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But Baby it’s cold outside

Seasons greetings to you all.

After the turkey and trimmings and pressie giving splurge is over I want to draw your attention to a couple of issues.

Housing and Food.

First up housing.

At this time of year housing occupies my mind more than a little.  Not the state of houses, not the number of bedrooms but the lack of them.  More specifically how many of our fellow countrymen (and women) don’t actually have access to one to call their own.  Homelessness (and its mate Rooflessness) are terrible issues for anyone to face.  My surgeries are most often taken up with housing and homelessness cases.

We need to build more houses, I hear (and say) all too often.  We need suitable houses not just little enclaves of executive housing for the doing-quite-well-keep-us-away-from-the-poor types but real attempts to build houses to meet the needs of our people.  You know, not chicken coop sized rows and rows of battery houses but well designed and community building houses.

In Fife (Where I live and am a Cooncillor), we have more than 11000 on housing waiting lists.  Part of our manifesto (at the local elections) was to build 2700 new homes over the next 5 years.  A start but not a cure.  Add to this the need to bring 60% of our houses up to Scottish Housing Quality Standards and you get an idea of the scale of the problem.  Affordable housing (an awful term) has overtones of poorer quality (though this isn’t necessarily true) and isn’t viewed in a positive light.  Councils need to build up their stocks quickly and take some of the heat out of the private let market.  A market that has gotten huge benefits from the shortage in supply.

Fewer people are ‘roughing it’ but that doesn’t tell the whole story of those in Scatter flats and temporary accommodation.  With no home to call your own the displacement and disconnection from society increases.  Add to this those without homes often have many issues (no money and dependencies to name but two) that make fitting into and contributing to communities difficult.

Overarching these current problems lie the haphazard and poorly thought out (and implemented) welfare / housing benefit changes to follow soon.  The uncertainty of  a roof over their heads will be horrendous.

The march of the makers needs to be in the direction of council housing and bucket loads of it.

An announcement today to spend £4.5m bringing empty private houses back into use by the SNP Administration at Holyrood will, it is hoped, bring 400 private homes back into the affordable sector on the proviso that they are made available for 5 years to rent.  Okay as far as it goes but a gimmick of a policy when the housing budgets to local authorities were slashed.  something must be done media driven policy.

Anyway, I digress, housing and the homeless occupy my thoughts at this time of year particularly and hope they’ll intrude on yours too!

http://scotland.shelter.org.uk/home

(Shelter website with many, many things to share)

Food.

More specifically the lack of it.  I spent a very productive hour today with representatives from local churches and the YMCA discussing foodbanks and the setting up of one to cover Glenrothes.  The need is there and currently being met by volunteer groups who’ll need a big help if the requirements keep increasing (and the stats suggest they will).

Demand for food support (ie food parcels) has gone up by a third in the last year.

Far too many are being failed by DWP and a benefits system based not on need but on efficiency and cuts.  Telling people in need to appeal and the money will be back dated is really helpful especially when you are skint.  Crisis support to feed people is a growth area (if only the economy was eh?) and foodbanks are springing up all over the land.  A sure sign of a failing economic policy (and plan McB isn’t much better).

The Trussell Trust (http://www.trusselltrust.org/) are raising the profile of this need in the media and on TV.  I am pleased they are doing so much because I hope it will shame the DWP and IDS into thinking again about the impact of their reforms (cuts agenda with a new badge).  Savaging the weakest is neither fair nor acceptable.

By the way, many of the 200 000 or so who will be helped by foodbanks this coming year will be working.  Read that again.  Working and unable to buy enough food.  Not on benefits, working.  Makes you wonder about wage levels doesn’t it?

SO when the turkey sandwiches are served up today, and you groan not turkey again, spare a wee moment for those who’ve been visited by the foodbank fairy or those whose roof is borrowed, temporary or simply not there.

Merry Christmas to you all.

I wouldn’t want you to be too cheerful now, would I.

 

 

 

 

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How would you reform benefits then?

Today, on twitter, a local Conservative councillor asked me if I was against reform of the welfare state and if I wasn’t what would I do?

The context was my ranting about IDS and his reform agenda, as espoused on Andrew Marr’s love in this morning.

We had a debate in full council about welfare reform that was more heat than light and didn’t really add much to the debate on a larger scale.  It highlighted some areas where local council can offset central impacts.

However, the question was to me, given that I believe that welfare reform is necessary what would I do….here goes.

Caveat number 1 – this is my view not anyone else’s – neither Party nor guru and a statement of policy it most certainly is not.

Caveat number 2 – I am willing to accept that I might be wrong or that what I think may be unworkable.

So

Firstly, the benefits and welfare system does not work as we want it to.  It creates perverse outcomes on occasion and sometimes fails to support those who need while supporting those who don’t need the money.  What we need to remember is that our system (if we call it that – and systems theorists wouldn’t call it functional) has evolved to meet a changing situation and at best can be said to be failing to keep up.

When the welfare state was conceived and delivered the situation was not as  it is now.  Strong bodies could pretty much find work and most unemployment was frictional rather than structural.  Today (after decades of change) unemployment is more structural and this has shaped the way benefit calculation and transfers have been manipulated.

Unemployment is a function of changed work environment (death of manual and heavy industry, reduced need for labour as automation increased) and as such has meant that the ‘dole’ initially designed to support in the short-term has become a long-term situation for many.

This worklessness hasn’t led to generations of feckless, lazy worthless undeserving poor as IDS would have us believe.  Although some would argue for their existence.

Welfare is a safety net for our society that allows it to function in this era of reducing employment (full-time and skilled)  and movement to more flexible employment lives of low paid/ lower skill and transient nature.

Welfare is also there to support those who will need support (whether disabled physically or mentally or caring for those who are) and ensure their dignity and quality of life is protected.

Welfare is also there to support those who are being exploited in the race to the bottom in terms of wage rates.  Minimum wage is too low and the living wage is a poor attempt to address the feeble attempt of statute to ensure a fair pay for work.  This support can be in tax credits, housing benefit  or benefits for their families – whatever form that is needed to ensure work pays.

Key phrase work should pay.  However, the system is so perverse at times that a disincentive to employment can occur.  When work is seen to be not worthwhile economically we have a problem.  For me work is always worthwhile in terms of self-esteem but I can understand that self-esteem wont feed the kids.

So, where was I….

IDS wants to simplify the system – agree entirely (£5bn+ goes unclaimed every year purely down to complexity and ignorance).

IDS goal is to cut the size of the budget for welfare and benefits.  Disagree with starting point.  The size of the benefit budget is based on need.  Let me say that again, ON NEED.  If welfare is to maintain our poorest then the price is the price.  It cannot ethically be otherwise.  To do so is to punish the needy for the failure of our economic policy over the last 40 years.

Hair splitting time.  How do we define and agree need?  IDS says that those who don’t work should have a lower standard of living than those who do.  sounds fine doesn’t it? Really?  So if you live in a region blighted by unemployment because successive governments have skewed (and screwed the economy) you are somehow responsible and therefore should be punished economically.

We should define an acceptable standard of living and say that no one should be below this point.  whether you are disabled, old, unable to find work or working in a low paid job.

People should not be looking at those on benefits with envy.  If it was so great we’d all do it.  Fact is, that it isn’t and we don’t.  Daily Mail readers go and froth elsewhere.

So my start point is different.  I want to meet needs, IDS wants to shrink the bill.

Where then, is the most pressing area to focus?  Fraud?  Less than half of 1% is lost in terms of fraud and almost 3 times more is paid out in error by those who design and work the system.  So not fraud then (although not to be ignored – tax avoiders/evaders another day).

Johann Lamont tried to start a debate about universal benefits and their affordability (on which I can see where she’s coming from) but this again starts from a different viewpoint than I would (will do this another day too).

Some examples (which I am sure you want to know – but remember the starting point is entirely different)

  1. Housing benefit is a monster and is the result of failed housing policy (from flogging off council houses to not building sufficient replacements) causing a shortage of supply that is being met by inflated private sector profiteers (invisible hands stuffing pockets).  This needs addressed urgently but can only work if the structure of the rental market is altered (build capacity in public control and drive rents down hard – sadly a slow fix).  Housing benefit needs work but needs to reflect the situation on the ground not be a punishment for being overhoused or used as a tool to cleanse the cities of the poorest.
  2. Winter fuel allowance. small cost at the start and now rapidly out of hand.  Costs a fortune and many do not need it.  Paid to those living abroad in spain too.  Perverse isn’t it.  However, try cutting it and see the backlash.  Hobson’s choice if ever there was one.  It needs to be targeted not universal.  If anyone howls means testing costs a fortune! it shows the lack of thought that is common.  Perhaps linking Winter Fuel allowance to capping energy bills would be more effective.  It is not only the old who struggle to choose between heating and eating.  In Fife 1 in 4 suffer fuel poverty with 40% in poorer areas.  They aren’t all old you know.
  3. Child benefit.  Again this has changed in focus.  What is it for?  To pay for your holidays? (just for daily mail readers who are still frothing).  It is to ensure that children are provided for.  Hmm, High earners, do they need help in providing for their offspring?  Not usually.  However, the universality element is to let all of us tax payers feel we are getting something out for our contributions.  We should be able to think of a solution that effectively gets money to children that need.  I am prepared to accept that this is a very unpopular one to address.
  4. Working tax credits.  These are a response to low pay, a subsidy for firms who pay less and enjoy the low tax regime and readily available loopholes.  This needs to be driven back onto the employer.  Needs to stop being a government subsidy to business and reflected in wages properly.  Structural reform of Labour markets and business taxation.  But we’ll be less competitive and will have a jobs flight to low wage economies in the developing world (howl away), like I said at the start these may be unworkable.

Every current benefit needs to be examined to see if it actually does what it should do and tested to see that it helps those it is meant to.  We should not be afraid of removing benefits that are poorly targeted as long as the right support goes to the people who need, which might mean new benefits being introduced (is this the antithesis of simplification? if screwed up it could be).

As I write this I realise that there is no way to encapsulate my feelings effectively without going on and on.  Considering that the request was on twitter  with 140 characters at my disposal, it was obviously unanswerable.

So I’ll be brief then.  Welfare (benefits & pensions) are a means to ensure dignity and well-being in our society.  The complex mess we have doesn’t work but the wrong-headed reforms by IDS are about punishment of the poor to pay for the systematic failures in other areas.   The starting point is everything.

Better to review the way each benefit works and systematise the actual outcome you need than take a blunt instrument (like IDS’ Brain obviously).

Sadly we are looking for simplicity to meet the needs of the most complex set of needs and lives we have ever encountered.  Simple(tons) just don’t cut it.  They just cut.

(sorry Dave this isn’t the answer you are looking for).

 

 

 

 

Is Ed our IDS?

This is a sure sign of too much time on my hands.

To worry about the possibility of Ed Miliband, our leader of just over a year, not making it to the next General Election exposes an underlying unease.

I didn’t vote for Ed and he wasn’t even my second or third choice.

That said, democracy is about accepting the outcome and I have.

Ed has had a hard slog this year and leader of the opposition isn’t a great gig for anyone at the start – you have to grow into it.  Dave-call-me-dave was pretty mince to begin with and look how that turned out. (failed to win a majority with Ashcroft’s millions, media support and a Labour government on its knees – ooops sorry I digress).

Being leader of our party is a bit like herding cats, you really have no chance of instilling any discipline until you gain a profile that looks like you might win the next election.  At the moment Ed doesn’t have that.

The polls put him in the lead by about 3-9% routinely, which sounds fine but when you consider the savaging the country is taking from giddernomics and this coalition it should be much more.  It seems the voters aren’t yet sure.  Punishing Clegg and the Libdems apparently just not sure about us.

He started slowly but with the right idea of accepting where we went wrong in government.  However, he needed to defend what we did right more robustly.  Outcome of this was to irritate our own supporters and get a grudging ‘about blooming time’ from those who might have supported us once, and a’ TOLD you’ screamed from those who opposed us and always will.  Guess whose voice got heard on that one eh?

Had a refounding Labour review.  Not at all convinced this will do what he hopes – (see herding cats above).

Bumbled along a bit until #hackgate came along and it was at this point my opinion changed of his chances (up until this point I did think he was our IDS).  He did very well on this, got the tone right, held dave to account and didn’t look like an opportunist (too much).  The corner was well and truly turned.

Riots came and went and the momentum was with Ed on looking the part.  This carried on through the worsening Eurozone mess as he landed good blows on the hopelessly out of touch complacent Cameron.  All going well then.

However, this has stalled for me on the public sector pensions issue and the day of action that allowed Dave to make him look weak and say so.  This was a big call and I think Ed has found himself stuck in a politicians dilemma.  Wanting (i hope) to support the action but knowing it will be used as a club to beat him with.  2m workers gave up a days pay to protest and he didn’t support them.

If he had said I support your day of action and blame this intransigent government for causing it, I think he’d have been a shoe in to really make some progress.  He didn’t, he allowed the right-wing media to portray the Public sector as enemies of the state and was too careful about his response.

November 30th was my first ever day on strike and I want my party leader to support our struggle.  His questions at PMQ’s weren’t bad but for me it was too little too late.  The safe political reasonableness that is for the south of England is alienating traditional labour voters (and there are many of us).

Clarkson and the right-wing are winning the media battle on pensions and we need Ed to be more robust and combat at every turn their misinformation and drivel.  It aint happening.

Which brings me to my question.  Is he going to be our IDS?

Perhaps, he’s not blowing my skirt up and if he makes too many judgement errors I think he will be.

If he keeps getting spanked by Flashman at #PMQs then he will be.

If he doesn’t get some economic credibility (which considering Gidders et al) he will be.

If the cuts are weakly opposed he will be.

Ed is a genuinely decent chap, personable, articulate and bright.  Is that going to be enough or will regret that he isn’t his brother always dog his steps?

So Ed =IDS?  Not yet, and I hope never or we will be in opposition for a looong time.

Of course my next question is ‘IF not Ed Miliband then who?’