Saturday, December 27, 2008

Good Old Boy #82

Steve Bell's most recent If... series has been very heartfelt and entertaining. It is in the form of a poem in seven parts:

'Twas the night before Christmas,
and all round the house,
not a creature was stirring,
except the Minister for Work and Pensions

"The rodent he sat by the chimney with care

In the hope that St Nicholas soon would be there,
He was planning to seize the old elf by the ear,
For the scheming old sod worked but one day a year

"And then all at once came a loud farting sound
Down the chimney St Nicholas came with a bound,
He showed not a blush, that shameless old ruin
Said, "I happened to pass, saw your roof needed doin'"

"Your roof's in good hands, you can leave it to me, For three hundred quid and a nice cup of tea,

Come lounger come scrounger, come lurker come shirker, come lesbian Lil and her old turkey baster,
To the top of the roof, to the top of the wall, now claim away, claim away, claim away all!

"Away from the rooftops the claimants they flew,
with a sleighful of giros, St Nicholas too,
who'd sit at the pole in his fur-trimmed red rayment,
quite snug all year long claiming cold weather payment

"The rat was enraged and leapt up at the sleigh,
"I'll have you in jail by this Christmas Day
You breed and you sponge like a festering canker,
Taking bread from the mouths of each poor needy banker!

"Wealth creators need perks, scrounging scum need a beating,
so get out to work, if it won't pay stop eating!"
But Santa said, "Bollocks to that, ratty snooper! I think you should means test this kick up the pooper!
And he called to the rat as he flew out of sight, "universal benefits to all, and New Labour good night"

Friday, December 26, 2008


The Tory Justice spokesman, Edward Garnier, today announced that “I take the view it is not satisfactory to have a law, and especially a criminal law, under which people can be sent to prison or fined when to a large extent it is not accepted in the geographical areas where it’s supposed to bite.”

Of course, Garnier doesn't mean this as a general principle to apply to everyone or every area, but to signal that foxhunting will be brought back if the Tories win power.

So here is the Tory approach to "justice" - their spokesman claims to support a universal principle which would be completely disastrous if he actually meant it to apply to everyone, in order to prepare the way to repeal a law which the rich and privileged find gets in the way of one of their cruel hobbies?

Monday, December 22, 2008

Good Old Boy #81

Thanks to Kerry for this:

"It was a chance conversation on March 23 1985 ("in the afternoon, as I recall") that first started Josh Silver on his quest to make the world's poor see. A professor of physics at Oxford University, Silver was idly discussing optical lenses with a colleague, wondering whether they might be adjusted without the need for expensive specialist equipment, when the lightbulb of inspiration first flickered above his head.

What if it were possible, he thought, to make a pair of glasses which, instead of requiring an optician, could be "tuned" by the wearer to correct his or her own vision? Might it be possible to bring affordable spectacles to millions who would never otherwise have them?

More than two decades after posing that question, Silver now feels he has the answer. The British inventor has embarked on a quest that is breathtakingly ambitious, but which he insists is achievable - to offer glasses to a billion of the world's poorest people by 2020.

Some 30,000 pairs of his spectacles have already been distributed in 15 countries, but to Silver that is very small beer. Within the next year the now-retired professor and his team plan to launch a trial in India which will, they hope, distribute 1 million pairs of glasses.

The target, within a few years, is 100 million pairs annually. With the global need for basic sight-correction, by his own detailed research, estimated at more than half the world's population, Silver sees no reason to stop at a billion."

Kerry posted this as an inspiring and heart-warming story, which it is. There are a number of Libertarians who like to leave comments on her blog. They were outraged and disgusted to read about this because the research to develop these spectacles was funded by the British government, i.e. it was THEIR MONEY which had been STOLEN from them in TAX. Classy, eh?

More free advice for the Taxpayer's Alliance

Over on Liberal Conspiracy I offered to help the Taxpayer's Alliance by providing them with research training, to fill an obvious gap in their skills.

Their Research Director took umbrage at this and decided to join in the discussion, which brought about one of those extremely entertaining exchanges where he believed he was making devastating point after devastating point, culminating with:

"Suppose your retired doctor was an objectivist and resented needing a state pension. If she were looking around for ways to avoid needing to take it, cash gifts to her dissolute grandson would be a reasonable place to start, wouldn’t they?"

This prompts Paskini's Second Law of Pressure Groups, which runs as follows:

Any organisation which spontaneously comes up with the example of the objectivist pensioner who resents the need for the state pension is not one which can credibly claim to speak on behalf of ordinary taxpayers. (The first law is here).

I got an e-mail today which I will pass on in my new role as consultant to the Taxpayer's Alliance:

"if their press office allow them to behave like this on threads, or in fact encourage it, then they should cut waste by sacking their entire press office."

Sunday, December 21, 2008

How to reform the social fund

Today's fiasco does at least seem to have killed off the stupid idea of charging interest on social fund loans. But it's a good example of how we ought to change the way that we develop new anti-poverty policies.

There appears to have been an assumption in the policy document that one problem with the way that the social fund works at the moment is that it just gives people loans without giving them financial advice. It is the idea that lack of education causes poverty - if only people were better at managing their money, then they wouldn't need these loans.

But the overwhelming majority of people who apply for social fund loans are better than the average person at managing their money, certainly better than I am, and I'm pretty certain better than James Purnell or any of his advisers - they have to be because benefit levels are so low. But even with the best financial advice in the world, there is a mismatch between how much people living in poverty have to spend, and how much they need.

I'm all for some of the ideas in the paper - I helped set up a credit union and I'm all for giving more people a chance to become members, and changing the rules about what you can get a loan for and opening up the social fund to working people are all good ideas, as is teaching all people about how they can manage their finances better. But there are other ideas, such as raising benefits and making grants, not just loans, available, which should have been at the heart of this strategy. And the idea of replacing loans at 0% interest with those at 28% interest would, of course, have been dismissed straight away.

When developing policies to reform the social fund (or any other anti-poverty policies) people on benefits and those who are working on low incomes should be recognised as the experts and involved right from the start, rather than treated as unskilled victims in need of educating.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Must read

The Bickerstaffe Record has an absolutely exceptional article about the government's welfare reform proposals. It concludes:

"The challenge is about ramming home to national politicians the fact – the evidence fact – that policy-making does not mean policy-implementing, and that there is a real risk that the whole thing will go more pear-shaped than they can imagine, with no-one receiving ‘personalised support’, but lots of people brutalized by a system which seems to care even less than it did before, one that doesn’t ‘raise expectations’, but dashes hope of a fair deal from the state."

Good Old Boy #80

An Egyptian man said on Wednesday he was offering his 20-year-old daughter in marriage to Iraqi journalist Muntazer al-Zaidi, who threw his shoes at U.S. President George W. Bush in Baghdad on Sunday.

The daughter, Amal Saad Gumaa, said she agreed with the idea. "This is something that would honor me. I would like to live in Iraq, especially if I were attached to this hero," she told Reuters by telephone.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Welfare reform round up, the mean and the stupid

Matthew Norman, in a quite brilliant article about the government's welfare reform proposals, wrote that:

"To watch a minister with a plumply padded pension and a free widescreen telly and, of all creatures, an investment banker threaten those on £69 per week is to observe the unspeakable in pursuit of the unemployable."

For every minister and investment banker turned government adviser, there are hordes of ambitious if not very bright young men, hoping one day to reach these dizzy heights, and joining the unspeakables in their pursuit:

Lawrence Kay is a "part-economist, part-politico" who works for Policy Exchange, the think tank which called for people in northern cities to all move to London, Oxford and Cambridge to get jobs. He welcomed the government's welfare reforms, criticising the 'desire for unconditional love in the British welfare system, an approach that has been much tested in the past 30 years'.

This was a very novel article, as I had not previously realised that what Maggie Thatcher and Norman Tebbit were doing wrong in the 1980s was showing too much 'unconditional love' to the unemployed.

Moving on, Greg Rosen, Chair of the Labour History Group, wrote an article in the Scotsman explaining how the welfare reform proposals 'is a return to Old Labour's roots'. Inexplicably, this article has received much praise from Progress, an organisation which was set up to try to ensure that the Labour Party never went back to its Old Labour roots.

(Un)Happily, the Scotsman requires you to register to read Rosen's article. His argument is conducted at the level of 'if Keir Hardie were alive he would agree with me.' For example "Hardie would have been as appalled by the apparent ability of Karen Matthews and her ilk to milk the system as so many are today. But he would have been reassured by James Purnell." This is the Keir Hardie whose denunciations of the capitalist system made John McDonnell or George Galloway look like timid social democrats, and amongst whose criticisms of capitalism was that it meant that 'modern women' 'think themselves disgraced if they have more than two or three children'.

What is really obnoxious about Rosen's article is that he must know that the 'Old Labour' analysis of the causes of mass unemployment, and policies needed to sort it out, is completely different to that of Purnell, but he's nonetheless prepared to write this stuff so that his political allies can reassure MPs that the proposals are true to Labour's traditional values.

The purest form of mean and stupid, however, is to be found elsewhere. Writing in the 'Cambridge Universities Labour Club' blog, someone called john buckingham has produced an absolute horror show of a piece. It starts off with a bit about how welfare reform reflects 'the morality of socialism' and goes downhill from there.

[EDIT: John has been in touch and left some comments, which make it clear that he's actually arguing from a rather different perspective than I had assumed - I don't agree with his arguments overall, but it is unfair to lump him in with people like Kay and Rosen or to accuse him of being a member of the James Purnell fan club.]

Buckingham writes that "those on benefits must be willing to take what's offered - there's far greater pride and potential in the grimmest of jobs than in no job at all". There speaks someone, it is fair to conclude, with an extremely limited knowledge of the world of work. Then there is a xenophobic bit about how "we have no duty to provide jobs for the Polish middle-class", apparently one of the ways to improve the welfare reform bill would be to limit intra-EU migration.

In common with many of the James Purnell Fan Club, Buckingham doesn't seem to be able to distinguish between "welfare reform" as a general principle and the specific set of proposals which have been put forward. So there is a lot about how, for example, there needs to be affordable childcare for all who need it, without mention of the fact that these proposals will not provide that, no mention of the multi billion pound give away of public money to private companies which is one of the main proposals, and denunciations of the straw man of those who think it is 'left wing' to oppose welfare reform.

The very worst and most disastrous policy decisions taken by the Labour government have in most cases been preceded by their supporters making arguments based on false historical analogies, enthusiastic support from some right-wing groups, and refusing to engage with the practical problems with what they are planning to do in favour of caricaturing the arguments of their critics. Hopefully this time will be different.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Monitoring poverty and social exclusion: what works and what doesn't work

The 2008 'Monitoring Poverty and Social Exclusion' report is highly recommended, and can be read here.

The New Policy Institute and Joseph Rowntree Foundation have taken fifty six different indicators about poverty and social exclusion and tracked how they have changed, year-by-year. It is, therefore, a good measure of the government's successes and failures.

The authors compare progress over the first five years (1998-2003) and the last five years (2003-8). While this is a useful exercise to see where progress has been sustained, stalled, or been reversed, it is an arbitrary cut off point, as there was no drastic change in anti-poverty policies in 2003.

So to supplement their analysis, it is interesting to look at those indicators which are the responsibility of the Department for Work and Pensions, and to use the cut off point as September 2004. The DWP is, after all, the government department which spends the largest amount of money on trying to reduce poverty.

Between 1998 and 2004, the DWP and its predecessor, the Department for Social Security, were headed by Alastair Darling and Andrew Smith, key allies of Gordon Brown. In September 2004, Andrew Smith resigned and control over the DWP passed to a series of supporters of Tony Blair - Alan Johnson, David Blunkett, John Hutton, (Peter Hain) and now James Purnell. From 2006, its work was supplemented by the Social Exclusion Task Force.

It is therefore possible to compare the two approaches - the "Brownite" approach under Darling and Smith, which was based around higher benefits plus improved state-provided services to help people into work, as opposed to the "Blairite" approach which emphasises a greater role for the private sector in delivering services for targeted "hard to reach" groups, together with emphasis on the need for poor individuals to take greater personal responsibility for getting out of poverty.

Of the 32 indicators which DWP policies were primarily responsible for affecting, under Darling and Smith 17 improved, 11 stayed steady, and 4 got worse. After the "Brownites" lost control of the DWP and the "Blairite" approach was tried instead, 4 improved, 17 stayed steady and 11 got worse.

This is not intended as a eulogy towards Gordon Brown - one reason for the poor performance after 2004 was that his attentions and spending priorities turned away from reducing poverty and on to other causes, culminating in the dreadful decision to scrap the 10p tax rate. But what this does show is the best and the worst of Labour in government.

At its best, real, significant progress has been made through state action to help people - not just improving their economic circumstances, but also in cutting crime, reducing the numbers living in non-decent housing, improving health and educational outcomes. But at its worst, a combination of neglect, political infighting and abandoning effective policies for ideological reasons has stalled or undermined progress. These ideological beliefs - in the superior efficiency of the private sector in delivering services and in the importance of individuals being sanctioned if they don't take more personal responsibility - are unsupported by the evidence.

In these much more difficult times economically, it is absolutely crucial to understand the lessons of the past ten years, what worked and what didn't. It is rather a pity that instead, our government seems to have decided that what is needed is more of what hasn't been working.

Fundraising advice for Tory Party

It would take a heart of stone not to be moved at reports that even the Conservative Party is not immune to the credit crunch, and that 10% of staff at head office have been sacked.

Conservative Home has a lively debate about some of the ways that the party could have saved money - the hundreds of thousands that were wasted on newspaper adverts, the lack of outreach to women and minority communities, the huge salaries lavished on people appointed through a 'jobs for the boys' appointment process and so on.

At this difficult time and in the spirit of putting aside partisan rancour and divisions as the festive season of Winterval approaches, I would like to offer a modest suggestion to the Tories about how they could raise money. Many good causes have found that releasing a Christmas charity record has been a valuable source of both income and publicity.

I for one would definitely buy a song which featured celebrity Tory musicians such as Phil Collins, that one who used to be in Busted, Bryan Ferry and Tony Hadley, as well as non-singers such as Frank Lampard, Nick Faldo, Jeremy Clarkson and Jim Davidson, all coming together to sing that well known festive tune:

"Feed the Tories, let them know it's Christmas time..."

Good Old Boy #79

Cllr Robert Woodbridge, of Swanley Town Council, talks a lot of sense about welfare reform (and I like the sound of 'old Garry', who is quoted in the last sentence) :

"The Labour Government has got this one badly wrong as A Labour Town Councillor I have recieved lots of complaints about the so called welfare reforms, one Labour supporter asked if Gordon Brown is now the new tory Prime minister! This policy will cost Labour votes and in nearby Dartford Lab.Maj.700 could mean the labour MP will be out of work as Labour voters stay home and I predict they will do the same at the County Council elections next year! It is wrong that a labour Government should be "attacking" the most pooorest and vunerable poeple in the country, if there is fraud of benefits, which I doubt is that high then that should be looked at and dealt with, but not used as an excuse for cutting benefits for those in need, people were promised that if they paid thier NI and Tax then there would be the safety net there for them if they were sick,disabled or unemployed, My father who fought in world war two was promised by the 1945 Labour Government that there would Benefits for those who could not work whatever the reason! and ALL labour governments should defend the rights of the 1945 Labour government and defend the welfare benefits for the porest people in this land, rather than treating them as Benefit cheats and crooks as old Garry said Gordens wants to take my benefits but I bet he won't want my disability!

Councillor Robert Woodbridge (labour)"

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Still haven't found what they've been looking for

I went to the Soundings/Comment is Free debate 'Who owns the progressive future?' on Monday and the deal was that after going along, I would respond to the discussion and help create and define a debate online.

Guy Aitchison has a good summary here of what each of the speakers said. It was a slightly odd discussion in that all four speakers (Red Ken, Caroline Lucas, Beatrix Campbell and Aditya Chakrabortty) agreed that the economic crisis might not, in fact, be a great opportunity for the left.

What I thought was most interesting was the discussion that followed the contributions, which showed that liberal leftie Guardian readers share the same values, but disagree with each other about how to analyse the current political situation and what needs to be done next.

Ken Livingstone, who introduced himself as 'the once and future Mayor of London' got a warm response, but criticism for his praise of the Chinese government. Caroline Lucas was very impressive, speaking about how the idea of 'owning' the progressive future was all wrong and we should be thinking and taking action to share the progressive future, but I think most people were unpersuaded about the effectiveness of supporting the Green Party. Chakrabortty and Campbell had more to say about what the left were doing wrong than about what we should be doing.

There was even some, unexpected support for New Labour - one member of the audience saying that they helped elderly people live their lives with dignity, that waiting times for health treatment were much shorter and that tax credits and the minimum wage meant that people who she advised as a volunteer were better off in work - though many others were critical. And, of course, just about every mention of Barack Obama got a round of applause. But overall I think it is fair to say that the liberal lefties present at the debate still haven't found what they're looking for in terms of a political party, leader or movement in the UK which fully embodies their values in the way that Labour did in the 1980s and 1990s.

John Harris summed up the evening by asking all the panelists to recommend a particular policy or report which everyone should be aware of. All members of the panel recommendeded the 'Green New Deal', and I think they are right to do so (our government should just steal the policies recommended in it and pass them off as their own, no one would really mind). Caroline Lucas quite rightly said that as well as looking for policies and reports, we should be inspired to take part in campaigning action, citing the campaign against the Third Runway.

And Chakrabortty made the point that internationally, lefties in Britain tend to look at what is happening in the USA, in Europe and increasingly at China. But we should also do more to learn from and work with the world's largest socialist, secular, democratic republic - India.

Libertarianism + child protection FAIL

I don't often agree with Letters from a Tory, but he managed today to craft a completely comprehensive demolition of libertarianism. He did this by the brilliantly subtle maneuver of writing a post asking libertartarians to explain how their philosophy could help to protect vulnerable children.

Always willing to rise to a challenge, libertarians from all corners of the internet converged to give their answers. In no particular order (and remember that these are their ideas about how to protect children) here are their answers. The bits in bold are my summaries, the bits in brackets are actual, genuine quotes :

Child abuse is the welfare state's fault, stop paying benefits to parents (Part of the problem was that the mother’s fecklessness was rewarded by the state...I suspect far too many social workers believe their “clients” - for want of a better word - are victims of a lack of state resources...Naturally, this ignores the welfare state that funds feral irresponsible lifestyles in the first place!

Give charities, instead of the state, the power to investigate cases of child abuse and ban people from having children, require licenses for having children as for having pets (In the Baby P case and in many others it seems that charities can have a lot more power than government. For example, the RSPCA has the right to remove neglected/abused animals from their owners and to ban them from keeping animals...It always struck me as funny that you needed a license to have a dog but anyone could have a kid)

Social services would do a better job if they were less well funded and if there were fewer people involved, all of whom had a sense of personal responsibility (Do I want bigger and better funded social services? No I don’t. I’m fairly certain a smaller number of people who all have a sense of personal responsibility, who take ownership of issues they come across and didn’t rest until they were resolved one way or another, and possess the ability to get away from the bureaucratic, box-ticking, buck-passing mentality of the civil service could do a significantly better job in all walks of life, never mind social services.)

Cut taxes (I would argue that not only does the state do most jobs badly (children in care for example), but the constant and increasing demands it puts on people’s resources (via taxes) mean that people will not have enough time/money/energy/etc left, to volunteer or work or contribute on those problems via charities or associations.)

Extend abortion and adoption to stop people who are 'of low intelligence' from bringing up children (I do not vilify all poor people or single parents, as that would be unfair in the extreme. It is only really those who are of very low intelligence. But they are the people least likely to exercise restraint, so what to do? I think this is an indicator of why abortion may, regrettably, need to be legal, & adoption should be extended. [the same poster goes on to argue that there should be 'more humanity and less bureaucracy' - DP]) UPDATE: see 'asquith's' response in the comments - apparently he's not a libertarian.

Child protection should be the job of the police, not social services (Killing children is against the law. Libertarians believe in upholding the rule of law. Preventing crime is the role of the Police, not State social services.)

In an anarchist, family law society, friends and neighbours would intervene (I’m not sure I can see how in an anarchist, private law type society, it could be any worse than relying on the economically disincentivised civil servants to whom we contract out our social and neighbourly awareness “duties”.)

Seven very different policies, all united by their total certainty and total ignorance, ranging from the unworkable and utopian to the extremely nasty. It's not the arguments against libertarianism that are most devastating for its adherents, it's their own attempts to apply their beliefs to the real world.

Is that it?

Today our government announced its programme for the last full Parliamentary year before the next general election. There is a decent chance that this will be Labour's last opportunity for several years to use their parliamentary majority to help change Britain for the better through parliamentary legislation.

It's not that the bills are all objectionable (indeed, some are quite good, albeit fairly modest in scope, while others are right-wing rubbish). But taking the fourteen bills as a whole, is that really all they could think to come up with?

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Four facts about welfare reform

An incredibly smug article by David Coats about how the 'Government must not step back from welfare reform' on the Progress website.

I met David Coats last year at a seminar which discussed this very subject. And I remember him explaining to me that, of course, the whole basis for the welfare reform proposals was that the number of jobs available would continue to increase, and that the model didn't work if that stopped being the case.

Funnily enough, Coats doesn't mention that now. Instead, like James Purnell, he attempts to frame the debate in the following, superficially plausible, way:

"At this time it is important to provide more support to help people get jobs, and it is only right that in exchange for more support we expect them to take greater responsibility themselves. Of course, there are some well-meaning people who oppose these difficult but necessary reforms, but they are wrong to argue for the status quo."

If the debate just gets framed as 'more support vs status quo', then the measure will pass easily. But if you are supporting these welfare reform proposals because you think that people who are out of work should get some extra help in finding a job, you might be surprised to find out that you're also supporting the following:

1. Cutting people's benefits on the say so of a bureaucrat, with very limited right of appeal. Research by the government found this had a "negligible effect" on whether people tried to find jobs, but obviously makes life harder for children whose parents are punished in this way, and will increase child and family poverty.

2. The creation of a 'multi-billion pound market' in welfare services, in which companies from all over the world will be able to bid to receive government handouts of 'up to £50,000' per claimant who gets a job.

3. Making it much harder for small, community-based voluntary sector groups which work with the most disadvantaged people to get funding to help support them to get jobs and skills. It will be almost impossible for these groups to compete with private companies for funding to deliver welfare support services.

4. A report written in three weeks by an investment banker who boasted that before writing the report 'I knew nothing about welfare', and whose report claims amongst other things that the cost of housing is not a barrier to people finding a job.

Rather than simply opposing the welfare reform bill when it is announced in the Queen's Speech, I hope lefties will support putting amendments to it which would make it more effective at doing what we all agree is needed - providing support for people to get jobs and allowing community-based voluntary groups to help deliver services and get funding to help the people in their communities. After James Purnell has spent a few months giving speeches about how the status quo is not an option and how we need to be more radical in removing the barriers which stop people getting jobs, let's see how he votes on, say, an amendment to make childcare free and more widely available for working parents, or to reduce the cost of transport or housing, or to make work pay with a 'living wage' for all workers, or to tackle discrimination amongst employers against disabled people, or any of the other sensible and moderate ideas which would remove some of the barriers to work which people experience.

There are better and more popular ways of reforming the welfare state then handing over billions of pounds of taxpayers' money to firms which are dependent on corporate welfare in the form of government handouts while at the same time taking from the very poorest in our society. I do think it is possible to get a majority of Labour MPs to understand this over the next few weeks and months and to persuade them to support some genuinely radical welfare reform, rather than playing 'follow the banker' and implementing David "I knew nothing about welfare" Freud's proposals.