Friday, 28 August 2009

TV's Benefit Busters socially irresponsible

Like the Tories, in recent weeks the media have seen fit to jump on the "broken Britain" bandwagon, highlighting (and exaggerating) social problems and coming up with quick-fixes.

I had the misfortune of seeing Channel 4's Benefit Busters last week. This show pandered to social prejudices and reinforced steroetypes in its quest to "revolutionise the benefits system", focussing on a group of single mums who were then bullied and prodded to getting the first job they possibly could, irrespective of whether low paid work for the likes of Poundstretcher made them and their children better off.

At no point did the makers of "benefit Busters" ever consider the wider problems the single mums were experiencing. Neither did it examine the problem that, for many people in unskilled work, the minimum wage has effectively become a maximum wage; low-waged, part-time work does very little to encourage people to come off benefits.

The Channel 4 show did its best to fill the viewer with anger at how some on benefits could afford luxuries of large TVs and indulgent toys for the kids, but my real problem was not with the mums who had no budgeting skills (another problem the revolutionaries on Channel 4 didn't try to address) but with the multi-millionaire being paid to get people into dead-end jobs. She seemed to be doing very well from single mums, making huge profits from the welfare state while not actually doing very much constructive.

The problem with TV shows like this is that they work on the basis that we are all outraged about the "large numbers" of single mums "scrounging off the state". Shedding light on the social and economic complexities of the reality clearly isn't Channel 4's thing. Which is sad, because single mums are easy targets and the media should be helping to deconstruct negative steroetypes rather than reinforce them.

At the heart of the matter is how we view single parents. We can either view them, as many do unfairly, as a mass social problem - or we can instead view them as individuals, many of whom would like to work if only given a genuine opportunity. We can view them either as a problem or, more reasonably, as part of the solution to what is being termed "broken Britain". Many single parents need encouragement, guidance and empowerment to find productive employment through which they can become genuinely independent of welfare. What they don't need is more of this from Channel 4.

Politically, our elected representatives need to be more careful how we talk about this issue. It is easy to knock "broken Britain" - quite another to advocate realistic and workable solutions. What I do know is that many single mums do a fantasic job, who love their children unconditionally and work miracles in raising a family single-handedly. It isn't something I could do.

There is no place in 21st century politics, or in a responsible mass media, for judgemental attitudes. We need to be making war on unemployment - not the unemployed.

Monday, 24 August 2009

Tory Humour isn't Funny!

This piece was contributed by my wife, Anna.

First we had the joke from Alan Duncan about "living on rations". The nation was hardly laughing with him. Now we have Alan Scard, the chair of Gosport Conservatives Association, suggesting that "only attractive women should become MPs".

What Mr Scard actually said was "If they are attractive, yeah, I would go for it. I know it's a sexist thing to say but you could get the blokes saying, 'Oh you know, I would vote for her because she's really attractive', but then the other women say 'Oh I don't like her, she's too attractive'." He later claimed that this was "tongue in cheek" and meant in jest, but his "joke" was a loaded one and shows what attitudes still exist in the male dominated world of politics.

I dealt with this issue in a previous blog entry when discussing Caroline Flint's resignation: What Should we Make of Caroline Flint's Resignation? Unfortunately, blatant sexism isn't going to go away overnight.

The comments were made after a Tory MP who knows a thing or two about sexism, Anne Widdecombe, expressed concerns about her party's drive towards "A-lists" of female and ethnic minority candidates. She feels that parties should go for "ability rather than category" and is concerned that selecting people on the basis of their ethnic origin or gender will result in "second-class citizens" in the Commons.

Strong language indeed. But I agree with the gist of what she's saying. We do need more women in the Commons but quotas, all-women shortlists and "positive action" (Toryspeak for "discrimination") isn't the way to do it. In fact, we need more women in politics at all levels, because from top to bottom it's still dominated by men. What needs to happen is for more women to become involved in politics, to make contributions to their communities and local parties and then to be selected on merit. The key is not in making targets, but in empowering talented women and people from minority groups to become more active in politics. When this happens, the problem of sexist relics such as Mr Scard will become a thing of the past.

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Joblessness - a human tragedy

Last week unemployment figures were published which underlined the stark reality of our country’s problem with joblessness. While Peter Mandelson has been heralding the impact of the government’s economic stimulus, unemployment rose to 2.435 million and – more worryingly – youth unemployment has climbed significantly. The statistics show that adult unemployment has risen to 7.8%, but also a 75% increase in the number of young people (i.e. aged 18-24) receiving Jobseeker’s Allowance.

The mass youth unemployment we are now seeing - according to statistics (The Guardian, 13.08.09) between 25-30% of young people in Scotland are claiming benefits – has prompted fears of a generation being locked out of employment and of a “lost generation”. And these fears are justified. Not since the days of Thatcher, when over a million young people were on the dole, has the problem been so acute. The reason for this is that in a recession companies stop recruiting staff and it is inevitably the young who are hardest hit.

Graduates and school leavers struggling to find work will exacerbate the problem, which may develop into a crisis. The fear is that many young people struggling to find work will slip into long-term unemployment at a time when Britain’s young population is at its highest for over ten years. This recession – created by the greed of the financial industry and the incompetence of Westminster – has resulted in significant job losses amongst Britain’s youth: over half the jobs lost belonged to someone aged under 24. This is not a good time to be a young person looking for work.

This increase in youth unemployment represents a human tragedy of misery, injustice and waste. I know what it is like to be made unemployed. I know what it feels like to struggle to find work. I know what it is like to be a graduate and to find that the degree I work hard for turns out to be a worthless investment. This is the real tragedy behind the latest statistics: the enforced idleness not of the “hardcore unemployed” but of bright, young people with aspirations. It is not only graduates, of course, who are suffering and young people living in already deprived areas are feeling the squeeze even more than before.

As money runs out, social problems increase. The effects of unemployment range from stress-related illness and depression to domestic abuse and increased crime. The long-term legacy of the recession may be a social rather than an economic one.

So what is the solution? Well, it won’t come from the Conservatives. The government has made some strong but unimaginative moves – including quantitative easing, devaluation, rate cuts and a generous budget which at any other time would have created a significant boost. But these aren’t ordinary times and ordinary measures are not likely to work. In fairness to Labour, the government has done a reasonable job of managing the crisis they helped to create, although it seems short on ideas to take us forward. On the other hand the Tories opposed most of the measures that have worked so far, including the nationalisation of Northern Rock, quantitative easing, devaluation and the government’s economic stimulus. Worse still, while Osbourne and Cameron were happy to jeer at the government, they were unwilling or unable to put forward any alternative solutions.

The real solution lies not with political theory but the banking industry. As the public own a large percentage of many of our commercial banks, it is only right that the banks should be lending – which is, of course, what the government bail-outs were supposed to facilitate. Lending to certain sectors, especially to small businesses, is vital to stave off unemployment. Penalties should be imposed on banks hoarding cash. Furthermore, the unrepentant attitude of excessive risk-takers within the financial industry must be reversed, and the bonus culture killed off. The Bank of England, the FSA and the commercial banks must recognise their obligations to society rather than to themselves or their shareholders. For too long, the government was unwilling to rein in those in the financial sector who disproportionately drove the country’s wealth, indulging the super-rich (yes, John Hutton, you know what I mean) and refusing to regulate.

The problem with this approach is that the culture of greed and risk-taking did not produce improved performance. It led to catastrophe. This is why change is needed.
What is also needed is an open, honest and non-partisan dialogue about wealth and its social ramifications. Sadly, this is the kind of debate that, while necessary, is something neither Labour the Tories nor the SNP want to have. They would rather score easy political points.

Bold and difficult decisions have to be made to take our country out of recession. We owe it to our young people, to our unemployed and to our communities which will inevitably feel the social effects of joblessness. It is true that unemployment is one of the last statistics to improve in a recession, but indications are that unemployment will rise further before improvements are seen. This is inescapably a human tragedy, and the recent statistics confirm John McFall’s warnings of “lasting scars” (“Act Now or face Consequences”, The Guardian, 23/3/09).

Thatcher famously adopted a laissez-faire attitude towards unemployment that appears to have been inherited by Cameron and Osbourne. Others have taken a bookish, almost nerd-like interest in the recent figures. We can’t afford to allow the human dimension to be lost or treated as a side-show to the expenses scandal. People are suffering and unless the right moves are made soon the social consequences could be enormous.
Thank God that at least Vince Cable and the Liberal Democrats understand this. Progressive change to the way the economy is managed is not only necessary but inevitable.

Friday, 14 August 2009

We love our NHS!

The NHS has been drawn into the current debate about the future of USA’s healthcare system.

Critics of President Obama’s plan to create a fairer and more accessible service of health provision have labelled his plans as akin to socialism and Nazism (a little contradictory I think!) and claim that Britain’s NHS is an example of how health provision shouldn’t be delivered.

Most of the arguments about the “failure” of the NHS are based on perceptions – or misconceptions – about healthcare rationing and waiting lists. However, critically it was the appearance of a Conservative politician on US TV that caused most controversy and added fuel to the anti-NHS arguments: MEP Daniel Hannan was scathingly critical of the NHS, saying that he “wouldn’t wish it on anybody”.
Nice – first top Tories state that they’re “living on rations”, then they claim that the NHS is a 60-year old mistake. Nice work Mr Hannan. David Cameron has rightly slammed Mr Hannan’s views, but looks unlikely to take any action, saying “political parties always include some people who don’t toe the party line on one issue or another issue”. He also took no action earlier in the when Mr Hannan first made the comments in April – presumably because he didn’t want such views making an impact on the party’s European prospects.

Fortunately, there has been a massive reaction from the British public with a huge online campaign in defense of the NHS causing twitter to temporarily crash. What Mr Hannan will never understand is that the British people have a deep affection for the NHS because it provides free health care at the point of need, has provided excellence in health for over 60 years and – despite what some Tories obviously believe – is the most economically and socially responsible way to deliver health provision. People defending the NHS include Gordon Brown, Stephen Hawking and Andy Burnham. Thank goodness for the sanity of those who value our NHS!

I can understand concerns about “rationing” in the NHS – I’ve expressed them several times myself. What I find hypocritical is the attitude of Americans who can’t see that more socially destructive rationing has always existed in the USA, where healthcare is rationed – to those who can afford it.

But then the US debate about healthcare has for some time been based on cultural perception, historic prejudices and opinion rather than fact.

There’s one thing “I wouldn’t wish on anybody” and that’s Mr Hannan’s party being elected at the next General Election.