket of comfort. While there is much inequality and much poverty, the fact remains that Britain is one of the richest societies in the world, and the majority of people are comfortable enough not to be so worried about the condition of the country that they will actually get up and do something about it.those who want to do something are too fragmented, and ultimately too let down by the parties that are supposed to represent them. Good people remain. I was recently very impressed by Stella Creasey, the Labour MP for Walthamstow.  (She also provides more proof that the feminist struggle is not over yet: she was refused entry to a members' lift by a Conservative minister who did not believe that she could possibly be an MP.) But I have to remind myself that she represents the party that enthusiastically continued Thatcher's privatisation of the NHS, that brought us the ruinous (to the taxpayer) PFI deals, that led us into at least one unnecessary war with futile results, which was determined to make us all carry ID cards for no purpose other than to snoop on us, which brought us E4A and ATOS, and began the (to my mind criminal) flirtation with Unum which Iain Duncan Smith and his DWP ministers still carry on today. The disconnection of the Labour elite is the main reason why a charlatan like George Galloway can find himself back in the House of Commons: and that ought to be warning enough to all of the main parties.

But the Conservative Party carries on as before, aided or at least allowed to by the Liberal Democrats, to my dismay. Parts of it are beavering away at the reintroduction of want, disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness, banking on the fact that most people don't seem to care. They're right - people don't. But I suspect, and hope, that people will as they begin to see what they are losing. At the moment the losers are too disparate to be a force, and the government continues with its traditional tactic of wearing people down step by step, a process made easier by the move towards individualism brought about by a generation of the politics of selfishness begun by Margaret Thatcher. Death by a thousand cuts was never more meaningful than now. But the sections of society targeted by the cuts will gradually become both more aware and more hopeless as current comfort leaks away with no prospect of future security to temper it. Then riots on the streets will not be about brand names.

The Riots Panel referred to above said "No young person should be left on the work programme without sufficient support to realistically hope to find work". Not something the DWP takes seriously; they follow the dogma of privatising everything because paying money to private companies to shuffle unemployed people around must be better than actually creating jobs. Young people tend to be energetic. And they tend to be on the streets more. At the moment they are quiescent; that may not last.

That same department leads a determined assault on disabled people, cut by vicious cut. The assault on disabled people disguises a more widespread assault on women. In this country most care is done by the family, which usually means by women, and it is they who will pick up the debris left by the  insistence of Iain Duncan Smith and the DWP on making the poorest pay the price for the mistakes made by the richest. Again, this assault does not matter to many people - in fact it is an excuse for some: disability hate crime has been rising steadily in recent months. People who have no hope very easily turn on others. Sooner or later they will turn on the government.

Friday 9 March 2012

Mid term blues?

The Liberal Democrats are carrying out a mid term review of the coalition. Here's my version. The first thing is that when caught up in the moment – particularly this moment with bruising encounters going on around the NHS, welfare cuts and particularly brutal treatment of disabled people by Iain Duncan Smith and his department - we don't always remember why we are here.

So first of all a reminder – we got here because in May 2010 the UK economy was in desperate need of stable government and the Conservatives had won the most votes and the most seats. So we negotiated seriously with them. There were two alternatives – let the Conservatives govern alone, or join a rainbow coalition with Labour. Labour were in a mess, and, whatever they're saying now they were not capable of negotiating seriously. The Parliamentary maths did not add up. And the prospect of shoring up Labour with the megalomaniac Brown in charge and their plans for the database state would have given us as many ideological and political problems as the Tories have done. You have to deal with the world as it is, and not the world as you want it to be, and although many of us, myself included, would instinctively choose Labour over the Tories, that would not have been a sensible choice in 2010.

The economy remains our main concern, despite it not being top of the agenda at the moment. (It may well return there if the Euro crisis breaks out in spots again.) So the rationale for the coalition remains as it was in 2010, and is likely to remain so right up to 2015. And then, to lengthen our perspective the other way, towards what may happen in 2015, as usual voters are most likely to vote on the state of the economy, together with the perceived competence of the incumbents.

A lot has happened in these nearly two years that I like, and a lot has happened that I dislike. My greatest regret about the first part of the coalition is that we let the poisonous Iain Duncan Smith anywhere near welfare. But, on the whole, my feeling is that we have done good things – we have demonstrated, and will continue to demonstrate that coalitions can work. We have done very well on taxes for poor people, and with a variety of other issues – pupil premiums, affordable housing, apprenticeships, the green investment bank. MarkPack's infographic explains it all very well 

Given that we have approximately 1/6 the number of seats the Tories have (despite having two thirds of their vote, but that's not a popular topic at the moment), that's a pretty good result. Maybe we could have done better at reining in some Tory excesses, but on the whole we have done well at a time when a lot of unpopular decisions were necessary. The noise coming from our Parliamentary party is that getting in to government and finding out how it all worked was a steep learning curve, not least in learning how to keep an eye on absolutely everything going on in each department. We have more experience now and more staff which means we're better prepared for the second half of this government than we were for the first. The second half promises to be very different – I'll come on to that in a minute.

We have had to compromise on a lot of things, and we have learned that compromise can be a minor and polite disappointment, but it can also be downright painful. As I haven't been in government myself (and, no, I couldn't do a better job, thank you), I've had the luxury of being semi detached. I like what we've done on pupil premiums, I dissociate myself from the cesspool Lansley is creating for the NHS; I like what we've done with personal tax allowances, I can say the filth and lies Iain Duncan Smith's DWP is peddling about disabled people is nothing to do with me. But if I'm to be honest, I can't do that. I have to accept that my party is part of government and has been party, willingly or not, to decisions I abhor and despise. Welcome to government. People can point the accusation of inconsistency at us (as if they haven't been doing that all along – say one thing in one place and another along the road, all things to all people etc etc, yawn). Labour are pointing the finger often. I wonder how many Labour supporters feel completely comfortable about the Labour government's decisions to invade Afghanistan and Iraq – no, didn't think that many. This government, to my shame, is causing deaths*, but not on the scale Tony Blair did.

I think it is possible that we are changing the temper of politics, which can only be to the country's good. We have been working openly and productively with people we dislike as well as people we like. Vince Cable is now famous for saying we have discovered the Tories are calculating, ruthless and tribal – but that doesn't mean we can't work with them.  . This week at PMQs (7th March) Labour tried to score a point by asking Cameron what he thought of Vince Cable's leaked letter on industrial policy. What Cameron said and also how he said it were both revealing and to my mind potentially very hopeful. He neutralised the question completely by saying straightforwardly that he disagreed – he gave a number of reasons why. But he did it in measured and polite tones. It is unheard of for a Prime Minister to disagree so publicly and on such a stage with a Cabinet colleague. But he did, and he did it in straightforward, polite and measured tones. For once we had people at PMQs – some of them anyway - acting like adults. One of the worst kept secrets of contemporary politics is the fact that people disagree. In the febrile and juvenile atmosphere of PMQs any slip, any suggestion of anything other than complete marital harmony draws horrified gasps and journalistic metaphors of slit jugulars and mortal wounds. But here was Cameron saying he disagreed with a colleague, and doing so in such ordinary tones that it was not possible for any journalist observing to do their usual impression of a ferret on crack rushing round screaming “Disagreement, government in chaos, it's all falling apart. Leave the country NOWWWWWW!!”

It is just possible that this is one of a few signs of grown up politics, and that will be a very good thing both for the Liberal Democrats and for the country. If we can demonstrate not just that coalitions work but that they work very well, then, whatever happens after the next election we will have done the country a power of good. When people are actually allowed to disagree and debate, you get better decision making. And we LibDems will probably do ourselves good too, because people will see that we have contributed to that measured tone. We are, after all, quite good at it. We are famous for the way we “argue” with each other. Only, what other people call “argue” we call “debate”; and the policies that emerge from that cauldron of debate are the better and the stronger for it. We have seen several internal groupings emerge recently, to the usual chorus from some that we are suffering splits that will lead to our inevitable decline (again). But to me they are just signs that we are organising even more and better debating platforms than we have had in the past, and we will formulate good resonant policy out of them.

We're being told that the main legislative programme for the coalition is going to be complete well before the end of the Parliament. There may be nothing else that we want to do. Even if we do, there may be nothing that we can agree with the Tories. It would be wrong to go looking for things to legislate about. As all the best doctors often do, leave the patient alone. If you've got nothing to change, then govern.

In the absence of any really contentious legislation (politicians being politicians, any legislation will be contentious, especially if there's nothing more important to fight about), then I think there are two things for the LibDems to do. The first is to work for fairness in the application of the laws we have. Mostly that means finding ways of reversing some of the nastiness that has come from the Conservative end of government, particularly the vicious treatment of claimants, and especially disabled people, emanating from Iain Duncan Smith and the other Tory ministers at the Department for Work and Pensions. I fear that there are scandals to come, with continuing exposes of A4E's ways of working, which may enable the DWP to deflect attention. I also hear suggestions that A4E may not be the only offenders. (What do you expect? If you give people an unsupervised money making machine, they will take advantage.) But that will not detract from the fact that a lot of good can be done by purposefully using the machinery of government – influencing the way regulations are laid, how policy is enacted, and the ways in which select committees and other inquisitors can hold the government to account. That is a full time job for the next three years.

While doing that we should be extending the conversation. We should be going out to the country (all the different parts of it, but if you care about the union, do pay particular attention to Scotland). Using our eyes and ears as much as our mouth. Debating with people what a fair society is and what they want to see in order to achieve that will serve three purposes. It will show people that fairness really is at the heart of what we try to achieve; it will give us a clearer sense of what will work in terms of making Britain a fairer place; and that it turn will give us a very clear idea of what we can offer that will resonate with the country for 2015 – 2020.

Sunday 19 February 2012

"In order to save disabled people we have to destroy them"

One of the most famous and risible statements of the Vietnam War was “In order to save the village we had to destroy it”. The origin of the phrase is unclear, but it is attested sufficiently often for it to be historical and not just a figment of someone's imagination (Peter Arnett  and Michael Miller). It became emblematic because it was how the US approached the whole Vietnam debacle as recognised for instance by Vietnam Veterans Against the War “Somehow we had to destroy Vietnam in order to save it”. It is recognised today as the expression of a futile, purposeless. long drawn out and immensely destructive policy that wrecked a country, killed 58000 of the American soldiers who carried it out and wrecked the lives of many more.

You'd think people would learn from history, but apparently history is in short supply at Iain Duncan Smith's Department of Work and Pensions because that is exactly what they are doing to disabled people. There are too many, in Iain Duncan Smith's view and they're too expensive. Unum flog the DWP a perversion of the biopsychosocial model. The perverted version says disability isn't a problem, it's the way you view it that's a problem. Take up thy wheelchair and walk. And even if thou can't walk, thou canst still get a job, if only thou wouldst change thy mind about thy disability. (Those unemployment figures put out by the Office for National Statistics are a myth, Maria Miller says.)

But Iain Duncan Smith and his junior ministers assume that nobody wants to work, and also nobody with MS, Parkinson's, cancer, Crohn's Disease, ME. or any other illness or condition actually wants to change their mind about their condition, so they must be made to. So they will be redefined. They are being reassessed and will be found either fit for work (Job Seekers Allowance), or fit for work some time in the future (Employment Support Allowance: Work Related Activity Group) or so shot in mind or body or both that even ATOS can't say you're ever going to be fit for work (Employment Support Allowance: Support Group).

So if you're back on JSA you have to look for work, and may have to do up to eight weeks workfare. If you're in ESA: WRAG they want to force you to take work for no pay, not just for eight weeks but indefinitely. No matter how much you shit yourself, no matter whether you have major heart problems, no matter what condition you are suffering from, you have to be saved from yourself. But it's all for your own good, so it's called "support".

They are doing the same with Disability Living Allowance. The avowed purpose of their change to Personal Independence Payments is to cut 20% from the bill. Never let it be thought that some disabled people are of their own volition using DLA to keep themselves in work. They would never do that, would they, so they have to be helped back into the work they haven't gone and got for themselves by having money taken away from them. And this is called a more active and enabling benefit.

That is the universe that the malicious Iain Duncan Smith and his colleagues live in, one in which disabled people must be destroyed in order to be saved. I live in another universe, where disabled people are ordinary, decent, honest people, trying to get by the best way they can. Just like able bodied people. But because Iain Duncan Smith's universe reaches into mine, their lives are being wrecked by his futile, purposeless and destructive policies.

Saturday 18 February 2012

The politics of disillusionment

I've never agreed with Iain Duncan Smith's views, but I've always seen him as at least a  decent sort of chap. I was quite pleased when his leadership of the Conservative party turned out to be a long slow implosion, but that was not because of who he was, it was because it ensured the Tories would not get back into power for a few more years. He managed to exit that episode with some personal dignity, and then spent his time doing things that suggested at least some sort of feeling for the poor and the dispossessed. Again, I don't agree with kind of policies the Centre for Social Justice suggests, but there is at least a hint that they have understood that the poor are human. Perhaps I was naïve. Perhaps others could see through him more readily than I, or maybe they were just more cynical about a politician, any politician.

You can be disillusioned in lots of ways. Some ways are more painful than others. I started life pretty cynical to be honest, but there was still room for disillusionment. I remember for instance when the teacher who had encouraged me to play chess first snubbed me when I lost an important game; when I realised my headmaster was more interested in my results than in me; when I realised some of my fellow social workers were more interested in their careers than in their clients (yes, I was a kind of cynical naïf). But few disillusionments are so powerful as the realisation that someone who you thought was moral in fact was not. I can remember the almost personal sense of betrayal when we discovered that the nice Mr Major, the only decent man in that generation of Thatcherite pimps, had committed adultery while in office, just like all the other shits who had done it while pretending to be the party of the family.

And so it is with the decent, upright, Catholic Iain Duncan Smith. He and his Department for Work and Pensions team - Chris Grayling, Maria Miller, and the failed businessman David Freud - have been deliberately and persistently working to wreck the benefit system, and the lives of those who need it. His campaign against claimants in general and disabled people in particular is quite stunning for a man who claims to believe in justice. The aim of his work is to cut the budget, regardless of the price paid for that by claimants. But he is not honest even about that. He does not simply say "We're going to cut the budget. It will be tough. Live with it." He has to pretend that it is justifiable. So the language becomes more Orwellian than Orwell himself would ever have dreamed possible. The overriding justification is that work is good for you, which is treated as if it were a new discovery. If Mr Duncan Smith and his minions admitted that disabled people knew that and were quite keen on getting jobs, then they would not be able to justify cutting benefits and using force and maladministration to get them off benefit. So disabled people have to be vilified, and he and the reptilian Chris Grayling, and the inept Maria Miller have set about organising this very thought change with relish. They publish press releases which the tabloid press simply have to cut and paste into their front pages in order to pontificate about scroungers. They treat publication of, and commentary on, statistics in such a way as to draw rebukes from the UK Statistics Authority, and they don't care. Internally the language is almost worse - claimants are described as "stock". Stock is what you get in a cattle yard. Claimants are people - something the self proclaimed religious person, Mr Duncan Smith, would do well to remember. Mr Duncan Smith himself resorts to telling lies on air: he said the disquiet about the benefit cap was exaggerated because people were using a definition of homelessness that included two children having to share a bedroom. The head of Shelter, and the other housing NGO heads, went on air immediately to rebut that claim and to say that they used exactly the same definition as the DWP. But it served Mr Duncan Smith's purpose of getting people talking about the definition instead of the proposal.

So it is that I have come to the realisation that Mr Duncan Smith, far from being decent, is in fact just grubby. Decent - no. Christian - I'm afraid not. The tragedy is that his grubbiness is going to materially affect the lives of hundreds of thousands of people a good deal less fortunate than himself, driving them from a basic level of living into deeper poverty.

And our latest discovery pulls Iain Duncan Smith's DWP even further than they were already into the land of Kafka. The proposal in clause 54 of the Welfare Reform Bill is that people in the work related category of Employment Support Allowance can be made to undertake work placements indefinitely. Let's examine that for a minute. On Job Seekers Allowance people can be forced to work for up to eight weeks. (Though Chris Grayling says it's absurd to call it forced labour - another interesting use of language.)

So - eight weeks max for able bodied people. Permanent, unending for people on ESA. People on ESA have been defined by ATOS as unfit for work. That in itself is pretty remarkable, given that ATOS's computers are all hard wired to find people fit for work if they have a breath in their body. Those who might be fit for work one day are put in the work related group, with the idea that suitable support will enable them to work one day. But they are currently unfit for work. So where is the logic in adding a provision to say that they can be forced to work permanently in order to keep the benefit they have been deemed to qualify for because they are unfit for work. And in a further perversion of language, this is called "supportive".

I never thought I'd say this - but you couldn't make it up. (There's more here. And here.)

Of course all of this obfuscation and twisted logic would be unnecessary if Mr Duncan Smith were honest and decent. But he isn't. He is as devious and mendacious as Cesare Borgia. And the effects of his malignity are being visited on thousands and thousands of decent and honest people whose misfortune is not to be able bodied.