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National Information Forum Newsletter No. 57. (May 2013)
2 April 2013: In a speech to workers at a Morrisons’ distribution centre, Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, delineated his view of the government’s measures to curb the excesses of our welfare state. In tune with all recent government rhetoric he heavily commended the work ethic and the urgent need to control the ‘something for nothing culture’ that has trapped people into dependency. He wanted the welfare system fixed, and categorised those who thought otherwise as being “on the wrong side of the argument”. He predicted that those “vested interests” who defend the current system [Church of England Bishops, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, united churches and sociology professors?] would complain loudly and “with predictable outrage” about every change to a system which is failing. He then proceeded to spell out the government’s well-known case.
Predictably, I am on mostly on the side of the complainants. The government’s legitimate aspiration is, as far as possible, to get unemployed people back into work. My reservation is whether present policies are the best way to secure that aim; indeed whether such an aim is achievable in the present economic climate. The much vaunted Work Programme has had little success, and opportunities for even low paid work continue to be extremely limited. This is not, on the whole, because people locked into a life on benefits are work-shy. They are indeed trapped in dependency but for the most part would like nothing better than a decent job. I see the majority of working-age benefit claimants as victims rather than laggards. For one reason or another they have lost their way and have become as much unemployable as unemployed. I see the duty of government as one of straining every nerve to bolster employment and give help and encouragement to jobless people, not to brand them as shirkers, subject them to a financial blitzkrieg, and occasion their destitution.
Two days after his Sittingbourne speech, while visiting Derby, Osborne ventured into even more controversial territory. He suggested that there was a question for government and society – and the taxpayers who pay for the welfare state – about subsidising lifestyles like that of Mick Philpott. He thought that there needed to be a debate about that. Readers may be surprised that here I agree with him, but only provided the debate extends to those who are not at all like Philpott. Quite apart from the bungled plan which led to the deaths of six of his children, Philpott was clearly using the benefits system for his own ends. This convicted scoundrel is at the extreme end of a minority who have massively exploited the welfare system, and who so far - largely unchecked under successive governments – have given benefit claimants in general a bad name, allowing some parts of the media and political opportunists to popularise the view of people as on benefits as worthless scroungers.
A GREAT YORKSHIREMAN
There were a number of notable deaths in April, none more grievous than that of Sir Robert Edwards, who with Patrick Steptoe pioneered the development of in vitro fertilisation (IVF). They did so in the face of vehement opposition, particularly from the Roman Catholic Church. This persisted even after the birth of Louise Brown, the world’s first ‘test-tube baby’, born on 25 July 1978. Writing in The Sex Directory, only a couple of years later, Ann Darnbrough observed that some people regarded the process as “against nature” and reacted to research on fertilised eggs or the disposal of surplus pre-embryos “as though a baby was being tortured and sacrificed”. But the tide turned. Today around five million of us worldwide owe our lives to IVF, and the technique is generally (though still not universally) seen as one of the supreme achievements of our time, particularly by grateful parents.
A dedicated socialist and humanitarian, Edwards was awarded the Nobel prize for physiology or medicine in 2010 and was knighted in the following year. Because the prize in not awarded posthumously, Steptoe, who died in 1988, missed out, but, along with Anne Williams, is not forgotten.
HE [OR SHE] WHO WOULD VALIANT BE
I was surprised that Margaret Thatcher chose this hymn for her funeral service. Those who know their Bunyan’s will recall that elsewhere he reproved the rich for their sins of pride and greed, and their oppression of the poor. Perhaps she just liked the tune.
25 April 2013: This morning, Radio 5Live had an interesting discussion on pornography. It was spoiled by excessive delicacy about language (I nearly said pussyfooting, but - who knows - that may have a sexual connotation). The basic facts here are that both men and women want to derive pleasure and satisfaction from sexual intimacy, not necessarily in the context of marriage. Men usually get satisfaction pretty easily, often too easily; women rather less so. That is why female genital mutilation is so abhorrent. I have avoided writing about porn in the ‘We Hate’ series, because I think that some of it can be helpful. If I had been aware of elementary pornography in the 50s and 60s, it might have saved my disastrous first marriage. It was only in later years that I became aware of what was available, some of it extreme and unpleasant, and realised that it could be educationally beneficial or perniciously damaging. The question was, and remains, where a line should be drawn.
On this same day I heard that the Prime Minister had criticised Luis Suarez for setting a bad example. While a long-standing Liverpool FC supporter, I cannot defend the biting of opponents. But I have always distinguished between spur-of-the-moment and premeditated misconduct. I feel that politicians should be particularly wary of talking about bad examples. Some of them have not excelled in recent years.
While putting the finishing touches to my imperfect ‘We Hate’ piece on anti-Semitism, and noticing the Jewish reputation for hard work, I was reminded that the Nazis adopted the slogan ‘Arbeit macht frei’ and used it over the gates of their death camps. While I am not suggesting that the DWP is into a ‘final solution’, is there perhaps a similarity to the doctrine of work being the way out of dependency?
This web-based monthly magazine, which is supplemented by audio content, was founded by its co-editors Srin Madipalli and Martyn Sibley, both of whom have spinal muscular atrophy. It promotes itself as offering a 21st century view of disability (which is welcome) and seeks to provide positive, interesting and useful content to help disabled people achieve whatever they wish. It is archived back to April 2011 (I’m just catching up) and ranges over travel, news (John Pring’s weekly news round-up of happenings in the disability world), sport, work, arts and culture, relationships, technology, personal stories, health and wellbeing, lifestyle and resources.
E.mail: email@example.com; website: http://disabilityhorizons.com
Criticism of the rise in tuition fees seems to have evaporated, lost among other financial assaults of recent times. But some of its predicted effects are coming to pass. The first report of the Independent Commission on Fees, published on 9 August 2012, revealed that total university applicant numbers in England had dropped by 8.8 % in the first year of higher fees, some 37,000 down on the 2010-11 academic year. The decline in student applicants in England for 2012-13 was not mirrored in other parts of the UK where fees had not been increased. The drop in applicants in England could be only partly explained by falling numbers of young people in the UK population. However, there did not appear to have been any disproportionate drop-off in applications from poorer or less advantaged communities.
A further report, published on 10 April 2013, found that the gap between working class boys and girls going to university widened in the first year of the new tuition fees regime. Women are now a third more likely to enter higher education than men. And while overall the fall in acceptances did not have any disproportionate impact on less privileged areas of England, young male acceptances from these areas declined over two years, while young female acceptances increased. In those areas where university participation is lowest, when compared with 2010 the number of young male acceptances fell by 1.4%, while young female acceptances increased by 0.9%.
Will Hutton, who chairs the Commission, found these trends “particularly worrying”. The fact that women are now a third more likely to go to university than men, signals a danger that “the higher fees may be having a disproportionate impact on men, who are already under-represented at university”. He felt that the Government, universities and schools should consider whether specific measures are necessary to address their concerns.
The new report also highlights a worrying widening in the participation gap at the UK’s 13 best universities, a group which includes Oxford and Cambridge. Acceptances to these elite universities rose in 2012, in contrast with the decline elsewhere, but admissions from England’s lowest participation areas fell by 0.1% while it rose among those from all other neighbourhood groups. In the most advantaged areas acceptances rose by 4.7%. The findings indicate that students from the richest fifth of areas are ten times more likely to go to one of the top 13 universities than those from the poorest fifth.
The five members of the panel are: Will Hutton (Chair), Principal of Hertford College, Oxford University, and Chair of the Big Innovation Centre; Tanith Dodge, HR director at Marks & Spencer; Sir Peter Lampl, Chairman of the Sutton Trust and Chairman of the Education Endowment Foundation; Stephen Machin, Professor of Economics at University College London and Research Director of the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics; and Libby Purves OBE, writer, radio broadcaster and Times chief theatre critic.
For more detailed analysis go to www.independentcommissionfees.org.uk.
ALL TOGETHER NOW!
I have received the April/May issue of this excellent newspaper on disability issues. It includes a report of a visit to its offices by the Minister for Disabled People, Esther McVey, who is a local there. Despite the fact that ATN does not hold back on criticism of present government policy, she was magnanimous in saying that it was “really excellent” that big sponsors and partners were supporting “such a valuable charity newspaper – the only one of its kind in the country…a terrific newspaper that’s helping so many people”. “It is a fantastic brand,” she went on, “trusted by its ever-growing army of readers, and apart from all the help and inspiration it gives to families affected by disability it is also raising significant general awareness of the everyday issues that disabled people and those in poor health face in the UK”
Praise indeed, but ATN does not fail to notice that since Ms McVey took up the post last September she has been embroiled in rows over the government’s welfare programme and the closure of Remploy factories. “We are facing very tough times,” she admitted, “but we want to ensure that our support targets the people who are most in need.”
Here I have substantial reservations. Targeting those most in need implies that there is a hierarchy of need and that not all of it is being met. And that is indeed the case. There is a major philosophical divide between the government and its opponents. Poor people generally, and disabled people in particular, certainly feel targeted, but by cuts rather that support. ATN reports that a recent Scope/Demos study calculates that some 3.7 million disabled people are set to lose more than £28 billion by 2018 as a result of further cuts to the welfare system. Some individuals could lose as much as £23,000. The worst effect will be the result of the new 12-month time limit on Employment Support Allowance.
Nobody questions that action is needed to reduce government borrowing. A second agency has recently cut back our AAA rating. What is in dispute is the direction of the austerity programme. The very word ‘austerity’ is itself forbidding, redolent of negativity, the hair shirt, pain and suffering. We might do better to think of economy - the husbandry of scarce resources, which many of us remember from the dark days of World War II. That implies pulling together to a common end, whereas right now it feels that those already vulnerable are being asked to bear a disproportionate share of the burden. It is strikingly apparent that many well-off citizens are scarcely affected by the drive to reduce expenditure. Indeed, ATL itself reports that the Payments Council’s latest report, The Way we Pay, finds that some of us are having a lot more fun than a decade ago. Entertainment spending has risen by over 60 per cent; we have doubled what we spend in restaurants and cafés, and our outlay on cinema and shows has gone up by 60 per cent. In total, we spent £58 billion having fun last year, almost one and a half times as much as the £34 billion we were obliged to pay for gas and electricity. I would add that MPs themselves seem conspicuously immune from the frugality being heaped on poorer people.
We really should try to be more equitable in the distribution of parsimony. I include myself in this. Those pensioners who bought their first homes way back in the 1950s have had a particularly good deal. I paid under £2,000 for a first family house in Enfield. And now: no mortgage. Many others are really affluent; collectively they could extinguish the national debt at a stroke. They have scarcely noticed the effects of the recession. What I am saying here is no more than the familiar mantra that the broadest backs should bear the greatest burden. Yet the government appears to be pandering to a powerful elite with a selfish agenda directed at making themselves even richer, and reinforcing inequality. I would like to see an increase of, say, 2.5 per cent in all the current income tax rates. Alongside such reforms, the introduction of a decent minimum living wage is long overdue.
This would help to provide some sense of fairness. As to benefits, we certainly need to eliminate fraud, and I can understand the introduction of a cap on housing support, but otherwise I find the assault on the poor pernicious, redolent of Victorian thinking.
From Peter Salter:
I do wonder about Polly Toynbee. I saw her say on Question Time that the “average” public sector pension was £4,700. Ken Livingstone has also quoted this.
Perhaps averages should be banned! There is an average UK house price. What does that add to any debate? Living where we do [in London], compared with some Coronation Street terrace system in the north, the average is of no use to us, or to the householder up north.
What PT and KL say about public sector pensions is ridiculous. Even a clerical officer with full service would have a pension of £10k a year. I argue the average is made up by including service of those who were in the public sector for a short time at a low grade. These people will have had pension entitlement in other employments. What we should be told is the number of pensions being paid by banding. Gordon Brown, apparently, did investigate cutting public sector pensions already in payment.
But PT also claimed in the paper that someone earning £26K a year pays £5K+ tax and NI, but someone receiving £26K in dividends pays no tax. This is a gross misrepresentation, since the employer will have offset the salary against corporation tax, but dividends are paid after CT. Further, a dividend received is grossed up by 10% as a notional tax payment and added to all other taxable income. Once this exceeds the higher rate threshold, there is additional tax at over 30% on the excess, but the 10% is taken into account. It would be hard to imagine that someone receiving dividends would not also have other income that is taxed, e.g. pension or interest. Those people in the media who use companies, as I do, will have income on which we pay additional tax that is based on including our dividend income. So to say dividend income is untaxed is quite wrong.
Someone commenting in the Telegraph this week said that VAT should be paid on company profits. We do have CT. Also they said VAT should be charged on turnover. All of this shows how ignorant many people are about tax and how it works.
From Maurice Glassman:
I imagine that you, as I did, came to atheism after much thought. Certainly so in my case, having been brought up as the youngest of eight in a fairly religious background. But many people are, so to speak, atheists by accident, with little or no conviction either way. For some of these, perhaps, Alain de Botton’s. guidance may be of value.
UNDER-REPRESENTATION OF WOMEN
This refers to the UK’s place in women’s international rankings in politics and public decision-making. According to the Equality and Diversity eNewsletter (20 March) we rate 57th. In our land of all the virtues, women comprise: 22.5% of MPs, 17.4% of the Cabinet, 11.1% of bank CEOs, and 5% of editors of national daily newspapers.
By contrast, I notice, women are massively over-represented in menial, repetitive work.
Thanks to John Vincent’s Network E.Bulletin no.125 for the statistics.
THE WORK CAPABILITY ASSESSMENT (AGAIN)
8 April 2013: I was very interested to see criticism of this assessment process from Judith Cole of The Atos Stories Collective (Guardian). She argues (I think correctly) that the Department of Work and Pensions has created a process that limits claimants’ ability to present the full complexity of their conditions. I believe that this single factor, whether or not deliberate, is responsible for a level of successful appeals which in any other context would be regarded as scandalous. Ms Cole also cites the experience of people who have contributed to two new plays, Atos Stories and The Atos Monologues, who describe the conduct of assessments as “degrading and stressful”, commenting that “the assessors acted like robots, with tick-box approach and little knowledge of the conditions they were assessing.”
12 April 2013: Three disabled claimants have taken a different approach. They have launched a legal challenge based (as I understand it) on the government’s failure to consult fully on the more stringent mobility rules for Personal Independent Payment. This is important in that the high-rate mobility component enjoyed under DLA was vital in being able to lead an active life, not least in being able to get to work. It is estimated that this may result in many disabled people losing mobility benefit, a restriction totally against the government’s much vaunted policy of encouraging disabled people into work.
NEW LEGISLATION ON MENTAL HEALTH
The Mental Health (Discrimination) Act 2013 became law on 28 February. The Act provides for:
repeal of a provision of the Mental Health Act 1983 by which members of the House of Commons and other national assemblies automatically lost their seat if ‘sectioned’ under that Act for more than six months
amendment of the Juries Act 1974 to remove the ban on ‘mentally disturbed persons’ undertaking jury service (but will allow exemption for those unable to carry out jury service for medical reasons)
amendment of company law regulation which directed that a person might cease to be a director of a public or private company ‘by reason of their mental health’.
Thanks to John Vincent’s Network E.Bulletin, no.125 for this. Go to www.mind.org.uk for more.
Human rights legislation is under threat. When, for instance, it stands in the way of expelling Abu Qatarda to Jordan it can be represented as an intrusive restraint on the will of our nation state to rid itself of this radical cleric. But the Human Rights Act remains as a key protection of civil liberties. The campaigning organisation Liberty devoted most of its spring issue to this bastion of freedom, and has produced a series of new videos which challenge untruths and promote greater respect and understanding of human rights values.
Particular concern is focused on the Justice and Security Bill, about to receive royal assent despite a mountain of opposition. Liberty argues that it will allow “the government’s dirty secrets to be hidden from open courts, the press and public.”
Liberty is holding a members’ conference and AGM on Saturday, 18 May at Senate House, London (9.15-5.00). Not too late to join.
NHS CONCERNS (AMONG MANY)
28 February 2103: Bolton NHS Foundation Trust is to be investigated over 800 cases of septicaemia – four times what is expected in similar hospitals (year to April 2012),
5 March 1913: A report by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, published in The Lancet, finds the UK below the average for healthy life expectancy found in similar counties.
NO STEPS, NO STAIRS
This is a new, easy-to-navigate website listing both serviced and non-serviced properties with ground floor or lift access to bedrooms and living accommodation in the UK, Ireland and France, suitable for anyone with limited mobility or disability, as well as their family and friends. Its providers, Philip and Sandra Bryant, found from personal experience that tracking down suitable rooms from conventional sources proved a near impossible challenge.
The website is the result of three years work and investment. Income (at a modest level) is derived from accommodation providers, with 20 per cent being donated to the Multiple Sclerosis Society.
Contact: www.nostepsnostairs.com; e.mail; philip [or sandra]@nostepsnostairs.com; tel: 01536 723542
THE WELLBEING LEAGUE
A Unicef report, based on statistics from 2010, has ranked the UK 16th of 29 developed countries for overall wellbeing. Familiar problems among young people account for this low position, which are expected to worsen. On further education we come 29th; on teenage pregnancies 27th; and on youth unemployment 24th, dismal findings which Unicef UK links to government policy choices. The findings, however, have improved since a previous report (Report Card 7, based on 2001/2 statistics), when we came bottom of 23 countries. And even now we are not as bad as the USA. Top of the list, by the way, comes the Netherlands.
Go to www.unicef.org.uk/Latest/Publications/Report-Card-11-Child-well-being-in-rich-countries/
WE HATE NO.65: ANTI-SEMITISM
How odd/ Of God/ To choose/ The Jews
W.N.Ewer ‘How Odd’
Oh, the Protestants hate the Catholics,
and the Catholics hate the Protestants,
and the Hindus hate the Muslims
and everybody hates the Jews.
Tom Lehrer ‘National Brotherhood Week’ (song)
I could, of course, have chosen to hate from a multitude of the world’s irrational enmities. But prejudice against Jews is at once deeply ingrained, of long-standing and particularly perverse. Jewish history, since Abraham made his covenant with God in 1921BC, and particularly from the Diaspora, has across the globe been punctuated by pogroms, riots, accusations of killing children, banishments and, most recently, the Holocaust.
But I don’t want to dwell on the wider history; not because it is not hugely significant, but rather in that it is already well known, a given. More interesting is the record in Britain, where I suspect that we generally have a certain smugness of mostly having been above such things.
Nothing could be further from the truth. I am indebted to the writing of the late John Cannon, former Emeritus Professor of Modern History at the University of Newcastle on Tyne, for an overview of our past malevolence towards Jewish immigrants. In The Oxford Companion to British History (1997) he notices that Jewish immigration, on any scale, came only after the Norman Conquest. He points out that because Christians were not allowed to practice usury, Jews quickly established themselves as financiers and money-lenders. But as such they were both ruthlessly exploited by monarchs and hated by the native population. During the crusades, there were attacks on Jews in London, and in 1190 some 150 Jews were slaughtered in York [many committed suicide]. As the number of Jews increased, they were confined to Jewries, and from 1218 “were obliged to wear badges, steadily increased in size.” Persecution continued during the rest of the 13th century: in 1278 hundreds of Jews were hanged, followed by an edict for their wholesale expulsion from the kingdom. This ban persisted until the Commonwealth, when to his credit Cromwell ignored the measure and began to allow Jews back; but despite an elevation of the status of some prominent individuals, hatred persisted. Jews were denied naturalization, and Catholic emancipation in 1829 left them as the only religious group still experiencing severe restrictions. Thereafter, although progress was unmistakeable and not to be denied, “the obstacles facing Jews remained substantial, but they were personal and social rather than legal”.
Similar animosity, of course, was common in other parts of Europe, finding perhaps its most explicit literary expression in Germany with the publication of Richard Wagner’s Das Judenthum in der Musik in 1850. Despite the fact that a revised version of 1869 appeared in an English translation (by William Ashton Ellis) in 1894, I suspect that this polemic is little known today outside a limited circle of musicologists and historians.
In an explanatory note, Wagner represented himself as suffering under a yoke “of the ruling Jew-society in its crushing-out of all free movement, of all true human evolution, among its kith and kin”. In the essay proper, he certainly did not hold back. I must warn readers that even the brief extracts I have selected are grossly offensive. I repeat parts of this reprehensible text only to expose the virulent roots of his anti-Semitic prejudice. Wagner speaks of “the be-Jewing of modern art”, and saw his target as founded upon what had been called “Hebraic art-taste”. He felt impelled to explain an unconscious feeling that “proclaims itself among the people as a rooted dislike of the Jewish nature”. And although addressing this dislike primarily in relation to art, not to politics or religion, he felt it inescapable that “with all our speaking and writing in favour of the Jews’ emancipation, we always felt instinctively repelled by any actual, operative contact with them”. It was then necessary “to explain to ourselves the involuntary repellence possessed for us by the nature and personality of the Jews”. Their first objectionable trait was an attachment to money: “the Jew in truth is already more than emancipated: he rules, and will rule, so long as Money remains the power before which all our doings and our dealings lose their force”. This objection was strengthened by a dislike of a distinctive physiognomy: “The Jew – who as everyone knows, has a God all to himself – in ordinary life strikes us primarily by his outward appearance, which, no matter to what European nationality we belong, has something disagreeably foreign to that nationality: instinctively we wish to have nothing in common with a man who looks like that”.
Wagner gave even greater weight to “the effect the Jew produces on us through his speech”. “In particular,” he argued, “does the purely physical aspect of the Jewish mode of speech repel us”. This was especially pronounced in song – “the vividest and most indisputable expression of the personal emotional-being”, in which “the peculiarity of the Jewish nature attains for us its climax of distastefulness”.
I will spare the reader Wagner’s nuanced distinction between “the commoner class of Jew” and “the cultured son of Jewry”. Nor is this the place for his extreme views on Jewish music. Suffice it to say that he found: “Our whole European art and civilisation…have remained to the Jew a foreign tongue”.
Predictably, the 1850 essay received a blisteringly hostile reception, a reaction addressed (for those who care) in the second edition. But as Wagner’s music came to be revered, so a legend, amounting to worship and enshrined in the Bayreuth Festival, was established – and an anti-Semitic theme perpetuated. Until, that is, one descendant broke ranks. Gottfried Wagner, the composer’s great-grandson, came to doubt the traditional narrative, turned renegade and told a different story. His impassioned and controversial autobiography, He who does not howl with the wolf: the Wagner legacy (tr. Della Couling), was published in 1998.
Gottfried takes us beyond Judaism in Music, asserting that this was “by no means the end…but the beginning of Wagner’s anti-Semitism in the sense of a politico-cultural concept”. The same ideas [in relation to Meyerbeer] were repeated in his essay of 1851, Oper und drama, and reiterated through later prose writings. The last of these, Erkenne dich selbst (Know yourself, 1881), is available on the internet. In its penultimate paragraph, it features a remarkable passage. The text is pretentious, but the intention clear: “So let us save and tend and brace our best of forces, to bear a noble cordial to the sleeper when he wakes, as of himself he must at last. But only when the fiend, who keeps those ravers in the mania of their party-strife, no more can find a where or when to lurk among us, will there also be no longer – any Jews.”
It would be extravagant to link Wagner directly to the gas chambers, but Gottfried has no compunction in saying that his great-grandfather “formulated ideas that today read like a horrifying anticipation of Hitler’s Final Solution, invoking a Germany free of Jews.” Wagner’s perverted philosophy was deep-rooted, the academic foundation of more than a century of prejudice and hatred; the beginning, Gottfried argues, of a direct line, through Gobineau and the English-born Houston Stewart Chamberlain, and embodied in the Bayreuth Festival, to Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party. We all know where such thinking led.
I should say a little more about H.S.Chamberlain. Although born in Southsea, the son of a British rear admiral, he came through various influences to extol all things Teutonic, marrying Wagner’s step-daughter Eva in 1908, and gaining German citizenship during the first world war. He unreservedly espoused the doctrine of Aryan supremacy, proclaiming his distorted racial ideas in a two-volume book Die Grundlagen des neunzehnten Jahrhunderts (The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century, 1899). This study was to prove one of the most baleful influences in shaping Nazi ideology. It is interesting that Theodore Roosevelt, writing in 1913, recognised it for what is was, noteworthy for brilliancy and suggestiveness, but also for “startling inaccuracies and lack of judgment”. It is instructive here to quote Roosevelt directly:
“Mr. Chamberlain’s thesis is that the nineteenth century, and therefore the twentieth and all future centuries, depend for everything in them worth mentioning and preserving upon the Teutonic branch of the Aryan race. He holds that there is no such thing as a general progress of mankind, that progress is only for those whom he calls the Teutons, and that when they mix with or are intruded upon by alien and, as he regards them, lower races, the result is fatal…but Mr. Chamberlain himself is quite as fantastic an extremist as any of those whom he derides, and an extremist whose doctrines are based upon foolish hatred is even more unlovely than an extremist whose doctrines are based upon foolish benevolence. Mr. Chamberlain’s hatreds cover a wide gamut. They include Jews, Darwinists, the Roman Catholic Church, the people of southern Europe, Peruvians, Semites, and an odd variety of literary men and historians.”
A pity that the direction of these thoughts was not better heeded. But I hope I am not being dewy-eyed in sensing that at least in Britain we have turned away from anti-Semitism – now the territory of only a few unhinged extremists. As the excellent Aish website notices, the complaints traditionally employed against Judiasm have come to be recognised as excuses rather than causes. I would go further. I regard them as fallacious. It is nonsense to suggest that there are endemic grounds to despise the entire Jewish people: such charges, as Chekhov put it, are “wholesale, resting on worn-out commonplaces”. Like everybody else, some Jews are odd, some strait-laced; some benevolent, some selfish; some religious, some not; some bold, some withdrawn; some orthodox (one so much so, we are told, as to encase himself in a plastic bag when flying over cemeteries), some apostate. A surprising number have been great violinists, but relatively few in relation to the whole of Jewry. And, yes, some have great financial aptitude, a talent for making money, perhaps genetically based, but not all. If, over time, there have been some common characteristics, such as an unusual capacity for hard work, there is no longer any basis for thinking that Jews are all tarred with the same brush. In fact it has been argued that, for historical reasons, Jews have little in common with each other. In this construct the idea of an unlikable collective nationality and a nasty homogeneity are popular myths. Shylock and Fagin are fictional stereotypes. We cannot in principle defend the castigating of a community so diverse.
As Maurice Glassman implies in ‘Feedback’ (above) there has also been a modern retreat – though not necessarily a conscious one – from god-based racial/religious orthodoxies, along with a gradual shift away from insularity and endogamic tendencies. As different tribal shibboleths merge into the common social milieu, so any propensity for enmity recedes. While we may continue to deplore such excesses as the bonus culture and inordinate rewards, I don’t think they can any longer seen as peculiarly Hebraic. Greed has become secular. While we must distinguish between racial/religious discrimination and legitimate criticism of Israel’s political policies, and uphold the right to free speech, it is time to salute diversity, and look for the continued demise of prejudice.
Please note; the following document can be downloaded as a .PDF file by clicking here
Here, to begin, is a subject of paradox. On the one hand a commendable charitable enterprise relieving hunger among those unable to sustain themselves; on the other an indicator of the growing level of abject poverty in this country.
Statistics show an escalating reliance on this last-ditch succour. The government is wont to say that dependence on foodbanks increased ten-fold “under Labour”. But this is disingenuous, in that their provision started from a very low base. Trussell Trust figures indicate that in the year to April 2006 there were 2,814 recipients; and in the five years to April 2010 a total of 92,634 people had been fed. Whereas in the single year ended April 2012 there were 128,697 hungry recipients, more than the earlier five-year total and double the previous year’s total (which I have left out of the reckoning, since it was part Labour, part Coalition). Now foodbanks are opening at the rate of three a week. The Trust expects that in the current year the number will rise to over 290,000. Many recipients are working families and, typically, one third are children. So that something that began in Bulgaria in 1997, and in 2004 was introduced into the UK in a single garden shed and garage, has become a welfare benefit in its own right. While members of Parliament enjoy their subsidised catering, let’s tell it as it is.
Go to www.trusselltrust.org for more.
PERSONAL INDEPENDENCE PAYMENT (PIP)
This benefit, designed to replace Disability Living Allowance, and being phased in from 8 April 2013, has continued to attract criticism. It is widely seen as simply a cost-cutting exercise, using reassessment against new conditions to reduce the number of beneficiaries. Estimates suggest that by 2018 some 607,000 fewer people will qualify for help. Claimants will initially, and regularly, be reassessed, a task to be shared between Atos Healthcare and Capita Business Services Ltd under contract to the Department for Work and Pensions.
Atos has continued to be impugned for a high level of unsustainable work capability assessments. It argues that it is not responsible for the decision to deny benefits. Similarly, in relation to PIP both companies will be able to claim clean hands in that they are not responsible for the underpinning rules and policy and have not been given mandated targets. Nevertheless, by following the new criteria it is inevitable that a proportion of existing claimants will lose their present entitlement. Many are expected to lose the higher-rate mobility benefit that is currently part of their DLA.
A detailed explanation of the PIP scheme can be found at www.disabilityrightsuk.org/f60.htm
WELFARE UP-RATING: ANGLICAN BISHOPS ROCK THE BOAT
10 March 2013: In a well-publicised letter to The Sunday Telegraph, 43 Anglican bishops, backed by the Most Rev. Justin Welby, due to be enthroned as Archbishop of Canterbury on 21 March, and Dr John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York, called for action to protect children from the government bill to restrict certain benefit increases to 1 per cent over the next three years. This is its full text:
“Next week, members of the House of Lords will debate the Welfare Benefits Up-rating Bill.
“The Bill will mean that for each of the next three years, most financial support for families will increase by no more than 1 per cent, regardless of how much prices rise.
“This is a change that will have a deeply disproportionate impact on families with children, pushing 200,000 children into poverty. A third of all households will be affected by the Bill, but nearly nine out of 10 families with children will be hit.
“These are children and families from all walks of life. The Children’s Society calculates that a single parent with two children, working on an average wage as a nurse would lose £424 a year by 2015. A couple with three children and one earner, on an average wage as a corporal in the British Army, would lose £552 a year by 2015.
“However, the change will hit the poorest the hardest. About 60 per cent of the savings from the uprating cap will come from the poorest third of households. Only 3 per cent will come from the wealthiest third.
“If prices rise faster than expected, children and families will no longer have any protection against this. This transfers the risk of high inflation rates from the Treasury to children and families, which is unacceptable.
“Children and families are already being hit hard by cuts to support, including those to tax credits, maternity benefits, and help with housing costs. They cannot afford this further hardship penalty. We are calling on the House of Lords to take action to protect children from the impact of this Bill.”
In supporting the letter, Archbishop Welby said:
“As a civilised society, we have a duty to support those among us who are vulnerable and in need. When times are hard, that duty should be felt more than ever, not disappear or diminish. It is essential that we have a welfare system that responds to need and recognises the rising costs of food, fuel and housing.
“The current benefits system does that, by ensuring that the support struggling families receive rises with inflation. These changes will mean it is children and families who will pay the price for high inflation, rather than the government.”
Though no fan of the Church of England, I think that the views of its bishops on moral issues – and this is a moral issue – must command respect. In this instance I entirely share them, and not merely in respect of children. In my view, the fact that the government has chosen to restrict the pay of public servants does not justify measures targeted against those on the brink of destitution. I echo Caroline Lucas in branding this bill “cruel and callous”.
The benefits affected by the bill are: Jobseeker’s Allowance; Employment and Support Allowance; Income Support; Elements of Housing Benefit; Maternity Allowance; Sick pay, Maternity pay, Paternity pay and Adoption pay; Couple and lone parent elements of Working Tax Credits; and the child element of the Child Tax Credit.
CLOSURE OF INDEPENDENT LIVING FUND CHALLENGED
The Independent Living Fund was set up to help severely disabled people to live independently. Though controversially closed to new claimants in 2010, it continues to support nearly 20,000 existing users. The government, however, has since decided that in 2015 the Fund should be wound up and responsibility (and funding) devolved to local authorities under their now well-established arrangements for the allocation of personal budgets, meeting the needs of disabled people through a single unified procedure.
Disability charities oppose this move, arguing that cash-strapped councils are already failing fully to meet the needs of severely disabled people. Now six ILF users are to take the case against closure of the fund to the High Court, claiming that it will undermine progress towards independent living, that the consultation process was flawed, and that the decision breaches the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities.
CONCERNS OF THE CARE QUALITY COMMISSION (CQC)
12 March 2013: The CQC has found that people with dementia are admitted to hospital more often, stay longer and are much more likely to die there because their medical needs are neglected in care homes and hospitals. The Alzheimer’s Society said that 80 per cent of people living in care homes have dementia. Because of basic failings found by the CQC in 52 per cent of primary care trust areas of England, people with dementia often end up having to be admitted to hospital.
19 March 2013: A report by the CQC has found that older people in nearly a fifth of hospitals are not being treated with dignity or afforded the respect and privacy they need, and that the situation appears to be getting worse.
Go to www.cqc.org.uk for details; reports in The Guardian by Denis Campbell and Sarah Boseley respectively.
13 March 2013: The NHS Alliance, which represents GPs and primary care staff, has produced a ‘new manifesto’ calling for a fundamental shift in healthcare. The report, Breaking Boundaries, argues for ‘a paradigm shift in the management of health, wellbeing and all non-urgent care’. Its vision looks to the reconstruction of the NHS on the basis of 24-hour primary care led by GPs and backed by community-based consultants, with hospital care used only as a last resort.
The report is available at ww.nhsalliance.org.
19 March 2013: The scourge of avoidable deaths is not confined to a few failing NHS hospitals. The report of an inquiry by Bristol University has revealed stark inequalities in mortality rates of people with learning disabilities in south-west England, prompting a call for the creation of a national review body. The inquiry found that, compared with the general population, men with a learning disability died on average 13 years earlier; women 20 years earlier. Overall, 22 per cent of people with a learning disability looked at by the inquiry had died under the age of 50, compared to nine per cent in the general population. It found that 37 per cent of deaths of people with a learning disability were avoidable.
Based on these findings, the mental health charity MENCAP extrapolates that 1,238 children and adults die across England every year “because they are not getting the right health care”. These shocking estimates follow a prolonged campaign by MENCAP, which published a report Death by indifference in 2007.
Details at www.mencap.org.uk/campaigns/take-action/death-indifference
The Guardian (22 March 2013) has reported dubious dealings at our jobcentres. Initially, a leaked email revealed that staff at Walthamstow jobcentre had been warned by managers that they faced disciplinary action unless they increased the number of claimants being taken off jobseeker’s allowance. They were told that Walthamstow was 95th out of 109 in a “league table” of London and Home Counties jobcentres. The appearances were that, somewhere in the hierarchy, targets were being set. The Department of Work and Pensions said that it was “urgently investigating” the case, strenuously denied that any central targets for applying sanctions were in place, and said that if a manager had set a local target it was contrary to DWP policy and that steps would be taken to ensure that such targets were removed.
However, fresh evidence quickly emerged (23 March) suggesting that other jobcentres were being given targets to find reasons to withdraw jobseekers allowance. Jobcentre staff contacting The Guardian had said that it was “widespread practice” for managers to set targets for removing benefits. It was reported that a separate investigation suggested that pressure was being applied to jobcentre staff around the UK to remove more people from benefit.
Confronted over the initial revelations in the Commons on 22 March, Secretary of State, Iain Duncan Smith gave an absolute commitment that there were no targets for any sanctions whatsoever. Curiously, however, he then went on to say that anybody using those targets would be disciplined.
A further Guardian report (27 March) said that it had received more signs of a “targets culture”. Internal documents showed evidence of targeting at more than a dozen jobcentres around the country, contradicting the DWP’s line that any such practices were isolated. Margaret Hodge, chair of the Public Accounts Committee, was said to be seeking clarification.
Then, on 29 March, it emerged that The Guardian had obtained a DWP national sanctions “scorecard” for January 2013 giving precise information about how jobcentre districts are performing in stopping claimants’ benefits. It includes a column headed “direction of travel”, with red and green arrows showing, district by district, changes on the previous month. Lord Freud responded in the House that this was purely to “correct the anomalies”. Make of that what you will.
It may be felt that I rely too heavily on The Guardian. But the fact is, as Polly Toynbee points out, that the readers of other (named) papers “are told nothing”, or rather that they “know a lot about immigrants” and “are protected from inconvenient facts about growing inequality”. I will continue to respect The Guardian as a great campaigning newspaper, and will continue to source uncomfortable news from its pages. And this news is very uncomfortable.
A BLUEPRINT FOR UNBELIEVERS
13 March 2013: Alain de Botton has produced a Manifesto for Atheists, setting out ten secular virtues: resilience, empathy, patience, sacrifice, politeness, humour, self-awareness, forgiveness, hope, confidence. While a reminder that you can subscribe to moral principles without God is welcome, this initiative troubles me. Aside from the obvious point that these are just ten virtues among many, I fear that creating a template for goodness smacks of secular piety. Having a rule book implies the hand of an unseen adjudicator. One of the many criticisms of religion is its implanting of a sense of guilt. It would be a pity to transfer this negative perception to right-minded atheists. We keep trying, but we are what we are.
But this is a fascinating subject and it would be good to have the views of readers (another virtue).
THE ‘BEDROOM TAX’
26 March 2013: I warned of this impending disaster in Briefing no.51 (November 2012). I called it “mean spirited”. Now it is almost upon us. Since its enactment, there have been some well-publicised, fringe concessions to the legislation. And the Department of Work and Pensions, through local papers, has explained the changes to the Housing Benefit entitlements of people of working age living in so-called social housing. This spells out that the benefit will from 1 April be related “to the number of bedrooms you need”. This change is because up to now people have been subsidised for more bedrooms than they actually need. It is intended to encourage claimants “to think about” their accommodation so that they can help the government make the best use of limited social housing, and people currently living in overcrowded housing may be able to move into larger homes. It is also about fairness, in that people who rent from private landlords already receive Housing Benefit in this way.
This explanation fails to explain why some people are entitled to social housing in the first place, and why pensioners with more bedrooms than they strictly need are exempt from the changes. But my quarrel is not with the analysis, but rather the hammer-blow, draconian impact of the reform upon people already suffering privation from other aspects of the Welfare Reform Act 2012. We are talking about people’s homes – domiciles and dwellings in which they have shaped their lives: something that those who own their own homes must surely understand. People in social housing can be encouraged and helped to downsize, but should not be financially coerced in this way. I fear this is just one aspect of a cruel crusade in support of the dogma of a ‘something for nothing’ culture which has trapped people into dependency. Undoubtedly there is, selectively, scope for legitimate criticism of the burgeoning welfare state, but the government’s attempts to force change are heavy-handed. I feel that the coalition has so far failed to grasp the social impact that the bedroom tax and other changes will have, a myopia that may well rebound on them.
The effect upon disabled people is particularly acute. A study by Demos/Scope points out that many of the cuts on disability benefits overlap. It predicts that by 2017-18 around 3.7 million people will have experienced some reduction in benefit, collectively amounting to £28.3 billion (see Guardian, 27 March for details). Despite my views on religious belief, in the war of words between Justin Welby and Iain Duncan Smith I am with the Archbishop.
A BLAST FROM OUR UNIVERSITIES
28 March 2013: More than fifty social policy professors have joined in an open letter to the Prime Minister, David Cameron, published in today’s Guardian. It calls for the cuts scheduled for 1 April to be reconsidered and for no further public spending cuts targeted on the poorest in our society. It points out that previous welfare reforms have already meant the equivalent to a loss of 38 per cent of net income for the poorest tenth of households. They compare this to a loss of only 5 per cent for the richest households.
They regard the welfare state as “one of the hallmarks of a civilised society”, dependent on a fair collection and redistribution of resources. They emphasise that misleading rhetoric about those seeking support risks undermining the trust between different sections of society and across generations, one of the key foundations of modern Britain.
UNIVERSAL CREDIT SCHEME IN TROUBLE?
Despite reassurances from the Department of Work and Pensions and Iain Duncan Smith personally, rumours abound that the introduction of Universal Credit is beset by technical difficulties. The new consolidated benefit was due to be trialled in a number of Lancashire locations from 29 April and rolled out nationally from this October. But you will have heard by now that the piloting exercise will be confined to a single location. The DWP insists that the scheme will nevertheless be introduced in October, but there have been suggestions that the roll-out will be progressive rather than comprehensive. Time will tell if the benefit will be delivered on time, and more importantly whether it will prove to be universally beneficial.
LINKS FOUND BETWEEN SERVICE IN THE ARMED FORCES AND LATER VIOLENT OFFENDING
In Briefing no.19 (March 2010) I discussed the consequences of war, and controversially questioned whether it was desirable that young men and women should indulge in licensed killing and perhaps come to enjoy it. The thought came to me from my partner Ann Darnbrough. In A Rebellious Disposition (2007) she included a section on The Folly of War, which has the following argument:
“Those who choose the armed services as a career commit to becoming the instruments of their leaders’ simplistic belligerency, prepared to kill other humans without really having a reason for doing so…What they fail to anticipate are the sheer horrors they will face, the deaths of those around them and the wounds they will endure – probably to the end of their lives. In combat, they quickly discover these realities.”
Now researchers from King’s College London, led by Dr. Deirdre MacManus, reporting in The Lancet, have revealed detailed findings on the effect of deployment, combat, and post-deployment mental health problems on subsequent offending behaviour. Data from 13,856 randomly selected, serving and ex-serving UK military personnel was linked with national conviction records. The most striking finding, widely reported, was that violent offenders were the most prevalent offender types, particularly in men aged 30 years or younger. And that such younger members of the armed forces were three times more likely to commit violent offences than their peers in the rest of the population. This propensity increased sharply among those who had been involved in combat, when compared with those in non-frontline roles.
The report also noted, however, that recruitment for combat roles has traditionally welcomed individuals of an aggressive disposition, and has frequently drawn on those who are socially disadvantaged, with low educational attainment. Combat increases their inclination for violent behaviour.
A summary is available at www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PII50140-6736(13)60354-2/abstract, and the article can be found in vol.381, issue 9870, pp 907-917, March 2013.
I know that I bang on about this subject, but only because I believe that it is the rational way forward. It was interesting that an afternoon TV soap, Doctors (BBC1), brought the issue into its story line. The fictional individual who wanted to die was neither elderly, nor terminally ill, but following an accident had very limited bodily functions. Nevertheless he was of sound mind and of crystal-clear determination. Reduced to near-total dependency, he was firm and consistent in preferring to die, but could do so only if helped. At first, his wife went along with a plan to use the adjuvant service of a clinic in Switzerland, but this was not forthcoming. Thereafter, his distraught wife and son, along with his GP, resolutely refused to follow the plot.
I thought the BBC was brave in confronting this dilemma over several episodes, and scrupulously fair in contrasting the emotions of the despondent supplicant and those around him.
Good for Polly Toynbee (Guardian 22 March 2013). The promised raising of the personal tax allowance to £10,000 in 2014, trumpeted as taking the lowest paid out of tax, will also extend to people with higher incomes (at present up to £100,000). She points out that The Resolution Foundation has shown that three quarters of the relief goes to the top half of households!
A POINTED POEM (to relieve the gloom)
Triangular flapjacks if thrown
May induce an occasional groan
Teachers have always preferred
Missiles circular, edge πr squared.
WE HATE NO. 64: SEXUAL HARASSMENT
“It’s about power, it’s a form of bullying…mainly by men…an absolute evil in big organisations.”
Ken Loach on sexual harassment: Question Time, BBCTV, 28 February 2013
“It [sexual abuse] rests firmly on a base, generally sustained by society at large, of patriarchal authority and power. It is not only an abuse of power, but power to abuse, which can be sustained as though by right.”
Ann Darnbrough and Derek Kinrade: The Sex Directory (1988)
Back in Briefing no.34 (June 2011) I managed to upset at least one reader by asserting that some rapes are more serious than others, or perhaps by describing them too graphically. I am about to stick my neck out again, not this time in relation to extreme sexual abuse but to inappropriate sexual misconduct of a lesser kind, a scourge currently being taken more seriously, attracting much media speculation, and of near-universal interest.
Let me begin by getting some fundamentals out of the way. It is inherent in the natural order of things that women, some more than others and often without trying, are attractive to most men, and that we usually respond by being attracted. As such we are on thin ice. Something as slight as the beguiling smile of a pretty shop girl or a barmaid can open the door to desire. Most men are vulnerable. They may in consequence be either predatory pests or adept at self-control, but they share a basic instinct (compare if you will Matthew 5/26-27). But hey, one surely has to give some credit to those who, despite carnal temptations, keep their thoughts, their hands, and their acrosomes to themselves, negotiating with caution.
Whether particular behaviour is harassment depends on context. If there was no propositioning and desire there would be no romance and no progeny. Many loving relationships begin with touching and mutual erotic attraction. Women themselves have been known to lead men astray. Poor Don Jose! They may well encourage concupiscence: employing “a delicate suggestion, nothing more”, nothing crude or overt, but none the less deliberately seductive. It may be that in such circumstances, not to respond constitutes inappropriate behaviour.
What is to hate is rather the prevalence of random unwanted intimacy: the hand on knee, bum-pinch or grope in a crowded train or lift; and, even more, the abuse of power by dominant men towards women in inferior positions. The latter tendency has for years been asserted in many settings, notoriously in the theatre, with its legendary ‘casting couch’. Let it be admitted that overt sexuality or ready compliance can sometimes be a strategy deployed by women eager to ‘get on’. But sometimes it has also been an indispensible requirement, a necessary prerequisite to advancement, a favour suggested by men who have at their disposal the wherewithal to advance or frustrate a woman’s promotion or career. And now, as women increasingly have serious ambitions to succeed in politics, there is a suspicion that it may at times be a feature of advancement in parliamentary aspiration.
Thus sexual harassment needs to be seen predominantly as part of a culture of male dominance: the way our society has been structured for far too long. In the corridors of power we still suffer from a gender imbalance, an ingrained belief that men have a God-given disposition to be in charge. It boils down to a profound lack of respect, an intellectual mindset that needs to change. Unsurprisingly, there is an instinct within respected institutions to cover up such matters, and a large measure of hypocrisy, since honest admission inevitably brings disrepute. But that won’t do. It isn’t right that women should put up with unwanted advances for fear of damaging their careers.
Under equality legislation, sexual discrimination already falls within conduct which can be put to an employment tribunal. More recently, and crucially, the government has signed up (8 June 2012) to the Council of Europe’s Convention on preventing and combating violence against women (CETS no.210). Upon ratification by 10 states, including eight member states, this will require signatories to take measures to promote changes in mentality and attitudes, and to enact legislation or introduce other measures to criminalise or impose other sanctions against all forms of violence within its scope. As well as covering the most serious sexual offences, such as forced marriage, stalking, physical and psychological violence, rape and female genital mutilation, the Convention will extend to sexual harassment (Article 40). This rules that “unwanted verbal, non-verbal or physical contact of a sexual nature with the purpose or effect of violating the dignity of a person, in particular when creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or otherwise offensive environment, is subject to criminal or other legal sanction”.
We await progress. At the time of writing, only three states – Albania, Portugal and Turkey – have ratified the treaty, and it remains for the UK to do so and incorporate it into our law. But it is to be hoped that before long there will no longer be an acceptance of the species of acerebral men who, although by now encountering women in every walk of life, still think that a woman’s place is in the home, good for only one thing. Perhaps the best advice for men is that of the bandit Fra Diavolo in Auber and Scribe’s opera of 1830:
“Nous ne demandons rien aux belles,
L’usage est de les épargner.
Mais toujours nous recevons d’elles
ce que leur cœur veut nous donner.”
[We demand nothing from beautiful damsels; the custom is to spare them. But always we accept from them what their heart wishes to bestow.]
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