Category Archives: Welfare

A coin has two sides

Every coin has two sides and I am beginning to wonder whether or not that is the most important political statement that can be made. On the face of it, that is a ridiculous idea but I will try to demonstrate that it could be the key to the political problems that we face here, in the UK, today.

Personal freedoms are important to many of us – the freedom freely to express an opinion with fear being pretty well at the top of the list. But that freedom creates problems unless it is exercised with great care. I don’t think the idea of one person’s freedom being almost always at the expense of others occurred to me until I stayed with a cousin of mine in the delightful village of Bottmingen just outside Basel. (In passing, I haven’t been there for over thirty-five years and I expect it is now just another suburb of the city so, if you know that to be true, please don’t tell me – I want to remember how it was then).

My Canadian cousin and her Swiss husband had very different ideas when it came to personal freedom. One of the laws (whether local or national I am not sure) stated that at weekends it was forbidden to have a record player or radio on in the garden. As Max pointed out this meant that everyone could be in their gardens at the week ends knowing they would have peace and quiet. Joan, on the other hand, considered this to be as near as maybe an infringement of her personal liberty. That coin had two sides and both side could claim the moral high ground if they wanted to. It is, actually, a political coin.

So who was right, Max or Joan? As a libertarian who, by definition, considers most regulations to be a response to a human failing of one sort or another I find myself siding with Joan. I feel we should be able to rely on the good manners of those with whom we live and that cultural pressures should be sufficient to ensure people respect their neighbours. Yes, I know that is hoping for more than can be expected but regulations reduce the sense of community responsibility within the population generally and I do not believe that to be a good thing.

This all started, I suppose, because I and others became antagonists on Twitter in the matter of the so-called bedroom tax. I explained all this on a previous post (Capping Housing Benefits). For the record, as a result I have now discovered one person who has been adversely effected by that cap and I shall be meeting her soon to hear her side of the story. Why we got ourselves into a muddle was that we did not think of it as being a coin with two sides – which is exactly what it is.

On the one side you have all the people who, often through no fault of their own, are living in housing the cost of which is being borne by the state and on the other side you have all the people who are giving up a part of their earnings in order to meet those costs. In a properly grown-up democracy, we would look at both sides of that coin and seek a modus operandi that removes the present conflicts that are causing so much fear and hostility.

That is a big ask.

Any move to alleviate some of these costs is seen as a personal attack by those to whom the state says, “you are taking more than your fair share of the available resources”. I am pretty certain that if I were to be in that position I would feel the same.

Meanwhile any move to suggest that it is reasonable to increase taxation to meet what could so easily become a bottomless pit (as has the NHS) is seen as an attack on people who would describe themselves as decent, hard-working and responsible members of society who put in far more than they take out.

Both view are, of course, wrong. Both views are, of course, extremely human – as are the people provided for by the state and the people fortunate enough to be able to not only support themselves but to be able to make a contribution to the well-being of others. But we humans are by no means perfect: some are selfish, some are greedy, some are lazy. You will find them on both sides of the coin. Also on both sides of the coin are people who are unselfish, generous and hard working.

So it is that some of those who have been told to find smaller accommodation have (if it is available) said, “Fair enough” and they got on and done it. Some feel the same but can find nowhere suitable without moving away from those who support them or make life worth living: friends and family. There needs to be provision for these since moving them could well increase the overall cost to the state despite a reduction in housing benefit. However, there are also those who seem to seize the opportunity to become victims.

Likewise among those who pay taxes you will find those who say, “There but for the grace of God go I” and are happy to pay higher taxes but there are also those who feel very differently.

Do I have an answer to that big ask? Not really but I have the hint of a suggestion.

During my lifetime I have seen that the people who suffer most when the nation’s “cake” becomes smaller are the poorest and most dependent.

When the national coffers dry up, there is no possibility of increasing welfare benefits and existing benefits tend to be eroded by inflation. Furthermore, reduction in activity in the private field and the need to economise in the public field both add to unemployment – and the unemployed pay very little in tax and need a good deal in benefits. Thus the existing poor become poorer and they are joined by more of their fellow citizens.

When the country is really open for business and doing well, however, welfare benefits can be increased in line with (and possibly above) inflation and more and more people will find gainful employment or self-employment. The existing poor may not be better off but are no worse off and their number drop as more and more people find work.

Thus I want to see a regime that does all it can to increase the size of the national wealth to provide the resources required to support those in need. This can be achieved only be reducing the regulations that strangle the growth of businesses and that will mean that some employees would have to lose some of the protections they presently enjoy. It will also mean accepting that the wealth generates will become wealthier and that the gap between the poorest 5% and the richest 5% will widen.

I do not have a problem with either. This country has been built in large part by people putting themselves on the line and starting their own businesses which means no guarantee of income and no guarantee of the business remaining viable. Compare their situation with those in employment (and especially those in the public sector) and I find myself thinking that it is time these people shared some of the pain. As to the gap between the rich and the poor: I do not mind how rich the rich get but I do want to live in a country where none are suffering from poverty. If the price of lifting everyone above a certain level is a an increase in the wealth gulf, so be it.

However, I want to add another burden on whomever is running the country: yes, get the wealth generating machine running properly but always ensure that you have the compassion to use that wealth for good.

I do not expect my left-wing friends to agree with this.

Capping housing benefits

This isn’t the first time we’ve been here and I’m sure it won’t be the last. Twitter is not the right place to try to conduct a political debate. I know that. My guess is that you know it too. But we try and we keep on trying and it nearly always ends in tears. This is because you can’t really express yourself properly on Twitter. We use shorthand and that leads me to an exchange I had with Lynn Cook (@Cook470Lynn) yesterday which demonstrates exactly what I mean.

All tweets are in italics – my thoughts in Roman.

It started when I saw this:

LC to RW: #Tories will rue the day they insisted on #bedroomtax especially for disabled/carers etc Let them lament it in tears

Now, not being entirely stupid, I actually knew what LC was talking about but I am sick and tired of the use of “popular names” which are used not as an abbreviation (something that makes sense on Twitter) but, as in this case, as a deliberate act of propaganda. The fact that this particular one is used so freely by people such as Shelter (an organisation for whom I have great respect) underlines the value of such a tag when it comes to putting over a point of view. However, it is not a tax and, as such, that “popular name” is misleading and so . . .

RW to LC: Sorry, what bedroom tax? Could we try to get our facts right?

There was a speedy reply.

LC to RW: Pardon ? Not sure of your meaning

At this point things began to fall apart and it was really my fault. I was busy on other matters and this was a bit of a distraction. That being the case, the right thing was to forget all about it and leave well alone. Not me, of course. Instead a quicky which was, with hindsight, also pretty silly.

RW to LC: Precisely my point. You don’t get it and you never will

This tweet was one of those that was bound to be misunderstood and so, sure enough . . .

LC to RW: Rest assured I know my facts

This, quite unwittingly, pressed a few buttons. Now for a personal opinion. There are no facts in the world of politics and much misery is caused because politicians really do believe they know what they are talking about. In short, people who say they know their facts are dangerous.

Anyway, hence this retort (another tweet I should have kept to myself) and one which was intended to lighten the atmosphere – as if . . .

RW to LC: My distortion, your facts, his or her downright lies. Sorry, it’s not a tax. You may not know that. RR should.

(RR by the way refers to Rachel Reeves MP)

LC to RW: Does that make you happie?, Using all the terms uses up the tweet characters so #bedroomtax is shorter

And then – and I think LC must have looked at my profile first . . .

LC to RW: Do you use earwigs as wigs on your ears Mr wordsmith? Is a mongoose a bird? #bedroomtax has a hashtag

And . . .

LC to RW: So I will use the #bedroomtax hashtag and call it what I will, It is the content that matters Not a tax

Again I decided to lower the temperature (after all LC was not to know that I am seriously deaf) – again I made a mess of it.

RW to LC: You remind me of Alice 🙂

This is probably a generational thing. Lewis Carroll’s Alice is talking to the Red Queen (I think – I am sure you will put me right if it was the White Queen) and they have a conversation which goes something like this. Alice: “At least I mean what I say . . .” The Queen, interrupting: “It means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.” I fear the LC had no idea what I was tweeting about.

LC to RW: I consider you rather rude. What do you actually know about #bedroomtax anyway ? As in actual facts?

The rude bit puzzled me and I really rather felt that we should stop . . . now.

RW to LC: Sorry but this is silly. You hold one view – I another. That’s life.

But . . .

LC to RW: It is a far bigger subject to ‘its not a tax’ Any decent person would not agree with it= fairness/justice

Yes, it is LC. And because it is I wanted to find out what the effect of giving the right to local authorities to reduce housing benefits (when a person or family was deemed to be occupying more living space than they needed) was having in my neck of the woods. So I asked a number of people who I thought would know (community nurses, social workers, carers and so on) and none of them knew of a single case. I uncovered two cases where people had moved as a result of an impending reduction in benefit – both within the same village – but neither of these widows seemed to mind. Meanwhile, one of the vacated home now houses a young couple with a small baby who had been desperate to find somewhere to live near his work. I have no information about the people who have moved into the other one. So I tried to explain.

RW to LC: I have been trying to find one person who has been unreasonably penalised. To date the score is zero.

I failed.

LC to RW: Is that a joke? Spouse carers have to pay to sleep in another room Is that fair if a person had stroke etc?

Suddenly I found I was actually rather cross.

RW to LC: Not a joke. A fact. Read what I said again.

The reply made me even crosser.

LC to RW: Where is this fact from exactly? Plse give link etc. Fact not ur opinion plse. Ur reseach is v poor

Why can’t people READ!!!!! Oh well, one more try . . .

RW to LC: The FACT is that I have been trying to find one person who has been affected and I have asked around with no success. >>> That is what I said first time around. You call me rude – are you not also rude? 

Another waste of effort.

LC to RW: Have you checked out the tribunal judgements? Maybe you should expand ur circles as u do not appear to live in real world

LC to RW: ? I am not rude, I have not called u Alice, askig u to back ur ‘fact’

At last I know in what way I was thought to be rude. I tried to put that right.

RW to LC: It was a reference to Alice in Wonderland and words meaning whatever. I have no idea what you thought I meant.

But . . .

LC to RW: Maybe you would like to research and blog the truth about #bedroomtax u may well find it very interesting

It was getting late so I sent this and so . . .

RW to LC: Oddly my guess is that we are on the same side but our approaches are very different.

Not very surprisingly I have heard nothing since but I did get an intelligent response from Paul Rutherford ‏@PaulRutherford8 

PR to RW: In your ‘discussion’ earlier today about #BedroomTax [just a popular name] did you mean nobody was unfairly affected by it?

To this I made two responses.

RW to PR: No – just that I had been unable to find anyone who had been. I shall be writing a blog on this later.

. . . and . . .

RW to PR: Oh – popular names are fine. Names chosen for purposes of propaganda require inspections.

So where does all that leave us?

Well, with two subjects for discussion, I think: political tweeting and housing benefits. The first is quick and easy.

Political Tweeting

Too many people who use Twitter for political purposes fall into the group I call “the dividers”. They seek to make issues of almost everything and come out, guns blazing, seeking a fight against all and sundry who not agree with them. I rather suspect that winning a verbal fight is what really turns them on bit I may be wrong – perhaps they really do believe this is the way to change the world. Then there are “the uniters”. I try to be one of these but am not always very good at it. These are the people who believe that the way forward is to listen to all sides of an argument and then to work together to find a solution that is the best available in that place at that time.

It is because I think that the bigger the “place” the less likely it is that this can be achieved that I believe in serious devolution of both decision making and tax collection but put that to one side.

Combining those thoughts with the simple one that 140 is not the most reliable form of communication confirms me in my view that talking politics on Twitter is a mistake. That will not stop me doing it, of course.

Housing Benefits

This is either very simple or huge depending on how you look at it. Lets start with the simple approach.

The state rightly supports people who through infirmity (age, illness – physical and mental – or accident) are unable to cope. In order to be able to afford to ensure that such people really do receive what they need (including a full time carer if applicable), we have to make sure that all state aid is properly restricted. Otherwise we just run out of money and then everyone suffers.

This leads us on to the difference between aspirations and action plans. I deliberately do not use the word ‘policies’ because politicians mix these two up in a confusing and rather pointless way (and I could prove that by quoting from all the leaflets now arriving prior to the European election).

When I said to LC that “my guess is that we are on the same side” I was talking about aspirations. I would be surprised if we did not both aspire to a society in which everyone with any problems could to solve there problems one way or another. When I said “our approaches are very different” I was thinking about those action plans. Since we are on the subject of what is wrongly called a bedroom tax, let’s use that as an example.

We have limited housing stock. We have people needing (not wanting) homes and not being able to find them. We have people wanting to live in accommodation that is larger than they need and expecting the state to meet the costs of that accommodation. Sorry but I think that is wrong and that there has to be a way of dealing with it. I think that the government got it about right: make it possible for local authorities to penalise those people who are putting their wants ahead of society’s needs. Note that they do not demand that the penalties be imposed but that they may be imposed if it is deemed needful.

Now for the huge bit.

This framework has to be actioned by local authorities. Sadly the decisions made by these authorities are made by people. In my experience (and I have been a councillor) people make stupid decisions – and often it is when they are driven by ideology rather than pragmatism that they make the worst decisions. This is not an argument for central control – when the centre takes a bad decision the effect is far greater: it effects more people.

However, some authorities will come up with solutions that I like and you hate. Some authorities will come up with solutions that you like and I hate. Some will be very flexible – others will be very rigid.

Now this means problems at grass roots. There will be cases where bad decisions are made and people are penalised in situations where they should not have been penalised (although that is also going to be a subjective opinion) and it is right that there be some appeal mechanism to put right such bad decisions. LC suggests that this appeal procedure shows that this is a bad policy. I would suggest that this appeal procedure shows that this demonstrates that the system is working: it acknowledges that there will be human errors and provides a mechanism to correct such errors. There may still be cases where one feels that the appeal procedure failed to correct an error (another subjective opinion)

There is another way – the rigid way, the tick box way (which some local authorities have adopted). The trouble with this is that some fallible human has to create a tick box system that will be right in all circumstances and will not result in any unexpected consequences. No, it is better by far to allow for muddle.

Whether or not a penalty should be imposed should depend on a host of matters (some always changing). These will include the available housing stock (if this person/family is forced to move is there somewhere suitable and available to meet their needs), on how important it is for their health and wellbeing that the person remains in the neighbourhood (yes, the house is too big but but her daughter lives down the road and she keeps her going but it would be a mistake to expect them to move in together) and so on. It means local authorities allowing someone to use their common sense and a robust appeal system that is readily available to deal with objections.

Above all we have to accept that there will be hard cases. Yes, these should be dealt with if at all possible but we should never forget that ‘hard cases make bad law’. As a seriously deaf person I could dream up all sorts of laws that would make my life a lot easier. No doubt many of you would find they made you lives a good deal harder. Life is not always fair, is not always kind.

What do you think?

Welfare and immigration

Once again, Ken Clarke ruffles a few feathers by saying it as he sees it. In once sense I agree with him that immigration has a history of being good for the country rather than the reverse. However, someone (was it Milton Friedman?) said that you can choose between unlimited immigration or universal welfare but both would bankrupt the country. I put a comment to that effect (without quoting my source as I am not certain I am crediting the right person).  This received the following response from Michael Mouse:

Actually you probably can’t have either without bankrupting the country.

Unrestricted immigration is catastrophic in all sorts of ways, while a benefit system based on the idea of “need”, rather than contribution is  packed with peverse incentives to bad and reckless behaviour. There is no more reason to behave prudently if you will be rewarded for folly than there is to drive carefully if you do not pay for your own insurance, it destroys personal responsibility.

This all makes a great deal of sense but is he right? Let me say straight away that (as always, sadly) I’m not sure.

The problem with contribution based welfare is that the ones that really need it (in my view) are the ones who will never be able to pay any contributions. They are those who are in the miserable position of being born with a serious disability or who contract an incurable and disabling disease in childhood. The only way to deal with these is because they have a real need and we, as a society, feel that they should be treated in a compassionate way rather than left on a handy hill top.

But if there is one group that has a need that we are willing to meet, would we (should we) fail to meet the needs of others just because they do not have the right number of premium payments?

So I would postulate that the problem is in determining need and when need is found deciding on the correct social response in that particular case. This is difficult to organise, open to abuse and, let’s face it, can be humiliating. The alternative is that we go broke – here I feel Michael is right. Perhaps the humiliation is the price we have to pay to ensure that those in genuine need get it but the process is sufficiently rigorous to avoid Micheal’s “peverse incentives to bad and reckless behaviour.”

There would be bad cases. There are always bad cases. We must always remember that bad cases make bad law – as has been demonstrated on many occasions in the past.

Oh, a final thought. If someone in this country is a foreign national, then it would be reasonable to say that their only “need” would be a free ticket back to their home country (unless they were political refugees, of course). Would the EU wear that one? I doubt it.

The NHS in 2014 and beyond

New Year’s Resolution: share some thoughts with you on this blog rather than just comment on some of the newspapers on line. So . . .

Involved in a thread about the NHS and queried some figures that had been quoted. There was a reasonable reply – not as specific as I would have liked – so I said . . .

Thank you for that. It is difficult to know whether we are not paying enough or whether what we are paying is not being properly applied (in other words into a system which is inherently inefficient). My gut feeling is that the state is usually not very good at running big organisations (and few are as big as the NHS if you exclude huge multi-national companies) but what to put in its place?

I see two possibilities,

(1) All medical facilities are in private hands. You are charged for the costs incurred (which is not the same thing as actually paying for them) and you them apply to the state to meet that cost. First you would need to demonstrate that your treatment fell withing those approved by the state (something that has yet to be properly debated) then you would need to be means tested. Yes, horrid but essential. This could be automatic and based on the latest available tax returns. After all, why should the state pay for treatments given to the super wealthy?

(2) Again all medical facilities are in private hands. All people must have insurance and those who cannot afford to pay the premiums have them paid by the state – something that would be automatic if a person were to be on benefits but not so in other cases. People would be free to choose an insurance company but the basic policy conditions would have to be approved by government (but again might well not include everything presently available under the NHS.

Any thoughts on either of those two suggestions? Any thoughts on what should be covered by the state in terms of health requirements?

The Riots – two years on

There is an excellent column in today’s Times written by Daniel Finklestein. The subject is basically “the cause of the riots 2 years ago”. The conclusion – and this is why I found the column to be excellent – is that we still just don’t know and we really do need to know. 

It is good to read about uncertainty. It is a state of mind that leaves one open to new ideas, that encourages people to make experiments (knowing that some will fail) and stops people becoming jobsworths or unable/unwilling to admit to any sort of failure.

Highlighted, and rightly so, is the inability of the police to accept any blame for their part in the appalling relations between them and the black populations in places such as Tottenham. What is so very dangerous is that we see trust between the public and the police at an all time low and that is bad for everyone.

This whole business of refusing to face up to making a mistake is somewhat on my mind at the moment (especially as an event which is of no great importance recently reminded me of one of the worst mistakes that I made during a lifetime of getting things wrong). It is at the back of the problem I have been having trying to get some sense out of either the elected representatives to or the officers of the South Hams District Council over the matter of a mistake that someone has made which has resulted in the problems I outlines in earlier recent blogs. I had assumed that having had this mistake brought to the notice of “the powers that be” the reaction would have been, “Oh, right, well what can we do to put matters right”. Not a bit of it. Rather like the police in the various matters we all think about at the moment (Hillsborough, Mark Duggan, Plebgate and so on) one hits a blank wall and the conversations go round and round pointlessly (in the hope, no doubt, that I will just give up).

If I give up about the matter of the signs on the car park ticket machines giving false information nobody will be injured or will die. If we, collectively, give up on the things that caused the riots two years ago then it is probable that some will be injured and possible that more will die. Certainly we shall be creating a society in which I, for one, would not wish to live.

This is not just about the police. There are many factors to take into consideration and the one that I think is most important is to find things for the young, of both sexes and all backgrounds, to do which enables them to hold their heads high and take some pride in themselves and their communities. Better to pay more for the care of our infrastructure and of our elderly and vulnerable than to pay to keep people out of work.

Keeping the inheritance intact

There is a lot of talk these days about how to overcome the problem of meeting the cost of care when old age creeps on. There are a number of possible approaches but there are things that are happening that are possibly questionable from a moral point of view – or are they?

Couple A have worked hard all their lives, have bought a property and paid off the mortgage. Thanks to reasonable savings throughout their lives they have a personal pension (although it is far less than they expected thanks to Gordon Brown’s pension fund raid). They are getting frail and know the time will come when they must either pay for people to come and look after them or move into some sort of residential situation. 

The widow of couple B is in a very different situation. The reasons do not matter but she relies entirely on her old age pension plus various other benefits (help with the rent, reduced council tax, etc.).  She isn’t coping very well and has her name down for a care home. The state will meet all the costs although the standard of care may be poor.

How can couple A do to protect their children’s inheritance? What are the options? Give the house to the children or create some form of family trust and put the house in that. There can be problems in both cases but ignore them for the moment.

Today I want to look at the moral (or ethical if you prefer) aspecst of this business. There are a number of questions and I seek your help in finding suitable answers.

If it is right that the widow of couple B receives full payment from the state for her care should we deny that to couple A even though they can afford to care for themselves?

Is it right that couple A can dispose of property so as to avoid having to meet their care costs so potentially making themselves a charge on the state?

Is it right that the system should encourage (or at least not discourage) those who make no efforts to provide for themselves?

Is fiscal prudence incompatible with compassion?

I look forward to hearing your ideas. All I can say at the moment is that I am in a total muddle. I want to reward couple A for all their hard work and I fully understand their desires to pass on some of that to their children. At the same time I feel that giving property away or putting it in trust knowing that this will probably create a burden on the state it can ill afford cannot be right.