Is the safety net now too thin?

Is the safety net now too thin?

Everyone has heard stories of — or even known people involved in — abuses of the welfare system. Some of them are hard to track back, others have grown in the telling, but there are at least enough well documented cases, reported in the tabloids, of people who took the public purse for a ride, claimed benefits they weren’t entitled to, or, worse (in the way they are reported), organised their lives so that they could use the social security safety net as a hammock on which to relax while others worked.

We’ve heard this rhetoric since the days of Thatcher, and — though I don’t recall it myself — most likely from long before then. The Victorians, indeed, were concerned to distinguish the deserving poor from the undeserving.

It’s a matter for academic discussion what the ideal economic formula for a welfare system is. Even for people (and there are few of these) who accept no moral imperative towards compassion, it is clear that a society which allows people’s lives to fall to bits the moment they lose their jobs is economically inefficient. With a minimum of twelve years investment in any individual’s education, it is clearly ludicrous to abandon someone to their fate after a downturn in the economy makes someone’s job redundant.

In a democracy, such an ideal formula is irrelevant. We choose collectively a government which will do us collectively the most good. Money may talk, but it doesn’t actually have a vote. Even the most hard-hearted recognise that a good safety net enables all of us to take more risks, to work hard on achieving things without constantly worrying about what will happen if sickness or misfortune were to make us temporarily unable to earn a living.

However, in a democracy, perceptions easily cloud good judgement. Voters have only limited mechanisms for investigating what the facts really are. If they read newspaper articles, see alarming figures, and find that these things tally at least to some extent with things they themselves have experienced, and are then offered a choice of two bleak alternatives, then at least some of them will choose something which, put forward bluntly on its own, would seem unpalatable.

The situation we are in now is that there has been substantial public rhetoric about ‘benefit-scroungers’ and other such terms for a long time. Successive governments have found it essential to announce ever tougher means of clamping down on ‘benefit-cheats’ (a term used synonymously with ‘benefit-scroungers’, even though there is a wide gap between the two, when presented non-pejoratively).

There is a law of diminishing returns as to how many genuine ‘cheats’ are caught with ever-more-draconian legislation. Government estimates put the cost to the tax payer of inappropriately claimed benefits many times lower than the cost of unpaid or undeclared taxes.

At the same time, there is a law of increasing harm. The so-called ‘bedroom tax’, no matter how laudable its aims, has at the very least caused a huge amount of grief and worry to a very large number of people. The government expects this to cost £14 a week to affected households. £14 does not sound like a great deal, if you are reasonably well off. However, for anyone already struggling to pay the bills, it is another piece of damage that may, or may not, prove too much.

The ‘bedroom tax’ is a convenient and much needed rallying cry for left-wing campaigners, though its official term, the ‘withdrawal of the spare room subsidy’ doesn’t actually do it many favours. The reality is that, on its own, the change probably wouldn’t do an enormous amount of damage. The catch is ‘on its own’, because there is no ‘on its own’ when it comes to the finances of people who are — for whatever reason — thrown onto the safety net. Payment of initial benefits is never immediate. A young couple may run up considerable debts before first benefits are paid. Without access to security, these debts will not be funded by banks or building societies — except, of course, for recent students, whom the banks are generally willing to support for a while. Payday loan companies have come in, quite rightly, for a high degree of criticism in the last couple of years, but even payday lenders are preferable to the loan sharks who exploit their own social networks in deprived communities.

At the same time, access to credit via credit-cards and shop-arranged finance creates its own issues. Those who contract debts they cannot service find them quickly passed to debt-recovery agencies. Whether the debt is actually paid or not, the result is irrelevant: a bad credit rating is logged by the bank, and is passed on to other banks.

It’s hard to measure the true impact of late paid benefits, the persistent chipping away at what is available — of which the ‘withdrawal of the spare room subsidy’ is just one element — stiffening of eligibility criteria, rising cost of food, fuel and transportation, and the corrosive effect of unserviced debt. While the Office of National Statistics will happily provide you with multiple and individual indices of deprivation, right down to the cluster-of-streets level, it is never possible to find a direct link with changes to the welfare system and the wider safety net.

One should be wary of the Facebook stories posted that claim that this person or that person died as a direct result of bedroom tax, or losing a benefit, or loan sharks. At the individual level, the story is always much more complicated, and Facebook is a notoriously doubtful source of information.

However, what we do know is that food banks are becoming an increasingly important part of many people’s lives. According to the Trussell Trust, The Trussell Trust – Statistics for finacial year 2012-2013, there was a rise of 170% in use of the trust’s food banks over a 12 month period. Trussell is not the only group providing food banks, but their data is in line with what other groups are reporting.

What is more, Trussell keeps records on where the referrals come from, and for what reason. Benefit delays were by far the most important, with around ? of those using the Trust’s food banks citing this as the main reason. Low income, benefit changes and debt followed at 1/5, 1/7 and 1/10 respectively. During 2012-13, the Trust helped 350,000 people through its food banks.

Food banks are a good measure because they relate to people who — generally speaking — continue to try to maintain household life. However, the implicit stigma of using a food bank means that people only use them because they have to, rather than seeing them as a way of reducing household bills in order to fund other activities. As Robin Aitken pointed out in the Telegraph in December, Food banks: the unpalatable truth – Telegraph, they are certainly not the only measure we should look at, nor are they a simple way of reading across to see changes in poverty. However, they do provide a genuine indication that — for some at least — the safety net is wearing thin.

The natural answer is to blame the government. If you are in the government, or associated with it, the natural answer is to blame the previous government. Occasionally politicians remember that they are all part of the same union, and blame the media. If you are an academic, or a Marxist, or even a Marxist academic, you may wish to blame the system.

The truth is that successive governments have only done what people want them to do. The media only prints stories that people want to read. Marxist and other academic analysis only analyses what society does, and society is made up of people.

We are coming up to election time, and, even though I am not standing for the local authority or for the European parliament, I know that, as usual, I will have a string of people — most of whom I barely know, if at all — telling me what’s wrong with the world. A goodly number of them will tell me that it’s time to clamp down on benefit-scroungers and benefit-cheats.

If our safety net is wearing thin — and I believe in some places it is now barely more than gossamer — it is because large numbers of ordinary people have seen fit across a generation to decry it . If we want it to be restored, it is time for we, the voters, to change our rhetoric.

To change the world, we need to change our own tune.

Miller resignation underlines gap between public and politicians

Miller quits as culture secretary | BBC. This morning, while the Today programme was on air, Maria Miller resigned as culture secretary. According to the BBC, the independent parliamentary commissioner for standards had previously recommended she repay £45,000 of expenses she had claimed, but a parliamentary committee had ruled that she need only repay £5,800. She made an apology to the House of Commons last week, but it was widely derided as short and not ‘heart-felt’.

Maria Miller’s tragedy is one lying in wait for many who aspire to power in Westminster. She made expenses claims to which she believed she was entitled, had her repayments set by a committee of other MPs, did what she was required to do, and was still lambasted as being unfit for office. Now she is gone and — short of a Mandelsonian political resurrection — is unlikely ever to hold high office again.

At the end of the last parliament, David Cameron himself led the charge for draconian reductions in the kinds of expenses that MPs could claim, and during this parliament fought to prevent MPs receiving a pay rise which, as a one-off, seemed like a lot, but, when taken with MP pay over the last twenty years, was little more than a corrective mechanism. This was in the wake of an expenses scandal that took popular trust in MPs to the lowest level ever recorded.

People in pubs and on Facebook rail against how much MPs get paid, and make frequent comparisons to what an MP would get if they were on benefits (I’m never sure why this is a reasonable comparison, unless we are arguing that everyone should be on the same wage). What people say and what they actually think aren’t necessarily the same thing.

The underlying reason why people complain about MPs and money isn’t the sums involved, but, rather, the perception that MPs are being dishonest.

We don’t like financial dishonesty at any time. If a visitor takes £10 off your sideboard while he thinks you aren’t looking, you think the same of him as of someone who is convicted of stealing half a million.

Actually, in the vast number of cases during the expenses scandal, dishonesty was never proven. One MP was held up to ridicule because he claimed 45p for scotch eggs from the supermarket. He could equally well have claimed £11 for lunch in a restaurant, but decided to save the taxpayer some money. The reality is, every one of us is far more willing to make allowances for our own behaviour than for MPs.

This is not simple hypocrisy — though, let us face it, very few us could say that we are never hypocritical. When someone stands for parliament, they are making the claim to be an honest, upright, inspiring individual who will give leadership to a generation. This is not just implicit — it’s often set out in black and white in their literature.

A cabinet minister is making a yet stronger claim, and the Prime Minister who appoints them is underlining that claim three times in red ink.

From a distance, it is easy to point to Maria Miller and say ‘of course she was cheating on her expenses’. Very few of the tens of thousands of people who posted such things on Facebook, I fear, took the trouble to check what the rules were. Only a very few people could possibly know whether or not she believed she was entitled to claim what she did. Again, it is very easy to judge from a distance.

It was the combination of the parliamentary system and her and David Cameron’s poor perception that did for her. The moment that a committee of MPs decided she should pay only one eighth of the recommended amount, she was essentially done for. All the accusations that Westminster was run like a London club, or like a mafia family, came flooding back into people’s minds. As Polly Toynbee (I think) pointed out, neither the media nor MPs should be allowed to regulate themselves.

From there, events unfolded like a Greek tragedy. She made a perfunctory apology. Actually, even a fulsome apology would probably not have saved her, not without voluntarily paying the whole £45,000. Still, how many of us would choose to pay £45,000 if we could pay £5,800? How many of would be in a position to do so?

From that point, it was just a matter of time. What David Cameron ought to have done was immediately accept her letter of resignation — even if she hadn’t actually yet sent one. That way he could have saved her for a subsequent cabinet appointment, saved the government much embarrassment, and done something to redress the distrust and disdain with which the public — especially those who no longer bother to vote — treat politicians as a whole.

By waiting, he made things far worse. A political career is in ruins. How many decades of work did it take her to get where she was? Parliament has fallen deeper into disrepute. Acid eats at the roots of democracy.

The blame for Maria Miller’s conduct rests on her. The blame for the handling of the fiasco must surely rest on the Prime Minister.

Why politics deserves respect

Why politics deserves respect

If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a thousand times: “You can’t trust politicians”.

The stubborn streak in me (or the academic streak, or the Yorkshire streak) wants to challenge all such oft-heard phrases.

I would certainly agree that there are some politicians you can’t trust, and they tend to get a lot of coverage on TV and in the papers. Nonetheless, there is something intrinsic to democratic politics which is noble, praise worthy, and deserves our respect.

Allow me to unpack.

But first let me make a bold statement: democratic politics is about conducting fairly and in the open business which would otherwise be conducted in secret, and with no thought to fairness.

Many years ago, I was part of a largish membership organisation — not a political one — where the outgoing leadership appointed the incoming leadership. I was approached by one such who asked me if I thought I had any role to play in the future leadership. I felt in rather a false position, since it was really not for me to say whether I had such a role or not. It was only a few weeks later that I learned that the person’s colleagues had thence been informed that I had definitively no interest in a leadership role.

It was all a very long time ago, and deeply insignificant in the grand scheme of things. The people involved doubtless felt that their system was discreet, gracious, and avoided all the grimy electoral politics of other organisations of a similar size. However, the upshot was that I had turned down a position which — probably — I would greatly have relished, without even realising that I was being offered it. You might say I was being naive. With hindsight, I would tend to disagree.

Over the years which followed, I’ve watched similar kinds of things being played out in clubs, sports teams, board rooms, and even the decision-making processes of large public bodies. As often as not, nobody is really at fault, nobody has malign intentions, and yet, equally as often as not, the very worst decision or appointment of a set of options is made.

This is politics, but it is not democratic politics.

Democracy requires three things to function: open debate, proper governance, and free voting.

It requires open debate because the moment debate moves behind closed doors — for reasons of national security, or to avoid upsetting anyone, or with whatever other cause — any eventual decision will be a second-hand one. Most large companies are set up with shareholders who have clear voting rights, and could, if they chose to vote together, overturn the decisions of the Board, or have it replaced. Very few large companies could genuinely be called democratic, because all of the information on which realistic decisions are made is commercially confidential. The decisions are made at the Board meeting, not the shareholder meeting, or more likely at the executive team meeting, or, just as likely, between a couple of powerful individuals. Without the opportunity to scrutinise information and test it publicly, voting may as well be bingo.

Proper governance is required because there must be procedures by which things are done. Governance provides the level playing field, so that everyone knows on what date they will be able to make their case and to vote, what their actual authority is, and how the decisions will be implemented. I saw a magnificent letter on Facebook the other week from a student body to a departmental head, threatening a student strike if their terms were not met. They might as well have copied it to the prime minister and the pope — since none of them actually had the power to do the things they wanted. Student politics is beset by committees making decisions which they have no power to action, but it happens in more adult gatherings quite frequently as well. When a group of people vote to do something which they have proper authority to do, it’s democracy. When they vote for something which they have no authority over, and do it anyway, it’s conspiracy.

Free voting is necessary because unless at the point of the vote itself each participant can choose to change their mind, there is no value to the public debate and scrutiny. This is why block votes are undemocratic. It is also why the UN, for all its attempts at participatory decision-making, is not and cannot be a democratic institution. The General Assembly can vote on whatever it likes, but without the Security Council backing it, it may as well be a student junior common room voting on whether or not to acknowledge that France is to the north of Africa.

Not everything should be democratic — there is a role for a proper executive to take actions without any voting — and everyone in a democracy should acknowledge that with power comes responsibility. We vote for the good of all, not for our own good.


Something which is often overlooked — almost always, in fact — is that the vast majority of people involved in democratic politics in the UK are doing it as volunteers, without payment or promise of influence. Councillors receive an allowance, and MPs a salary, but the vast groundswell of activists get nothing. There are, of course, enormous ructions whenever an MP pay rise is mooted. This has been going on so long that MP pay has fallen dramatically behind comparable pay since the 1970s. The effect of this is to make it increasingly unviable for people who are not independently wealthy to stand for parliament at all. At the last election, the average Lib Dem candidate in a hopeful seat spent more than £10,000 of their own money in the final year. The vast majority of them were not elected. A Tory party survey suggested at one point that the average Tory MP has had to spend £100,000 to get elected. This money does not go on somehow bribing the electorate, but merely on the logistics of moving house, giving up work time and so on.

Politics can be nasty, it can be selfish, it can be rude, and it can leave everyone involved bruised and battered. Even so, I believe open debate, proper governance and free voting is infinitely preferable to decisions made behind closed doors, as often as not by the old boys or the new girls networks, where no decision can be challenged because no decision is even recorded.

If it were up to me, there would be no office politics, no team and organisational politics. All decisions would be made by those most competent for the good of all, and promotion would be entirely on merit. Every recorded attempt to bring about those conditions has, I’m afraid, become a more covert form of the same thing, as brutally satirised in George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Revolution — for such would be needed —has a good track record only in delivering more revolution.

If there is to be politics, let it be democratic politics, and let those who constantly expose themselves to the bitter wind of public opinion by engaging in debate, observing true governance, and putting themselves to the free vote — let those people be recognised for the good they do for all.

Misunderstanding Democracy

The Huffington Post, bless it, has this article: Sun-Block: Students’ Unions Have No Business in Censoring Newspapers | Robert DG Smith on its website. It’s discussing the banning of The Sun by 29 British Student Unions. By ‘banning’, it’s talking about its withdrawal from Student Union shops, not grim faced bailiffs wandering around campus confiscating copies.

It’s an interesting article because it points out a failure to understand democracy by the students concerned, but goes on to make an identical mistake — one which an increasing number of people seem to be making.

The author’s main point is that a student union General Secretary — I won’t name them, because I am discussing he points the article made, rather than making a judgement about the individuals concerned — unilaterally intended to have the Sun withdrawn, on the grounds of its Page 3 content. Someone apparently got wind of this, and the matter was put to a vote of the Union General Meeting, which supported the ‘ban’ with 64% in favour.

“A democratic decision had eventually prevailed”, writes the author, at least as far as withdrawing it from sale was concerned. However, when an activist found a group of students handing out copies of The Sun in protest, they took it upon themselves to rip to shreds the copies, later blogging that those students were ‘taking it upon themselves to be the arbitrators of free speech’.

The author goes on to consider the democratic legitimacy of the groups which have voted to ‘ban’ The Sun. Usually less than one hundred people, and generally with small majorities, they contrast strongly with SUs which actually polled their students, where the students have tended to vote overwhelmingly against a ban.

Let’s consider the issues here.

First off, is withdrawing a newspaper from sale in shops controlled by the Student Union actually a ban at all?

Secondly, is a General Secretary acting outside their powers by considering such action without a vote?

Third, does a vote giving democratic legitimacy to banning a publication?

Finally, is it more legitimate if all students vote?

Let me begin by saying that I quite agree with the people who want to get the classic Sun Page 3 removed. That is to say, I agree entirely with the intention.

I think I come down fairly early on in disagreeing with the article’s author on the question of whether or not this is a ‘ban’. He keeps using the term and only clarifies at the end of the article. To me there is a fundamental difference between a decision not to stock a certain item, and a decision to ban or censor it. The author argues that this could not be simply a commercial decision, because many other publications on campus sell fewer copies. However, there appears nothing undemocratic to me in an organisation whose primary aim is not commercial deciding what it wants to sell. We wouldn’t expect church bookstalls to carry The God Delusion, and we certainly wouldn’t expect them to carry The Sun.

But let’s go with his argument for a moment. If it really were a ban, would the SU General Secretary be in their rights to ban something? I think we’d all agree no. But, then, does the democratic decision by a vote of the Union General Meeting justify a ban? The author argues that ‘a democratic decision had eventually prevailed’, but had it?

This to me is crucial to the growing contemporary misunderstanding of democracy. Democracy is not when 51% of the people vote for something. That is merely mob rule. Democracy requires a set of checks and balances, and, above all, an understanding by the electorate that they vote for the common good rather than their own good, and that the first duty in a democracy is to uphold democracy itself. Equally, any democratic assembly must recognise the limits of its own powers.

If this really were a ban on The Sun, my view is that even a 100% vote would have been insufficient. Those voting might argue that they were voting for the common good, rather than their own good, and they might even argue (although incorrectly, in my view) that the Sun was an anti-democratic rag. What they would be unable to argue, however, is that they or any other assembly in the United Kingdom has the right to vote on an executive basis to ban any publication which is not proscribed by law.

This is a crucial difference. Even parliament does not have the right to ban The Sun. Parliament does have the right to create a legal framework of which The Sun, or Page 3 as it stands, falls foul, and it is then for the Crown Prosecution Service to pursue it in the courts. If necessary, a ministerial process could then be drawn up to remove illegal materials, but it would never be for Parliament to simply give executive authority to the government to get on with it without it first being tested in the courts, and certainly never for Parliament to identify a particular publication for blacklisting.

The same is true for widening the vote to all students. Even if every student voted to ban The Sun, that would still be insufficient authority to curtail freedom of speech. Actually, the question of freedom of speech is almost irrelevant here. If it were not The Sun, but Pot Noodle, its culinary equivalent, which students voted to ban, they would still be acting undemocratically: the opinions of even 100% of voters are insufficient to outweigh the freedoms of one person, even if that person is not a member of the electorate.

As before, even parliament does not have the authority to ban Pot Noodle. Parliament can create legislation which makes a category of foods which includes Pot Noodle illegal, though it must do this with due consideration to its effect on commercial freedoms, less it be struck down by the courts, but it cannot directly ban it.

Of course, this is not a real world example, because we are not talking about a ban, but merely a failure to stock.

Where does democracy stand on this? Would the General Secretary have acted outside their powers to withdraw it? Does the vote of the General Council legitimise it?

The answer lies — as any good Liberal Democrat would immediately point out — in the constitution and memoranda of the Students Union itself. No democracy — not even Switzerland — operates by everyone voting on everything, though, allegedly, that is the origin of our word democracy, under the Athenian model. Rather, executive authority is given to officers and to committees. Did the General Secretary have executive control over what was sold in the shops? If so, they would have been in their rights to not only withdraw it from sale, but go round removing every copy currently stocked. Naturally, they would also carry the responsibility for any breach of contract. If that particular power was not vested in the General Secretary, was it vested in the General Council? Quite possibly not. Most likely it’s in the hands of whoever is running the shop to decide what it sells, and this will be set out in their contract.

If that’s the case, then, again, a vote by the General Council, or the entire student body, is insufficient to set aside the right of the person running the shop to make the decisions their contract says they can. The Council or the student body can vote to change the contract, which will then lead to a period of negotiation and consultation if it constitutes more than 30% change in job description, but it can’t simply vote to have The Sun withdrawn. Of course, it could issue an instruction, which anyone with a decent instinct for self-preservation will likely comply with, but this is not democracy in action, but rather a modified form of bullying.

“Dad, you’re giving in to mob rule,” says Lisa Simpson in one of the early episodes of the related series

“No, I’m just jumping on the band wagon,” says Homer.

The illusion of democracy is one of the most serious threats both to freedom and to democracy itself. I have many times seen boards, committees and voting bodies contemplate — usually headed off by someone who understood what they were doing — a decision entirely outside their powers, and for which they had no authority. Without wishing to succumb to Godwin’s law, the very worst excesses of the last century occurred when people believed that the power of voting gave them the right to deprive a minority of rights and freedoms.

That is not democracy, but merely a more modern form of tyranny.

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