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.

Wednesday 3 December 2014

Tendency To Inflict Profit

TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) is a far reaching trade deal currently being negotiated between the EU on one side and the USA on the other. It covers a very wide range of sectors and includes much debate on methodology, not least on ISDS (Investor State Dispute Settlement).

There are two narratives about TTIP. The first is that it is a great opportunity to enrich both sides of the negotiation by sweeping away a lot of unneeded regulation and harmonising conditions for companies on both sides of the Atlantic so that business can proceed with less obstruction and less cost, thereby benefiting both sides. The second is that it is an instrument designed to ensure the domination of private and unanswerable corporations over the lives of the citizens of all the countries involved, and to keep secret the means whereby decisions are made and paid for.

One of the reasons why there are two such distinct narratives is that the negotiations are being conducted in conditions of enormous secrecy. A certain amount of light has been shone due to tireless efforts by information campaigners on both sides of the Atlantic to hold their supposed servants to account and to be clear about what they are doing. A great deal is still being done in secret, to the extent that reassurances have to be issued from time to time that one thing or another, most notably the NHS, is or is not being negotiated about. Supporters of TTIP have begun to say it's a very transparent process now. One said to me recently it's one of the most transparent ever; I asked him for minutes of the meetings between EU officials and corporate lobbyists. I'm still waiting.

Free trade is a great thing, provided that it is transparent, equally weighted and subject to the right regulation. One thing that free traders tend to forget is that, while markets can do without over-regulation, they cannot in fact exist without regulation in some form. If somebody reneges on a contract, who enforces it? The regulators. We also need to bear in mind an issue which has become more and more apparent during the coalition government, that markets do not in fact do everything well. The East Coast railway line failed in private ownership and made a profit under public ownership, but is being privatised again because the doctrine our governments live by these days says it must be better in private hands. The NHS, which for decades delivered the same quality of care and health outcomes as the USA system did for approximately half the cost per head, now finds its costs rising, not just because medicine is more expensive and people who have thing wrong with them live longer, but also because of the cost of managing an extraordinarily bureaucratic system designed solely to ensure that private companies get their slice of the cake. I have seen estimates ranging between £10 billion and £30 billion as the cost just of running the competitive tendering system before any money has been spent on patient care.

Keeping stuff out of the hands of free trade where appropriate is as valid as enabling trade to be free where it works. The problem with TTIP is that it is not about free trade as it stands, but much more about corporate domination, to the extent of actually being anti free trade, and certainly antithetical to the interests of citizens and consumers. TTIP might just about be palatable without ISDS. With ISDS it is a monster.

ISDS is a mechanism whereby states and corporations can have disputes settled behind closed doors, and by expert arbitrators. It has become a preferred mechanism for doing business despite the ability of courts in all developed countries and most developing countries to make transparent decisions based on local and international law and taking the needs of citizens into account. Perhaps that is precisely why ISDS is a preferred mechanism. Its most insidious effect is that woven into its fabric is an option for corporations to charge countries for work they have never done.

Take an analogy for a minute. Suppose I do some work for a company for a while, and then they decide to take the work in house. I take the company to a tribunal and argue that they owe me at least three years worth of the contract they have taken away from me. And the tribunal agrees with me. You would say that was a daft idea, bonkers. And I agree. But that is exactly what ISDS allows companies to do to countries. Here are some examples of exactly this kind of daftness being forced on sovereign countries by the agreements they signed up to. This is not just stupid, it holds a gun to the temple of the entire market system. For capitalism to work, businesses need to be subject to the disciplines of the market. If they do not supply what the market wants, or do not supply it at the right price, they subside and other companies rise in their place. Not any more. If they do not supply what the market wants, they simply sue for their profit anyway. This is one reason why we are beginning to see articles with titles like “Why free traders might oppose TTIP”. ISDS is the main ingredient that makes TTIP a monster. Strip it out, and we might, just might, be able to discuss a deal that enhances free trade to the benefit of consumers. But even then, I am not sure.

Efforts have been made to reassure us lately that the NHS is not up for grabs in the TTIP negotiations. Mark Pack quotes Sal Brinton and Lord Livingston. I hope he and they will forgive me not being reassured. It has taken a great deal of effort to get even this minimal degree of reassurance about negotiations which remain about as secret as they can get. I'm a bit fed up being told things are OK without being able to see that things are OK. Health is part of the package, and it is very difficult indeed to see agreements being reached to allow European countries access to the US health market without them being allowed access to all of ours. And ISDS is still in place. Should the government wish to deprivatise any part of what has already been privatised, the threat of being sued is enough to stop them. The Tory party has already done its best in its confused way to privatise the NHS as much as it could, and if in power again it would no doubt try to do more; and those privatisations, because of the pernicious effects of ISDS, will be irreversible. A lot more work needs to be done, and a lot more scrutiny applied. 

Friday 28 November 2014

May and Baker – A Tale of Drugs and Crime at Bonfire Time

The following poem was read to Norman Baker at the annual Lewes Liberal Democrat dinner on Nov 26th 2014. Notes at the end will help with appreciation of the poem's finer points.

May and Baker – A Tale of Drugs and Crime at Bonfire Time

In olden days did May & Baker
help the needy sick to take a
draught to treat that desperate fear:
Bismuth Salt for diarrhoea!

Chloroform & Anaesthetic,
Calomel (a diuretic),
drugs for all by M & B,
made in perfect harmony.

But now - a sorry tale to tell-
'twixt M & B all is not well.
Drugs became the source of friction
as Baker tried to cure addiction,

While all the time Theresa May
was locking troubled folk away.
But Baker said "the Portuguese
have come across this triffic wheeze:

Prison sentences are found
to cycle users round and round".
Baker said "by doing time
they learn about a life of crime."

With splutt’ring May now turning red
our Norman raised his voice and said
“Addiction can be cured the best
by going through the NHS (t)*”

He said “the scientific proof
is irrefutable, you goof.”
“We don’t want reason here,” said May,
“We’d rather throw the keys away.”

“What Nonsense,” Norman B replied,
“You have to see the other side.
The way to rid men of this vice
is through Restorative Justice.”

In Whitehall May ranked over Norm
and sticking to her previous form
she wouldn’t budge, so Norman B
waved his farewell to Ministry.

A perfect pair these two are not.
Theresa doesn’t know how hot
revenge will be. –The Final Story?
Norm’s a match for any Tory.

*the ‘t’ is silent as in cup.


The moral of the story’s clear
don’t give Theresa May your ear
before you go to meet your maker
Get out the vote for Norman Baker.

Presented to Norman Baker at the Lewes Liberal Democrats Annual Dinner November 2014 by the members of the Executive Committee of Lewes Constituency Liberal Democrats. Poem, if such it is, by Harvey Linehan and Peter Gardiner.


  • Norman Baker is MP for Lewes where bonfires attended by 40,000 or more happen every November 5th. Nov 5th celebrates the failure of an attempt by Guy Fawkes and others to blow up Parliament in 1605, but the Lewes celebrations also memorialise 17 protestants martyred by the Catholic authorities during the Marian persecutions of 1555-57. Nov 5th is a country wide event, but the Lewes celebrations are spectacular.
  • Effigies of topical public figures are burned on Lewes bonfires. These include Osama bin Laden in 2001, and Alec Salmond and Vladimir Putin this year. (Salmond seemed to take it quite well; we don't know what Putin thought.)
  • Norman resigned from the Home Office on Nov 3rd when Theresa May, the Home Secretary, refused to consider a paper setting out alternatives to imprisonment for drug users.
  • 0n 5 November 2014, Adams, the Daily Telegraph's cartoonist, depicted Norman Baker lighting a bonfire on which sat an effigy of Theresa May. A copy of the cartoon was presented to Norman at the dinner.
  • Between 1834 and 1984 a company aptly called May and Baker produced pharmaceutical drugs. This is one of their advertisements.

Monday 27 October 2014

Sex, drugs and neoliberalism

So let me get this straight. Our economy is deemed to be doing better than we thought because the inclusion of the sex and drugs market has boosted it by about £10 billion a year. But that's not the important point when it comes to the EU. We have been presented with a bill because the improvement in our economy is bigger than the improvement in other economies, which are all now being measured by the same rules. So, clearly, we're spending more on sex and drugs than other people do. Why would that be? I can think of several reasons but for me there are two front runners.

1) Communities and our personal economies in this country are so much more tedious, pointless and hopeless than in other countries that more of us are turning to paid sex and paid drugs in order to alleviate the migraine of the mind that our condition causes us.

2) We have so completely swallowed the neoliberal Thatcherite line that the only meaningful experiences are those you pay for that we prefer to pay for our drugs and our sex.

Laugh in your grave, Lady T. Either way you've won. More comprehensively than you ever hoped. You have completely turned the country you once governed into a place that knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing. And pays the price.

Tuesday 30 September 2014

Tunnelling under you

So the Tories want to change the law so that fracking companies can tunnel under your house whenever they want without you being able to do a thing about it.

Much of the argument in favour of fracking relies on the apparently profitable experience of the United States, together with concerted and persistent attempts to rubbish reports about contamination, earthquakes and so on. A publication by IDDRI, the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations, “Unconventional wisdom: economic analysisof US shale gas and implications for the EU” suggests that the benefits of fracking to the USA are not as large as some would claim.

Their estimate is a “long-term effect on the level of US GDP (not its long-term annual growth rate) at about 0.84% between 2012 and 2035”. Not massive. And given that we know that, because of geological differences, fracking is a lot cheaper in the States than here, that suggests it really won't make any big difference to our economy at all.

They also suggest “the US shale revolution will not lead to a significant, sustained decarbonisation of the US energy mix” - and that should be the ultimate goal of all energy policy, to decarbonise so as to reduce the threat to our environment.

And finally “Shale production would not have significant macroeconomic or competitiveness impacts for Europe in the period to 2030- 2035”. So look elsewhere for a properly sustainable and effective energy policy.

I was about to finish by blaming the government for pursuing shale with reckless abandon (are we allowed to say “Reckless” now about the Conservative led coalition?), and I do think they, or at least the Tory part, are being at least silly and at most downright reckless with our future. But then I realised that I would be falling into the neoliberal trap which allows corporations to stoke spending and consumption by blaming governments for everything that goes against our inclinations. In this case the Tory half of government is to blame, but it's not all their fault: we should be consuming less, heating the planet less, and making clear to our political leaders that further fossil fuel consumption is not acceptable.

Wednesday 27 August 2014

Sex and relationship education

LibDem policy to guarantee sex and relationship education for seven and up has been published to a muted fanfare and the usual prurient response. 

Broadly the idea is to ensure that from as young an age as possible, children in all schools including academies and free schools get good solid teaching about relationships and about sex as appropriate. Part of the aim is to prevent the kind of abuse that we have seen in Rotherham by enabling children to avoid getting into difficult situations. But it is about much more than that, the ability to make sensible decisions about relationships of all kinds and in all situations. Good schools do this already, but not all schools do, and good schools find the place for this kind of education squeezed by the legal requirement to do so much other stuff. Sex and relationship education is just as important, so reluctantly, as a liberal, I accept the need to put it on as firm a footing as other educational requirements. 

One of the reasons it is necessary is because British society in general and media in particular are hopeless at setting the right tone for children to make decent decisions for themselves. This is largely because the media and the chattering elements of all classes are obsessed with sex. Predictably, all the headlines on this initiative are about “sex education”, when the full title is “sex and relationship education”. Good schools, even good nurseries, start doing relationships at a really young age, teaching how to share, how not to hit, and good schools continue the process at age appropriate levels. They need to be encouraged to do so and to keep it central to the curriculum.

I think one small adjustment to the language we use might help to make debate more purposeful and rational. We should call it “relationship and sex education” rather than the other way round. The reason is that those who most need to consider it properly stop listening as soon as they hear the word “sex”, and assume that it must be about teaching five year olds what an erection is and which holes it can go in. If the phrase were the other way round, some people might start reacting more sensibly and understanding that relationship education is properly a part of what a school teaches, and that sex education is a part of that at the appropriate time.

Wednesday 6 August 2014


I have too much stuff. I am trying to get rid of it. It's not about the space, which is lucky as I live with a squirrel. Two squirrels. And a third who was moved out but left their stuff behind. Space would be nice, but I'm reconciled to any space I empty being instantly filled by my squirrel relatives. It's more about living simply, and also more about what I acquire in the future than the possessions I have now. My motives are mixed. Partly they are a religious response to a society that judges people by their possessions, and partly they are an environmental response to the issue of sustainability. After three score years on this planet I'm slowly beginning to think all this through. And I'm going quite tentatively, as will be obvious to many people who, I am sure, have got much further than me.

I have reduced the amount of stuff I have by a considerable proportion. That is partly illusory as a lot of my downsizing has been the replacement of physical copies of books and music with electronic copies. Interesting questions arise as to whether e-books are more sustainable than paper ones...  (Apparently, they are, but I want to check exactly what is taken into account in the calculation.)

So I suppose it's partly about stuff and partly about my footprint. I could get rid of a lot of stuff, and I wouldn't miss it. But there is still stuff I would miss, much of which is darned expensive to keep going. My life has gone largely digital. I don't miss paper any more (and I really like the fact that I don't get a newspaper any more, ever). But I do want to be in touch and that involves the internet. That involves a massive capital structure of electricity generation, hardware development, mining and production of materials for manufacture, delivery of goods, even the launching of satellites into space so that I can get the signal I want, further development of the apps I use, development and agreement of protocols, construction of security systems, administration and management of the spaces I use. I could live very simply with just a mobile phone, but the scientific, industrial, economic and environmental impact behind that one device is massive.

The same in a way is true with food and drink. I could eat and drink only local produce, which would be fine for me, but a bit precious when it wouldn't work if we all did it, as there isn't enough food in the UK for all 60+ million of us. So, even if I use my local shop, I'm get supplied from a field worked by a tractor and a combine harvester, via a lorry, possibly a ship or a plane, another lorry, a distribution centre, with a  whole lot of refrigeration along the way, to another lorry that gets it to the shop I'm going to buy it from. Big footprint there. Or perhaps tyre track. And there are plenty of other examples, like drug development.

So I could change what I do a lot without having much impact on the economic and environmental structure of the world I live in. But in a way that is not the point. I'd like to find a way to consume less that would be possible not just for me but for everybody. I've no idea how far I'll manage that. But, I've started, so I'll see where I get to.

Friday 25 July 2014

Bedroom tax, sanctions and other benefit issues....

The news that Liberal Democrat policy has turned against the bedroom tax is very welcome indeed. My only regret about it is that it does not go far enough, but it probably went as far as could be reasonably achieved. Largely this is a move in a political game, using a formal report that tells us what we already knew (and only some of it) as cover for a change of policy that is carefully designed to distance us from the Tories enough to be able to make a separate space for ourselves, but not so far as to endanger the coalition. That being the case, I doubt that we will see much more in the way of policy differentiation on benefits until a few weeks short of the election. I live in hope but I'm not holding my breath.

It always was a crap policy. Nice idea to share out housing more equally, but the key way to do that is to build more houses. Nice idea to reduce the benefit bill, but the key way to do that is to build more houses and reduce the market price. You get the picture. The brainlessness of the policy, as hatched in the thing IDS calls his mind is exposed here, and in many other places, better than I can do.

I do hope for more because, looking across the whole breadth of the coalition's endeavours, I see nothing that has been as destructive as the DWP's war on claimants. Tory shenanigans on the NHS have hurt a lot of people, and cost a lot of money. There is little evidence that they have caused as much misery and even shortening of life as Iain Duncan Smith's pernicious policies and practices. His mantra has been fairness, “It can't be fair that...”. Fairness works both ways; there has to be fairness for claimants as well as for tax payers. They are often the same people, which IDS seems to ignore.

I hope the next step we take is to repudiate the sanctions regime. Of course you need a bit of stick to deal with the few recalcitrants who have no intention of taking a job. But there are very few of those, and hundreds of thousands of ordinary decent people are being clobbered hard with sanctions for the most minimal of reasons, and sometimes not even that. Let's remember, a sanction is not just a slap on the wrist. It is the loss of four weeks of benefits (the first time). The claimant is rendered destitute for a month. And that is supposed to help them look for work. And it is a totally unfair system. Make a thought experiment with me for a moment, please.

Suppose you are at work in a good steady job, 9 to 5, 5 days a week, doing well, no complaints. One day you turn up five minutes late for work. Your boss fines you a month's wages. Once you've got over that, your boss gives you a date for an appraisal. You tell your boss you can't make it as you have an appointment with a customer, and you keep the customer appointment. Your boss fines you a month's wages for missing the appraisal. When you finally have your appraisal - bear with me, this one's a corker - when you finally have your appraisal, you have a heart attack in the middle of it and have to be sent home. Your boss - you guessed it - fines you a month's wages for not completing the appraisal. You would not think any of those decisions were fair, would you? Every one of these is documented as having been done to claimants.   The heart attack one is a bit of a one off, but the others are not exceptional, they are being done repeatedly to thousands of claimants by job centres and their outsourced agencies  every day, every week, every month. It is pernicious, it is nasty,  it is completely ineffective in helping anyone to get a job. It should cease if we want to claim any kind of civilisation in our policy.

Along with the vindictiveness, there is the sheer incompetence with which much of this is being managed. See here for more details.   And the story of David Clapson is just one example of the effects of Mr Duncan Smith's poisonous policies.

Maybe a good strap line for LibDem policy would be “a Britain free of food banks”. Much as I have great respect for the Trussell Trust (particularly after they stood up to IDS) and their brethren, I hate the fact that we live in the sixth largest economy in the world, and we cannot find enough to keep even working people away from the need to beg for food. And I am sure that there is much good that the Trussell Trust and their like could do once the need to feed people was done away with. Most people who can work really want to find a job. It is the lack of jobs, not the number of applications they send in which is preventing them from getting one. Most people who cannot work really cannot work, and lead lives far more painful than most of us can imagine. It is time we pledged respect within our benefits system, and a decent minimum benefit for all.

Footnote: we have a LibDem minister in the DWP as in most other departments, and the LibDem minister's job is to keep an eye over the whole range of departmental policy and mitigate where necessary. Our man at the DWP is Steve Webb, who has done an excellent job carrying through much needed reforms to pension policy. He has achieved widespread recognition for what he has done. Even Labour have kept very quiet about what he's done, which means there is nothing there for them to attack. I do not know what Steve Webb has done on the mitigating front, but I think two factors come into play. When made minister for pensions, Steve would have recognised that there was an opportunity for him to take pension reform by the scruff of the neck, but also that that would be an all consuming job. Secondly, I think he would have seen very quickly that IDS was unstoppable and also capable of being extremely nasty to people he didn't like. (None of that “quiet man” stuff any more.) I'm sure Steve can look after himself in a fight, but it's a massive waste of energy that can be more profitably spent elsewhere. It would have been very rational for him to focus on pension reform and not try to get in the way of the IDS juggernaut. Even his junior ministers had that glint of “if it hurts you, it must be good for you, and actually we don't care if it turns out not to be good for you anyway” about them. Remember, at the start of this government DWP had Chris Grayling as well, whose bare faced lies outstrip even IDS's.  

Wednesday 23 July 2014

Did Douglas Adams get the idea from Don Cupitt?

I've been reading Don Cupitt lately. For a lot of it, that really means I've been looking at the words in sequence rather than actually reading it. It's been very good for some things actually. Very thought provoking. Currently, I'm reading The Leap of Reason. Here is a page from it.

Note the section heading at the bottom "The Meaning Of Life". Now note the page number.

The Leap of Reason was published in 1976 (though this is a later edition). Hitchhiker's Guide was published in 1978. Just a thought.

Update 5th August to include another curious coincidence. My attention has been drawn to Douglas Adams' creation Oolon Colluphid, author of such works as  "Where God Went Wrong", "Some More of God's Greatest Mistakes" and "Who is this God Person Anyway?"  While a lot of people think Adams had Richard Dawkins in mind, Cupitt apparently says in  "The Great Questions of Life" that he, Cupitt, was the inspiration for the character. Hat tip to Chris Griffiths for that one.

Tuesday 22 July 2014

Student loans and the economy

The Business, Innovation and Skills Select Committee warned today that the student loan system is at tipping point. The amount that the government will not get back is apparently likely to rise - at the moment it is forecast that 45p out of every pound will not come back as opposed to an initial estimate of 28p. The Committee also questioned the efficiency of the Student Loan Company's collection process, but that is a minor issue compared to the prospect of many student loans never being paid back.

Perhaps I'm being simplistic, but it seems to me to be quite logical that the amount of unreturned loan will rise. The right wing half of this government has a vision of the economy which is at odds with the (still) stated purpose of higher education policy. Their policies over the last four years have been moving us very effectively towards a low wage, low security economy, with a relatively small managerial and technical sector (for which university level education is necessary). While we apparently have more people than ever before in full time work, it is also the case that a very large proportion of them are in low paid work. (Hence also the benefit bill is not coming down as much as the poisonous IDS wants, because hefty amounts of tax credits and housing benefit are still being paid to people in full time work whose employers ought to be paying them a decent wage.) We are producing more graduates than this type of economy needs, so many of the graduates we produce may never earn more than the threshold for repayment.

In my view it is very short sighted to aim for this kind of economy, but that is what it seems we are being stuck with, so it will be very interesting to see how far the student loan policy unravels before politicians start rethinking it. Either that, or we need a change of economic tack which neither Conservatives nor Labour seem likely to provide.

Thursday 8 May 2014


Following the fuss about Pizza Express, it occurs to me that the fairest thing might be to label all meat with its method of slaughter. So anything killed halal would be labelled "throat cut".

But we should also label all meat killed by western industrial methods in the same way. Thus:

- poultry and pigs on whom gas is used should be labelled "gassed"
- poultry and sheep on whom electricity is used should be labelled "electrocuted"
- cows on whom stun guns are used should be labelled "bolt through the brain"
- and of course any fish you buy will be labelled "prolonged asphyxiation".

I wonder how many people's shopping habits might change.

Tuesday 15 April 2014


Today is the twenty fifth anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster when 96 football fans died in circumstances which were preventable.

(from the Guardian:

(From This Is Anfield:

It is also the twenty fifth year of one of the longest running scandals in the history of British policing, media and politics. The vindictive response of the authorities is symbolised by the readiness of the police forces of the day and since to break their oath to tell the truth and instead to lie and cover up persistently for decade after decade. It is symbolised in the nastiest campaign ever run by the Sun newspaper to blacken the names of the victims and their friends. It is symbolised in the malignant response of the political authorities of the time.

(Published by Scott Twigg This letter was sent to Scott's step father by Margaret Thatcher's press secretary, Sir Bernard Ingham.)

Twenty five years later we still seek the truth. The need, two and a half decades later, still to seek justice for the 96 reveals much that is wrong about Britain today - so many police officers have forgotten that their job is to protect the public, not to hound them, so many journalists have forgotten that their job is to tell the truth, not to lie, so many politicians have forgotten that their job is to serve the public, not their own selfish interests.

There are honourable police officers, there are honourable journalists, there are honourable politicians. But every name below is a stain on the reputation of all those professions. And it is not enough, in the face of such widespread and persistent corruption, to be honourable oneself. The honourable must not only do their own job, but it is their responsibility to root out the corrupt who still walk with them today, and seek to make amends for the evil and neglect that they have tolerated for too long.

But the honour of the professions is meaningless beside the tragedy that befell these people, their families and their friends on 15th April 1989. The youngest was 10, the oldest 67.

John Alfred Anderson
Colin Mark Ashcroft
James Gary Aspinall
Kester Roger Marcus Ball
Gerard Bernard Patrick Baron
Simon Bell
Barry Sidney Bennett
David John Benson
David William Birtle
Tony Bland
Paul David Brady
Andrew Mark Brookes
Carl Brown
David Steven Brown
Henry Thomas Burke
Peter Andrew Burkett
Paul William Carlile
Raymond Thomas Chapman
Gary Christopher Church
Joseph Clark
Paul Clark
Gary Collins
Stephen Paul Copoc
Tracey Elizabeth Cox
James Philip Delaney
Christopher Barry Devonside
Chris Edwards
Vincent Michael Fitzsimmons
Thomas Steven Fox
Jon-Paul Gilhooley
Barry Glover
Ian Thomas Glover
Derrick George Godwin
Roy Harry Hamilton
Philip Hammond
Eric Hankin
Gary Harrison
Stephen Francis Harrison
Peter Andrew Harrison
David Hawley
James Robert Hennessy
Paul Anthony Hewitson
Carl Darren Hewitt
Nicholas Michael Hewitt
Sarah Louise Hicks
Victoria Jane Hicks
Gordon Rodney Horn
Arthur Horrocks
Thomas Howard
Thomas Anthony Howard
Eric George Hughes
Alan Johnston
Christine Anne Jones
Gary Philip Jones
Richard Jones
Nicholas Peter Joynes
Anthony Peter Kelly
Michael David Kelly
Carl David Lewis
David William Mather
Brian Christopher Matthews
Francis Joseph McAllister
John McBrien
Marian Hazel McCabe
Joseph Daniel McCarthy
Peter McDonnell
Alan McGlone
Keith McGrath
Paul Brian Murray
Lee Nicol
Stephen Francis O'Neill
Jonathon Owens
William Roy Pemberton
Carl William Rimmer
Dave George Rimmer
Graham John Roberts
Steven Joseph Robinson
Henry Charles Rogers
Colin Andrew Hugh William Sefton
Inger Shah
Paula Ann Smith
Adam Edward Spearritt
Philip John Steele
David Leonard Thomas
Patrick John Thompson
Peter Reuben Thompson
Stuart Paul William Thompson
Peter Francis Tootle
Christopher James Traynor
Martin Kevin Traynor
Kevin Tyrrell
Colin Wafer
Ian David Whelan
Martin Kenneth Wild
Kevin Daniel Williams
Graham John Wright

Wednesday 26 March 2014

The correct procedures are killing people

From the BBC this morning:

"The way a woman was assessed for benefits led to her suicide less than a month later, according to a mental health watchdog.

"The woman had a history of depression and was on significant medication, but scored zero points in a Work Capability Assessment (WCA), carried out by Atos.

"A Mental Welfare Commission report said it could see no other factor "in her decision to end her life".

"The Department for Work and Pensions said correct procedures were followed."

That 's the point, isn't it. The correct procedures are killing people. I wonder how this squares up with David Cameron's "moral mission".

Thursday 27 February 2014

Royal Bank of Scotland: still rewarding incompetence

2008 RBS implodes. RBS gets rescued with my money and that of every other taxpayer payer in the counntry. RBS promises to change its ways and embarks on a recovery programme. 2014 RBS posts its biggest loss ever. 2014 RBS continues to pay its senior bosses huge bonuses. (Slightly less than last year - big deal.) Big senior boss says, "People - including the executives of the bank - didn't realise how big a change process we had to go through to get this bank back into shape."

Anybody who "did not realise how big a change process" was needed after that catastrophe does not deserve a bonus, they deserve to be sacked, and to get a job that their skills fit them for - road sweeping maybe. When is the government going to do something about the absolute waste of my money and the sheer arrogance of the incompetents still at the helm of RBS?

Baroness Wheatcroft, ex editor in chief of the Wall Street Journal, no less, says RBS would be a better bank without its bonus culture. George Osborne, please, please, please, please, please, for once listen to people who know what they're talking about.

(And if Scotland becomes independent, can they please keep RBS?)

Monday 24 February 2014

Ringmer debates: what are benefits for?

There were three parts to this discussion. The first was the original question “What are benefits for?” in general terms, the second was about public perception and the third about current practice.

Nowadays benefits are usually linked to work, so the purpose is seen to be to tide people over while they are unable to work, but also to prepare them for work and enable them to take work when it is available. So, at one level, the benefit system simply fulfils a duty of care - to keep people going while they are unable to fend for themselves. They also do have a specific link to work - to allow people a decent minimum income so that they can afford to look for work and so that they remain mentally and physically fit to take on work when it becomes available. Finally, I suggest that there is also a link to the next generation; some people on benefits have children and again a decent minimum ensures that children are properly brought up and grow to be fit workers. Lastly, there are some people whose benefit is not linked to work, people whose physical or mental condition is such that work is not a realistic option for them. Again, we owe a duty of care to ensure that they have a decent minimum to get by on. Without going into the details here, I take it as read that we can afford this. Despite the bankers' mistakes and the austerity that has forced on us, we still live in one of the world's largest economies. A decent minimum of welfare provision is affordable.

Public opinion tends to be largely anti welfare nowadays. One of the reasons for this is misconception about the level of benefits and about the choices that are available to people. Rhetoric suggests that the benefit system is responsible for people being out of work - making work pay is the mantra. This rhetoric, which is convenient for right wing opinion, ignores two facts. The first is the number of jobs available. We have currently 2.3 million unemployed people, and a further 1.5 million underemployed. We have half a million vacancies. The logic of “making work pay” rhetoric is that if you removed all benefits tomorrow, those 4 million people would suddenly find work. They will not; they will be destitute.

People point to the half million vacancies - why don't those get filled? The answer is they do. Again there is a misunderstanding, an idea that the 2.3 million unemployed are the same people this month and next, using all their wit and ingenuity to avoid actually having to go to a job interview. They are not. Instead a lot of people are moving in and out of work. Employment is much less certain than it used to be. A very large proportion of our working population now faces the prospect of moving in and out of jobs during their whole working life. This month's half million vacancies will have been filled by next month. But next month there will be another half million vacancies elsewhere, and a different half million jobs lost, putting a different half million people into the unemployed statistics. That constant churn is now a fact of economic life.

Claims have been made about families where three generations have never worked, this being one of the reasons why the benefit system needs to change. Despite the claims, nobody has ever been able to find such a family.

The rhetoric about benefits also ignores the fact the a large proportion of those on benefits are in work, but being paid at such a low level that tax credits and housing benefit are necessary for them to be able to survive. (One way to reduce housing benefit is to build more houses - which will be part of the topic of our next debate on 14th March about the value of land.)

There is a mass of information about how the British public overestimates the level of benefits, and the number of people on them. This is astarting point.

Finally we look at government practice. We hear a lot of rhetoric about getting people back to work - which is difficult when there are no jobs for them to do. We have heard from David Cameron this week about it being a moral mission, to combat the criticism he has been getting from church leaders. Looking at what the DWP is actually doing paints a different picture to what Iain Duncan Smith and David Cameron are saying.

The bedroom tax: the idea is to make people move to smaller homes where appropriate. The policy overlooks the problem that the smaller homes for people to move to do not exist. Many many people are stuck in the houses they live in and now living on less than they had before. Either the DWP did not realise there were no alternatives or they did. If they did not realise, they are monumentally stupid. If they did know, then the policy is just vindictive. There are also many many cases of disabled people who need the extra room for large scale equipment, or for overnight carers to sleep in - or indeed the spouse to sleep in. Despite David Cameron's statements, many of these people are not shielded from the bedroom tax.

Sanctions. When people fail to look for work they can be deprived of benefits. In principle this is right and proper. But the sanction regime is being used on a very wide scale and quite arbitrarily. Evidence shows that targets are set for the number of sanctions given despite denials from the DWP. A man who had a heart attack during his Work Capability Assessment was sanctioned for not completing the assessment. A collection of other equally arbitrary removals of benefit is listed here. These are not just the odd unfortunate case: this is routine behaviour by Job Centre staff. And the numbers have increased significantly: more than 100,000 people a month have four weeks or more of benefit removed, often for arbitrary and petty reasons. It is difficult to discern a moral mission in this treatment.

There is a link between sanctions, and also delays in determining benefit, and the increase we have seen in the use of food banks. In the survey that we did in a few roads in Ringmer prior to this debate, many residents were shocked to learn that there are a number of food banks now operating in Sussex, including Brighton, Crowborough, Newhaven, Hailsham and other places. There are two that we know of in Lewes. Many of the people referred to food banks are in fact in work, but unable to to afford their bills. Others are referred because of benefit sanctions and other reasons.

Getting people back to work is a laudable aim. It involves creating jobs for them to go to rather than tweaks to the benefit system.

Thursday 23 January 2014

Ringmer debates: does politics have to be a grubby business?

The January Ringmer debate was about politics - does it have to be a grubby business?

We didn't get to an answer to the question, though we did have a trawl through some of the things that happen in politics and the reasons why they might happen. Our non randomised survey of a few streets brought up this list of levels of trust.

Profession    Trustworthiness out of 10
Doctors                8.5
Royal Family        7.7
Teacher               7.7
Clergy               7.5
Police               7.1
Shopkeepers       7.1
Environmentalists    6.3
Lawyers               6.1
MI5/MI6               5.9
Economists       5.4
Entrepreneurs       4.9
Bankers               4.7
Estate Agents       4.4
Politicians               4.3

Politicians down at the bottom, below even estate agents. I forgot to include journalists in the options, which might have ended up with the politicians not being quite at the bottom of the heap. I do think that the media are responsible for some of the mistrust we have for our politicians. I illustrated this with a couple of examples. We hear often for instance, “X insists such and such”, and we often get the impression that X has gone out of his way to make a point to journalists, which they then obediently print. Such as “Osborne insists cabbages are good for you.” The truth is as likely to be along these lines:
Chancellor: I'd like to talk about the economy today.
Journalist: Just briefly Chancellor, what's your opinion about cabbages. Are they good for you?
Chancellor: Well, it's really about the economy.
Journalist: Just a quick word on cabbages
Chancellor: No, we have important news in today's employment figures
Journalist: All I need is a quick word about cabbages, then we can talk about the economy
Chancellor: Unemployment continues on its downward trend which is very good news for
Journalist: What's your problem with cabbages?
Chancellor: ….
Journalist: Are cabbages good for you?
Chancellor: Well, I suppose they are, yes. Now about the economy
Headline in next day's paper: Chancellor insists cabbages are good for you!!!!

Another thing I notice very often is the use of the word “vow”. Taking Osborne as our example again, this is a random sample of headlines culled from Google:

George Osborne vows to cut welfare...
George Osborne vows to slash spending by £25BILLION
'Britain's economy on the move again', vows George Osborne (it would be interesting to know how you could “vow” that. “Says” would have done. Or you could miss the verb out altogether: “'Britain's economy on the move again': George Osborne”)
Osborne vows 'responsible recovery
George Osborne vows first UK budget surplus in more than a decade

“Vow” means “promise”. In fact it means more than promise: it has religious connotations to it, something which we hold as an extremely high moral rule. Now, George Osborne is quite a clever chap, extraordinarily short sighted about some things, but a very good politician. He knows that there is a measure of chance about whether he will get to a budget surplus, or to £25b in cuts. What he really means is that is what he intends to do, always with a caveat about whether circumstances blow him off course, and he intends to get there or thereabouts. But media don't do subtleties: they won't print “we think we can get round about £25b of cuts, we'll be quite happy with £23b”. For journalists it has to be exact, it has to be a promise. And it gets turned into “vow” not because the journalists actually think Osborne is staking his life on it, but for one simple reason which has nothing to do with politics or indeed the representation of reality (which is what I naively assume news reporting is about). It is because the word is short. It fits into headlines better; you can get it into bigger fonts and not fall off the edge of the page. It is also, I think, because it is dramatic, though I think that is minor compared to its brevity. But for the sake of brevity, the genuine nuance of political life and decision making is lost.

The same is true about changes of direction. In our survey we asked “Should politicians be able to change their minds without always being accused of U-turns?” 74% answered yes. But it is very difficult for politicians to change their minds without a storm of criticism from the other side (because they know it works) and from the media - who ought to know better. Follow the dictum of Keynes - when circumstances change, I change my mind - what do you do?

Another interesting issue came up with regard to the change of reimbursement for MPs recently suggested by IPSA. There was a storm of protest when it came out, and the response of most leading politicians was unhelpful, saying that there should not be a pay rise at a time when other people were suffering lower living standards. (I think that is a very good example of the limits of politicians' power - they knew the wrong impression had been given but they knew they could not swim against the media tide.) The IPSA proposals were not actually for an increase in reimbursement. A rise in salary would be compensated for by less in expenses and less generous severance pay and pension arrangements. IPSA said their overall package was revenue neutral, in other words it shifted the forms of payment around without MPs gaining overall. We put this in our survey - stay as now, or increase the salary but with fewer perks, and our respondents were divided 49/51 on which was better.

The question that got most interesting responses though was “What words come to mind when you hear or think of Prime Minister's Questions”. I won't print all the responses, but most were along the lines of children, bear pits, hooligans. The single most often used word was “rabble”. Which leaves you wondering why they still do it, given the impression that most people get. The answer some of us came up with was that it is effective in Parliament, and that is what Parliamentarians see. If that is really the case, then the idea of the Westminster bubble perhaps has some validity.

All of this happened before the Rennard and Hancock cases came to public attention, proving that the LibDems can be just as sleazy as the other parties when we choose to be. Much of the commentary has focussed not on what the men have done, but on what the party has done about what the men have done. In my view this focus has been justified. It is a mucky period of our history. The procedures we have in place to deal with such things have not been, and are still not, as robust as they need to be. I suspect that this is because we have always thought of ourselves as the nicer party, ignoring the fact that some of “our” politicians can be just as grubby and just as street vicious as many of “theirs”. We have always prided ourselves on the rationality of our debate. When journalists have talked about the scrums we sometimes get into at our party conferences, we say, rightly, that it's called grown up debate.* And I am very thankful that we still have it. But we need to confront the realities of power, and particularly gender power. We have not done nearly as well by women as we should have, and the party - and Parliament - is the poorer for it. Partly it is a general issue that all organisations face, and partly it is a special one because of the special place Lord Rennard holds in the party's history. Yes, he did us a great deal of good. That doesn't mean we should let half the party down just to hold on to the memory of what he has done for us. Some soul searching is required, but also some determination to be ourselves a party in which no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity, and that includes conformity to the wishes of would be dominant males.

*Another example of how media report things badly:

Journalist: Is the party split over this??????
Any LibDem spokesperson: No, we're just having a grown up debate about the options
Headline; LIBDEMS SPLIT OVER [insert title of any policy we've debated in the last ten years]