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.