Monthly Archives: October 2010

Mr Glib and Housing Benefit


‘Good morning. Terry isn’t it. Good morning to you. What’s the subject today? An interview on the effects of Housing Benefit on the poor of London it say’s here. Look, do you mind running this through with me before you record anything. I’m starting a bit cold with this one.’ ‘A sort of dress rehearsal,you mean. That sort of thing. OK. Let’s start. According to the London Borough’s these proposed Housing Benefit ceilings will make over 17, 000 families, some 85,000 families homeless. Do you agree?’ ‘ We don’t know do we. Some of these people will raise their game and pay the higher rent. A lot of concealment of true financial resources  goes on. They might take in lodgers, share with other families. Why not for a W in your post code?’ ‘ Well assuming that is out of order for most of them what then?’ ‘ Number 1. Sorry I’m reading this stuff. We have this social fund for special cases. This might buy some of them some weeks grace. Time to move home somewhere in the sticks.  No.2 They can join the Council housing lists for  a place, if they qualify. There is social housing in London you know. If they qualify they will get a place as something becomes available.’ ‘ Do you know the average waiting time for social housing in London?’ ‘No I don’t but I have a feeling that you are goling to tell me.’ ‘ Fifteen years. Goodness, there’s a thing. 3. They can negotiate with their landlord to get the rent down. These landlords take advantage. They put up the rent if they know the Local Authority is going to pay it. There is little evidence of that. Some people estimate that there are ten people seeking every rental in the London area.’ ‘ Is that right. I shall make a note of that. 4. What’s so hot about London anyway. Go North where rentals are lower. I did.’  ‘ Come off it Minister, the taxpayer pays the the rent for you.’ ‘ Come to think of it, that’s true. Special cases make bad law. Don’t you think? 5. Look. We are not unfeeling people you know. Housing Benefits have to be reformed. The whole system is costing us too much. People are resourceful. No one waits for the axe. They take some decisive action to save themselves.’

‘OK Minister, lets bring this to a rational conclusion. You maintain that not all these 17,000 families will lose their homes. How many will, do you think and what will become of them?’ ‘I can’t say. No one can. Perhaps a few thousand families.’ ‘ Now we’re getting somewhere. Say ten thousand, that is fourty thousand peope shipped into boarding houses and at the public’s cost. Is that it?’ ‘ Well, I’ll be honest with you. It might be the outcome.’

‘Thank you Minister.’ ‘ How do you think it went. I could argue another case you know. Come to think of it I could argue the opposite.’ ‘ Well, Nick. I think that might be wise. Your shout, of course.’

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In Whose Interest?


The members of the CBI meeting on Monday were somewhat insistent and David Cameron somerwhat compliant: a dynamic and prosperous private sector would save us from economic depression and the Coalition would do all in its power to help firms large and small thoughout the country through lower taxes, fewer regualtions flexible manpower practices and targetted Government incentives. Long live free enterprise! Had I heard this before?

Well, good luck to them is my response but not at the expense of my job, my family, my way of life. After all, is it not true that modern democratic and parliamentary Government is about the representation of interest, of all our interests. Consider the leaders of the top fifty leading British  companies who wrote recently to the press in support of the Coalition’s austerity measures. They are international companies who can locate anywhere. They have no intrinsic compulsion to invest in British industry and jobs, Some, perhaps all,  will invest elsewhere if it suits their  balance sheets. Might it be that  these companies actually benefit from unemployment: the availability of more  workers, the lower the wages that might be payable to new recruits. No one pays more than they need. Higher dividends mean richer shareholders. Of course, our pension funds benefit too, I accept, but a host of owners of capital rub their hands at the same time. Our families may suffer but surely not the Captains of industry! If the weight of public consideration is given to the owners of capital, our interests, the interests of the motley, take second best. Is that what we can expect? Is that what we shall get?

The Coalition leaders are often portrayed as non-ideological managers of our interests. Let us place our ideologies in the waste paper basket of history and solve our problems one by one. They can do this apparently. However, it is not clear to everyone that this is what they are about. In the 1980’s Mrs Thatche earned her re-elections on the backs of the unemployed. Around 1982 the economic recovery began but with it came rising unemployment for a further four years to 1986. Is this what we are going to experience now? I don’t know. Boy George doesn’t know either. It does seem to me that the world is a dangerous place. Perhaps we shall avoid a double dip depression but I do not think it is likely that we shall avoid a long period of modest growth (lower than it need be). Who can judge the outcome of foreign currency wars, of a slowing in buoyant BRIC economies, or  the multitude of wrecked family lives. No one will pay us for the long years of personal suffering. They will be years lost. I do not envy fat cats but I do not feel that they should sleep easy in their beds while some of us kip in doorways. How about you? Long live Parliamentary democracy. Two cheers for our interests!

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A Bad Case of TNA


The Coalition is desperate to get us to believe in an acronym. It suffers from a bad case of TNA- There is No Alternative to the cuts announced in Chancellor George Osborne’s Government Spending Review. To this is added a myth: the British economy under Labour had reached meltdown  with an imminent threat of a Greek style collapse , a run on the pound and rising interest and bond rates. Nick Clegg told Radio 4 listeners of Desert Island Discs that he had searched his conscience about the cuts and had concluded there were ‘no pain free alternatives’. Unfortunately for Nick Clegg, his timing was poor. Almost at the same time a British Nobel Prize winner of Economics, Professor Pissarites said the the Government was taking ‘unnecessary risks’ with the economy and that the risks of a crisis in bond rates were minimal.

Consider the use of terms. Philosophically, the chances that there is no alternative to any decision is highly dubious. In most instances there are alternatives as in this instance. Clegg does not deny there are alternatives but he insists they are ‘not pain free’. Note that Clegg does not deny alternatives but states they are not pain free. We might think that if this is so what course of action would cause us least pain. This type of analysis, a choice between disagreeable alternatives and an issue of judgement,  we might be able to accept. Not TNA but a choice between difficult choices. Now you are talking. You admit that there are difficult choices, you might accept that the risk of the collapse of the British economy is minimal and that you together with George Osborne have opted for one of them. 

There is something of Uriah Heep in Nick Clegg. He is at pains to tell us that he searched his conscience. This statement differentiates him from others who might be thought not to have a conscience. He may have searched it but one is bound to remind him that he found it wanting on this occasion – it let him down!

It is the philosophy of the Right in politics that it is in favour of small government, the diffusion of power from the centre, low taxes and the denial of the enabling powers of the state. Perhaps on this occasion Clegg found his conscience wanting because at heart his soul belongs to a Right wing Tory philosophy. Indeed it a fit of honesty a few days ago he admitted it. If this is so it would not be insulting to the intelligence to admit that you cannot put a cigarette papoer between the politics of David Cameron and Nick Clegg. I am inclined to argue, being somwehat sceptical in outlook, that he will at some time join the Cons taking some power greedy Lib Dem members of the Government with him and splitting the Lib Dems. We could write the speech he might make at an e4mergency meeting of the Lib Dem Parliamentary Party.

This speech will begin with the words, ‘As you know I am a Lib Dem supporter to my very core (he shows his membership card). I am bound to conclude that there is no TNA. I have searched my conscience and found that, as I suspected, there is no TNA. Applause, a few mutters and stewards standing by the emergency doors.

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Pain and No Gain


The success of George Osborne’s spending review, or otherwise, is a question of judgement. Is George right to conclude that after four years the budget deficit will be eliminated and the UK economy and total employment will have risen. If he is right we might shrug and say, as many commentators do say, that many of us may have driven to desperation but that the economic problem will have been solved. Good old George we might say. He is our saviour.

I am distressed that the discussion is so loose. It is true that earl;ier in the year the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) believed that George might be right but that the Goverment’s statistical chance of being right was 40 in a 100. In other words, if he was a horse  at that time the odds were 2 to 1 on. A gamble? Not really but many a horse loses at these odds. What might the odds be now? The OBR has another go in November. Since then many economic signs indicate the odds have worsened. Whether the OBR alters the odds (and I think they well might) is an unknown. Perhaps the odds then may be 3,4,or 5 to one. You pay your money and takes your choice. Do you want George to gamble people’s jobs,  welfare and family prospects at odds of say, 4 to 1 ? Well, not my job George, if you don’t mind, would be the likely response. To put my job and house at risk for those odds would in my mind be an unjustifiable gamble.

What do I mean? I think that George is wrong on a number of matters. First, I follow the IFS in suggesting that George’s spending review will not eliminate the budget deficit. He is relying on substantial efficiency savings in Government Departments. Come off it George it is far more difficult that you realise. We have all been there before. The worldwide economy is recovering slowly with many months of slow growth ahead of us all. What will George do  if the numbers do not work out? He tells us that he has no Plan B. I do not believe him. Rather than admit that they were wrong the Coalition will plunge on with further cuts.

Politically what will the Lib Dems do? Whatever they do, it might be argued that they are doomed. They may split with the Lib Dem ministers clinging on to the Tory coat  tails and the rest abandoned to the political wilderness. This might be very obvious by next May.

Can the Opposition in all its forms bring this Coalition experiment to an end? Not now. Next June, when we are all examining the damage? Why not?

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Filed under Alan Budd, BBC, Benefits, Big society, Cabinet, Cameron, Child poverty

Pupil Premium: the road to hell


Nick Clegg in a thoughtful and well-organised speech has released some details about the  intoduction of the long-covetted Lib Dem Pupil Premium. As stated the aim is to help disadvantaged pupils by providing 15 hours of teaching from the age of two and at various stages of their education. It is a worthy aim in itself but as we know the road to hell is paved with good intentions. As stated the policy might be expected to assist 20 percent of the 1.1 milion children who at the present time enjoy free school meals.

In his analysis Clegg makes a startling and misconceived identification of disadvantage with poverty. Is it true that all children whose families are poor are disadvantaged? Are all the disadvantaged poor? Do all poor children take free school meals? And would special teaching of the poor, as so defined, tackle the problem.

Clegg does not pose and answer these questions. So I will step in  and help him. No not all poor children are disadvantaged. We can all think of good homes and successful children from homes with limited income. I come from just such a home. But my parents were aspirational and willing to work at the difficult art of encouraging children. Not all homes are like this and many with greater resources succeed in making a mess of family life and their children’s progress. Not all poor children take school meals. Many parents prefer to us their imagination and the money they have available to provide lunches for their children. Disadvantaged children come from any family breakdown you care to mention.

The evidence on the usefulness of pre-school education is mixed. I am inclined to think it a good thing or rather to give it the benefit of the doubt BUT it is easy to quote many studies that show the opposite. Again everything depends on the kind of family they come from and what they might be learning and experiencing if they were not at school.

Of course, limited resources makes things difficult for many families. If we accept that this is a deadweight on the shoulders of the poor the solution is to ensure that ALL these families have more resources after tax. If you believe that children should have nursery education from the age of two THEN the state  should provide it for them. If you believe that disadvantaged children should be spotted early and helped then nurseries and schools should have the resources to teach in small classes and provide a high-quality pastoral care that reaches back to work with families in their homes.

If then you agree with the analysis what is needed? No cuts in educational provision, no scaling back on Sure Start, smaller classes, good teachers and organised pastoral care. What you do not want is Coaltion cuts in the education budget. Crocodile tears evoke no sympathy with me. Move over Cleggie and let the the misadventure of the Coalition grind to an end.

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The Universal Pink


This is not a an indulgent fantasy of a lost musical past. My subject is universality that magic solution that binds us one to another in a decent society: not a Big Society nor a Little Britain  but one which believes in the solidarity of its citizens, brother to brother, neighbour to neighbour. A decent universal state pension fairly earned by those who have worked and those of us who have stayed at home to care for children is just such a universal benefit so too in a National Health Service and Care for the Elderly. Speaking personally I have always believed that a free at the point of use education system came into the same category. I benefitted from such a free education system. No one in my family had enjoyed the benefits of a university education until my sister broke the mould and became one of the first women to be accepted by Barts for a medical degree. On her application form she had to list the occupation of her father: she wrote ‘Labourer’ Imagine this same wonderful individual  today. She comes home from her clerical work and anounces to her astonished parent that she intends to become a doctor. ‘Oh, that’s good dear and how much will it cost.’ ‘Well if you help me with day to day expenses and we are talking of the medical fees alone,  I shall run up a debt of over £100,000 pounds but I will not have to repay it at once. I can take a very long time to pay it off – maybe 20 years by which time it may well be twice the original debt perhaps £200,000.’ A long silence. ‘Look dear, my heart is with you, really it is. I would like to help you with this. I shall think very carefully about it because, of course, I have the duty to do so. But I can’t encourage you. All my life I have avoided debt. It is a dreadful thing I can assure you. (Ask David Cameron if you don’t believe me!) I think the answer will be no. What you might do is to approach charitable organisations. I’m sure there  are some who would wish to help you. But darling think on it how could you do such a thing?’

 What is a human life worth to us? Everything or nothing? Why stop at university education? There is more money to be made for loans to get children through school. Why should this be free? Why should we citizens pay for courses on needlework, cooking and carpentry to name but a few unnecessary courses. And why five days a week? Why not a shift system which would enable children to limit school to three days a week? Why not distance learning using standardised subject modules? After all most children spend more time at their computers playing silly games than they spend in a classroom. Just imagine the savings in public expenditure?

‘Don’t be silly’, I hear you saying, ‘there must be some service that are universally provided. ‘But not many AND not provided at my expense.’  ‘Well dear, you do not have children. This issue of education does not concern you, does it? Why should you pay for the education of those do-nothing children from the Council estate?’ Why indeed?

‘You should pay madam because you gain from the universal pink. We are one of you and, like it or not, we are one of you.’

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The Sham Society


David Cameron has given us the vision thing at the Tory Party Conference. He was strong on his daft notion of the Big Society; so daft that it is doubtful if many of the faithful in the hall or TV viewers could fathom out what he was talking about. In some ways it was chrystal clear. We were listening to the mantra of the unreconstructed right: small government, low taxes, a foreign and defence policy narrowly focussed on protection of trade and the substituion of the expert manager or official by a untrained volunteer labour force. Arisotle is resurrected from a grave where he slumbered peacefully. Now we are all  to be citizens busy about the social affairs of our neighbours and running things without expertise: a nation of professional workers is to to be substituted  by busybodies. None of this is to decry the role of voluntary associations in our national life but they can only become more useful as a caring and enabling states extends its role.

This Tory simplicity and yearning for a return to pastoral virtues will, of course, run into the ground. At the moment it is in the ascendant. There are at least three, and probably more, categories of Tory on display. There is the brutal and rather simple category which bathes in the glory of a world reduced to its own simplicities; the blustery and crude men and women on the climb are seizing their opportunity; and then there  is the sophisticted men and women of the world who understanding the difficulties of life in its infinite human variety look on us, the electors, with half smiles and a midgeon of compassion.

This world, in all its complexities, is about to inflict its revenge on those engaged in this nonsense. The revenge although in part uncontrollable does need political direction.  It must become clear to the electorate that there is a viable Opposition to the  Coalition’s half-baked solutions to national and international problems. Ed Milliband must roll up his sleeves and get down to the job of saving us all from the economics and politics of Alice in Wonderland.

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English Gulags


In giving you the contents of a forthcoming Ministerial speech I shall start with a Jewish joke. A man is seeking a new suit and a friend recommends a bespoke tailor. Good morning, sir, he was greeted, welcome. As you can see we specialise in grey suits. I want a blue suit was the  customer response. No problem, sir, just one minute while I change the bulb. The moral being one size (colour)  does  fit all.

I am hurt by the suggestion that the Coalition Government’s Benefit proposals will lead to the creation of areas of the country that will be dubbed Gulags. As you know, we have suggested a single  Universal  Benefit,  including a range of separate Benefits at present, and in particular Housing Benefit,  and its capping at no more than the average wage. It has been said that in areas with high rents, for example Greater London but many other areas as well,   rents are so high that families on Benefit will not be able to live the area at all. (Someone mutters from the audience, The Law of Unintended Consequences).

Perhaps this will happen. I am not saying nay or yea. But if it does will this be a bad thing? Do you think the posh people of Kensington wish to have a substantial number of poor people in their streets. Be reasonable, would you like it? If these people move to an area with others of their kind, will they not be happier. Of course they will. In these areas there will be plenty of Council Houses and we shall help the local authorities to build new low cost homes so that other poor people can move in. You cannot say that this policy will be partisan because although the high cost areas will continue to elect Tories there is a good chance that these new Gulags we are creating will elect Socialists. This construction activity will create jobs. With a bit of luck we can attract charitable funds.

What I wish to convey to you is that when considered in the round the scheme will save huge sums of public money. And we shall not be mean about this. Families migrating to a Gulag will travel in special trains. We shall provide the name tags and the lunch boxes. People will be very, very happy. Why shouldn’t they be?

You may think this post of mine  a nonsense. Hold on. Think a bit. Ken Clarke’s prison reforms will create a new class of voluntary labour. If you live in a Gulag  without a prison let me know. We can get one shifted to your town  and your community will benefit.

Do you get the message? With a little ‘here’s your uncle’ one size can suit all the poor deserving or otherwise. Cut the deficit, we are all in this together, hurrah for the Big Society.

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Milliband Pragmatism


I believe that the first duty of Her Majesty’s Opposition in Parliament is to oppose. But is it right to oppose measures some of which you approve in order to get the other lot out? Lenin would have had no difficulty. His objective was the overthrow capitalism and its replacement  with a socialism. To hell with sensible social democratic reforms and shoot the bankers. You know the kind of thing. Long live the Revolution. What approach will Labour under Ed Milliband do?

Ed has already given us clues. The Coalition has come up with a Constitutional Bill , one of whose objectives is to cement Coalition rule for five years and to make it more difficult for the Coalition parties to win next time by changing the electoral system and gerrymandering the constituencies. In his Conference speech Ed told us that he is in favour of electoral reform and   will support AV in the proposed Referendum. How about changes to the Benefit System? Ed says he will support sensible changes to reform Benefit Entitlement  and so get more people into work. But would he support these changes if accompanied by an end to universal benefits, to Child Allowances, and the Winter Fuel Allowance, for example, to enable expensive reform to go ahead? Can you have one without the other? Ed is watching the progress of the Hutton enquiry into pay differentials, and no doubt talking to him (Why not? They must know each other well.) If Hutton comes up with sensible proposals, we might infer that they would have Labour support. 

These examples show that Ed is not RED in any meaningful sense. He is in that that tepid category of social reformers, of which I am one, who is prepared to support policies which realise social democratic aspirations. And he is a pragmatic with it.

Labour support for sound social democratic polices is to be welcomed as a contribution to good governance. What else could we desire? Might it not encourage alliance building acroos the floor of the House? Might it become more difficult for the Far Right to move the Coalition in reactionary directions and moderate the worst of the cuts? Might it in some circumstances encourage Lib Dems to vote against socially divisive policies that they abhor? Might cross party voting become the norm in this Parliament? Can some Lib Dems join with Labour and vote out damaging cuts across the floor of the House?

Moderation such as this is to be welcomed. It will be welcomed by the mass of the electorate because this is what it wants. If our Dave and Boy George become aware of open up opposition in the House might they not, even at this late stage, moderate their enthusiasm for cuts? It is possible. Might this be the tenor of discussions between the Labour Party and Charles Kennedy? No need to leave the House or quit the Lib Dems. Join together with Labour and vote out that which you think disastrous and wrong. I have always thought that there was enough cunning in the Tory camp to avoid this, that there is a Plan B and perhaps a Plan C. Who knows? Of course, I could be wrong. Ed could be wrong. In this case perhaps I shall bring out my Red Flag and chant Long Live Lenin with the rest of them.

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