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.

The upshot of Leveson — press a part of democracy, not above it

The upshot of Leveson — press a part of democracy, not above it

BBC News – Leveson report: Maria Miller urges swift action by press Lord Leveson has given his report on press self-regulation, and matters must now move swiftly on.

At the outset I need to admit I have not read his 2,000 page report. I doubt many have. In a sense, it is already irrelevant, because what matters now is not what Leveson said, but what government will do about it. We are already looking at the prospect of a bill put forward by the government which will have the support of Labour and the Liberal Democrats, but not by David Cameron’s Conservatives. Whether such a bill can actually make it through the House of Commons is another matter.

The upshot of Leveson’s inquiry, though, is to sharpen the question of whether the press is a part of democracy, or above it. The Conservative view is that Parliament should have no role in setting limits to the press — the press needs to do that itself. The Liberal Democrat (and, it seems, Labour) view is that having attempted non-statutory self-regulation, and found it wanting, the case is clear that Parliament should assert its authority.

In a sense, this is the difference between Liberalism and Libertarianism. Liberalism is about maximising the freedoms for everyone, even if this means limiting the freedoms of some. Libertarianism is about refusing to limit any freedoms, even if the upshot is that the rights of some are infringed by the freedoms of others.

No British political party welcomes government by the arbitrary restriction of freedoms. In that sense, Britain is a liberal democracy. The question is, what freedoms must be restricted, to what extent, and by whom.

In most cases this depends on the people exercising them. Although Parliament has the power to legislate on anything, it tends only to legislate either to promote the specific policy objectives of the party in power, or in response to abuse of existing freedoms.

At the same time that we are looking at regulation of the press, we are also looking at the regulation of pay-day loan companies, and at a minimum per-unit price on alcohol. Both of these other issues are the result of abuses. In the case of pay-day loan companies, interest is being charged at many thousands of percent per annum on those least able to manage their own financial affairs. While the responsible end of credit companies have worked hard to assure that people do not put themselves in financial difficulties through borrowing, the pay-day companies have exploited people’s financial difficulties in order to profit from ruinous borrowing. With alcohol, the availability of cheap ways to get drunk at home has had a savage effect on the health and well being of many, and, incidentally, a destructive impact on pubs and restaurants.

We would not be debating any kind of regulation on the press if the existing system of press regulation was working. I’ve commented on that elsewhere, which prompted a long phone call with the communications lead at the Press Complaints Commission who felt I had been unfair. In principle, I agreed with her — when functioning as advertised, the PCC would have done the job. In practice, my experience was I set it out. Leveson seems to have come to a similar view.

The reality is that the vast majority of articles published in the vast majority of newspapers are honest, as accurate as the journalist could make them, provide a valuable service to the readers, and were generated through a legitimate and upright process. The problem is that a small minority of stories were anything but — and it was often those stories which provided the big headlines, the scoops stories and the enormous sales on which some major national titles depended.

The reign of terror inflicted on the JK Rowlings, the McCanns and the Dowlings, among many others, should not stand in any democratic system.

At the moment, no-one is proposing a government-run body to supervise the press. Government supervision of what the press can publish would set our democracy back hundreds of years. We need a free press as part of the way we hold politicians, big companies, rogue traders and pressure groups to account. We are already beginning to see the impact of inadequate protection of the press in the way in which scientific journals are receiving threats of legal action because they are publishing papers with which vested interests disagree. We need more protection for the press to publish those kind of public interest stories, not less.

What we are looking to is an independent regulator with statutory teeth. The possibility, for example, of genuinely large fines that threaten the viability of the most profitable and frequent offenders is something that self-regulation cannot provide. In a self-regulatory regime, a paper faced with a choice between going out of business or ignoring the regulator would — from a commercial point of view — most likely ignore the regulator. Self-regulation organisations are aware of this, and are therefore unlikely ever to attempt to impose tough sanctions that they cannot enforce.

Leveson does not go far enough for the McCanns — as we heard eloquently put by  Gerry McCann on Radio 4’s Today programme this morning. He goes too far for David Cameron, who described his proposals as a Rubicon we dare not cross.

It’s easy to dismiss Cameron as making a political judgement to keep his friends in the media on-side. Certainly the investigation, and the arrests which have been linked with the same issues, are difficult for him politically. But his concerns are legitimate. We must not put a tool into the hands of parliament which a benign government will only use for good, but which opens the door for manipulation at a later stage.

Nonetheless, the current situation cannot continue.

It is now the task of parliament to turn Leveson’s proposals into something which does not realise Cameron’s worst fears, but which provides a remedy so effective and substantial that the worst offenders change their practice to something which — in the rush for headlines — does not trample the rights of the innocent in the name of freedom.

How did the Charles Kennedy defection story gain credibility?

How did the Charles Kennedy defection story gain credibility?

Charles Kennedy, on the day I first met him in 1999

BBC — Charles Kennedy calls rumours ‘absolute rubbish’ On Saturday, several newspapers ran stories that former Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy was in talks with Labour with a view to defecting. When the story was denied by the Liberal Democrat party, but not immediately by Charles Kennedy, many bloggers took this as a sign that the rumours were true.

Of course, Kennedy has now denied them, saying “I am not joining the Labour Party and have not had any discussions about it with anyone from the Labour Party.”

But the question remains, why did anyone think it was plausible in the first place, and why did newspapers choose to run an unsubstantiated story?

There are two issues here. The first is about the way the public — or, at least, some journalists and editors — see the natural relationships in politics. The Lib Dems have been perceived for a long time as a sort of ‘soft Labour’: during the Blair years, possibly even a refuge for Labour activists who felt they could not back their party on Iraq. Attempts by ‘Orange Book’ Lib Dems such as Oaten (remember him), Webb and Clegg to put forward a slightly right of centre economic theory were dismissed as pandering to potential Tory crossover voters. Very few people ever imagined that Lib Dems would really be involved in anything as unsocialist, or, indeed, anti-socialist, as the current coalition. Kennedy was the only Lib Dem MP who did not vote for the coalition. Therefore, he is the obvious candidate for defection. The fact that he is the ousted former Liberal Democrat leader lends spice to the story.

Was there ever a basis of fact? Was there some meeting or conversation that took place which could credibly have been misunderstood to have been about defection? Or was someone just making mischief, using their informal role as an informed source to possibly try and flush Kennedy out? We may never know.

Now to the other matter. If this had been a business deal, or a celebrity, or some such, there would have been talk of the Press Complaints Commission by now. Newspapers have a duty not to publish misleading stories, and the fact that a journalist may have been themselves honestly misled is not a defence. The onus is on the publisher to ensure that they do not mislead.

However, the moment a politician is involved, it seems that it is open season, and, really, anything goes. Journalists may believe that politicians get what they deserve, and anyone who puts themselves into the public spotlight gets what is coming to them. But the issue is really not the damage done to politicians, but the damage done to journalism, and by extension, to democracy.

Confidence in journalists, newspapers and politicians is more or less as far down as it can go. Even the expenses scandal of last year did not depress the stock market value of politicians very much. But is it really the job of journalists to keep it down at the bottom level?

Since I first decided to stand for parliament, back in 1998, people have asked me over and over again “why?” Sometimes it’s because they feel the cost/benefit isn’t very good, and they may well have a point. But most of the time they say something like: “You seem like a nice enough chap. Why would you want to get involved in that?”

Given that the vast majority of people in Britain will never meet their MP or their local councillor, this is rarely because of personal contact with MPs. In fact, people who know MPs personally generally regard the ones they know as really rather honourable. But there is an assumption that, as a class, they are scoundrels.

Perhaps MPs are. Perhaps our current crop are talentless good-for-nothings who bought their way into parliament with either trades-union backing, inherited money, or money earned through financial dealings of the kind that brought the economy to its knees. But if we persist in treating MPs as if they are guilty until proved innocent, we will never attract the next generation of MPs (if the current crop really are like that) who will be honest, hard-working servants of the people, in it out of duty and public service, not out of greed and self-aggrandisement.

As Winston Churchill pointed out, in democracy we get the government we deserve. But this is not just what we deserve when we go out and vote. It is what we deserve as a result of the stories we choose to put our trust in, the newspapers we choose to buy, the stories we choose to retell, to retweet, to post on Facebook or on blogs.

Unlimited press freedom comes, it seems, at a heavy price.

Why Britain needs Labour to find its feet — fast

Why Britain needs Labour to find its feet — fast

Simon Hughes addresses parliamentary candidates, June 2010

Simon Hughes — a one man conscience of the coalition — addresses Lib Dem candidates.

BBC News – Will geeks inherit the earth?. Like it or not (and I don’t), our electoral system is locked into “us” and “them”. Government and official opposition. That’s how the system works and, though I believe it’s time to change it, as long as it is the system (to paraphrase Clint Eastwood in Magnum Force), we have to make it work.

Until three months ago, we had the luxury of two opposition parties. The system didn’t really cope with that particularly well, and the electoral framework creaked under the weight of it. But it meant that legislation, policy and rhetoric were put under powerful scrutiny.

Journalists, of course, argue that they are the real scrutiny on government, which is why freedom of the press is so essential to democracy. As an aside, the same newspapers which bleat longest about this tend to be the ones that exercise the maximum of power without responsibility, and complain the loudest at any attempts by the BBC to increase its journalistic reach. But that is an aside. Journalism does play an important role, but the very fact that journalists are not offering to form the next government limits that role severely: anyone can pundit (Michael Gove, when still a journalist, introduced himself and some of his colleagues to me once as “the punditing classes”), but, like an irritating teenage back seat driver, one tends to pay less attention if the critic has never actually put themselves forward for a driving test.

Which brings us back to our two-way / three-way system, which has suddenly become a one-way system. Don’t get me wrong. I am not complaining that Liberal Democrats are in government. We knew this would push us back down in the polls. We knew we would have to swallow some policies which we found unpalatable. But we also knew that to abrogate the responsibility, play no part in government, and limit ourselves to the role of endless back-seat motorist, would do the nation no good.

But, perhaps in this at least we were deceived: we imagined that Labour would quickly reinvent or at least reassert itself, find a leader to rally around, and start asking the questions of government which we would be asking if we weren’t in it. This is not a function of there being a leadership contest. David Cameron and David Davis made considerable use of their own leadership campaigns to get some substantial barbs into the then Blair government. In a certain sense, it gave the party a free shot at goal, because it would be committed to the point of view of only one of the contenders. One might imagine that by having five contenders, Labour would be able to launch a veritable broadside of witty, incisive and damaging attacks.

But they have not. We are all worried about cloned animals entering the British food chain, but with four identikit contenders and just one token ‘other’, Labour has taken political cloning to a beyond-GM level. Far better it would have been for just one Miliband, one person representing an entirely different perspective (old-fashioned left-winger, anyone? anyone?), Diane Abott, and no others. The public can’t really cope with five options, even if the Labour faithful can get all passionate about the benefits of one ex-Oxbridge ex-policy advisor with two or fewer children over three others of the same type.

I am not looking for a decent opposition in order to bring down the coalition. Far from it: I want the coalition to succeed, and Britain needs it to succeed. But it will succeed better if properly scrutinised by a considered, passionate and informed opposition that can command the public’s respect. At the moment — for all their policy credentials — the Labour gang of five cannot even command the public’s interest.

It is left to Liberal Democrat Simon Hughes, party deputy leader, to carry on as a one man opposition within the government, a conscience for the party and the coalition.

This can be sustained — but only for a short while. We desperately, desperately need Labour to find its feet and fulfil its system-ordained purpose.

Political parties worry about being endlessly condemned to opposition. But that is not the worst place to be. Far worse for them, and Britain, to be self-condemned to offering no opposition.

Or none that serves any purpose.

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