Monday, 30 September 2013

What should we make of Osborne's "work for benefits" plan?

George Osborne, a man whose clarity of purpose should never be questioned – even if his grasp of economic reality should – has today given a speech at his party’s conference in Manchester unveiling his plans to extend his “work for benefit” scheme.

Referring to “the long-term unemployed” – yes, he does talk about such people is if they are a single, homogenous group of undeserving parasites – he argued that “no-one will be able to get something for nothing”. It’s such a shame he doesn’t apply the same logic and obvious energy to those avoiding tax using various loopholes, who collectively cost the taxpayer so much more than benefit fraud. Then again, consistency has never been Osborne’s forte, but if he’s genuinely motivated by a desire to ensure that Britain is a meritocracy where the deserving prosper and where the avarice of the “something for nothing” culture is actively and effectively combated by government there might be some more obvious targets than long-term jobseekers.

Attempting to borrow from Nick Clegg’s fairness agenda, the chancellor indicated that his policy would be "fair for those who need it and fair for those who pay for it". Nothing could be further from the truth. There is, of course, a need to positively and responsibly reform the benefits system for exactly the reasons that Osborne states. The welfare system must work more in the interests not only of those who depend on it, but also wider society. However, Osborne’s narrow minded, doctrinaire and simplistic outlook threatens to undermine any fairness that might once have characterised government welfare policy, while simultaneously creating damaging and far-reaching by-products that should concern us all.

The detail of what Osborne is proposing suggests both a crippling intolerance and a politico-intellectual naiveté. His bold determination to shrink the state is unfortunately matched by an equally aggressive resolve to achieve it in the most ham-fisted of ways, widening social divisions and demonising sections of society in the process. What goodwill – and credibility – Iain Duncan Smith once earned the Tories with his apparent willingness to understand and deal with the problems facing inner city communities is rapidly being frittered away in Osborne’s relentless and reckless assault on the welfare system.

What Osborne is proposing is to extend the Mandatory Work Activity to all those who, after two years on the optimistically named “Work Progamme” (in which private contractors are paid to find people a job) will be put onto a new scheme labelled, equally euphemistically, Help to Work. Under this new operation, JSA claimants will have to attend work placements, undertake daily visits to the Jobcentre or attend compulsory training.

The detail about work placements is somewhat lacking in specifics but Osborne did give some examples: “making meals for the elderly, clearing up litter, working for a local charity.” It would seem either he has either limited ambition for those who aspire to find work, is short on imagination or can’t imagine that people who have been unemployed for more than two years may be able to make any other kind of contribution to society. What out of work people need is the opportunity to gain vital skills in order to be able to successfully prepare for the type of work that suits them. They need to be treated as individuals, and invested in accordingly. Furthermore, we should all have concerns about essential services being given to people who will be paid less than the minimum wage – it seems the Tories’ bold vision of a “Big Society” has been reduced to one of slave labour. It also seems self-defeating to combat unemployment by effectively taking away jobs to create these placements: why would, for example, any local authority employ individuals to collect litter when benefit claimants can do it at no cost? Why would a care home employ a kitchen assistant when, similarly, local benefit claimants are standing by to provide their services for nothing?

And who will determine the work placements? Will, as is currently the case, claimants be required to give up potential development opportunities in volunteer work in order to attend placements less geared towards helping them achieve their personal goals? Or will there be a degree of flexibility? Has George Osborne thought this out at all?

The requirement to visit the Jobcentre daily is the obvious sign of how out of touch with reality the chancellor is. Not only does he fail to appreciate that the Jobcentre is somewhat limited in its success at finding people employment (something the government should be aware of, given its belief that private contractors are better placed to find work for unemployed people) it overlooks that for many the cost of doing this would be prohibitive. It also overlooks another painfully obvious fact – that the jobs simply do not exist. At a time of high unemployment, it is unfair on several levels to suggest that those out of work are failing society. As those on the Help to Work scheme must stay on it until they find work, they may (in theory at least) be obligated to attend the Jobcentre every weekday for several months or even years. That’s a lot of bus fare, which isn’t easily affordable on £71.00 a week.

Finally, Osborne refers to compulsory training for those who need help – for example, those who are illiterate. Why such people should have to wait two years before receiving such help is another question. “For those with underlying problems, like drug addiction and illiteracy, there will be an intensive regime of support. No-one will be ignored or left without help” insisted the chancellor. It might not feel that way, however, if such an “intensive regime of support” actively works against the needs of those with, for example, long-standing mental health problems. Osborne also doesn’t make it clear why people with such “underlying problems”, most of who will already be receiving extensive support, require it to be either supplemented or replaced – or precisely what form the promised “support” would take. It is also worrying that, in the case of some of the most vulnerable people in society, he seems to suggest that their mental well-being – and their value to society – is determined by employment status. 

He seems to have as much understanding of complex mental health issues as he does of the damage his short-sighted ideas will ultimately cause.

But this is Osborne’s vision of Britain; one in which the distinction is made between the deserving and the undeserving, and in which those not adhering to the rules face harsh penalties. The first breach results in a loss of four weeks of benefit money; the second three months. Osborne hasn’t intimated what a third breach would lead to, although rumours of an attempted purchase of Devil’s Island have proved to be unfounded.

And so, to address the question posed at the beginning of this piece, what should we make of Chancellor Osborne’s “work for benefits” plan and, in particular, his quest to abandon the Holy Grail of British politics that is the “centre ground” in order to resurrect the Tories’ merited epithet, “the nasty party”? Other than the self-evident power of Tory backbenches and the Conservatives’ fear of UKIP’s electoral prospects, it would appear that Osbornomics represents very little other than an ill-conceived appeal to populism. His shrill speech also gives credibility to the arguments that the government’s previous welfare initiatives to date have been abject failures.

Osborne should instead turn his attention to declaring war on unemployment – not the unemployed. There should be no place in the “Big Society” for requiring people to work for less than the minimum wage. No society, big or small, is successful when it ostracises or demonises its most vulnerable citizens. There should be no place in responsible government for ill-conceived programmes of social engineering, or of ill-conceived schemes that (according to the DWP) have absolutely “no impact on the likelihood of being employed” and actually could increase unemployment.

The chancellor would also be well advised to turn his attentions to job creation. By job creation I do not mean part-time minimum wage jobs for which the only potential applicants would be those who are able to top up their incomes with benefits. If Osborne and the government are serious about breaking the cycle of benefit dependency, they need to be more imaginative and focused on facilitating new jobs that pay well, rather than making life hard for those on benefits. 

If Osborne understood economics as he claims, he would also appreciate that during downturns the best way to stimulate the economy is to encourage spending. Which section of society spends the highest proportion of its income? (Clue: it’s not the middle classes, putting their money in the ISAs for their grandchildren’s university fees).

Osborne’s speech today was as disappointing as it is incoherent. Most obviously, he seems to be labouring under the misapprehension that the economic situation and unemployment is somebody else’s problem. In savagely attacking those who are out of work long-term the chancellor at best avoided the real questions and at worst championed “solutions” that will do little to improve the economy or reduce unemployment while contributing to the social misery that so characterises the “Broken Britain” he claims to aspire to fix.

It would, perhaps, be wrong and overly charitable to consider Osborne as a mass of contradictions. He is simply dangerous; a man whose social reforms even Thatcher would have balked at and a reminder of why the Liberal Democrats are so necessary in government.

Thursday, 26 September 2013

"Conference People": Lib Dems give their views on coalition

During a surprisingly upbeat and productive Lib Dem conference, I found the time to interview some Lib Dem members about their views on the coalition.

These views I then collated in a video, lasting approximately 20 minutes, entitled "Conference People". Featuring opinion from Alex White, Hannah Bettsworth, Tracy Connell, Greg Judge, Mathew Hulbert, Bob Maclennan, Eilidh Macfarlane and Alex Wilcock, I hoped to produce something that is able to present both the range of views within the party while ultimately demonstrating how united we are in key respects.

That "Conference People" is the views (almost entirely) of "ordinary" party members and activists is intentional and, I trust, more authentic than the predictable soundbites from elected representatives. It is designed to give an insight into the party's collective psyche and, while ultimately eight members can hardly be held to be representative of the entire party, I have deliberately attempted to include people I know to have widely differing beliefs.

Those of you who might not wish to watch a full 20 minutes may instead be interested in going directly to one of the individual sections, listed below:

How do you feel the Liberal Democrats have performed in government since 2010?

What should the Liberal Democrats' key objectives be in government during the next two years?

What are your views on the direction the leadership is taking the party?

How can the Lib Dems communicate a more distinctive message, and what should it be?

Are you and optimist or a pessimist - and why?

My thanks go to everyone who agreed to take part.

Monday, 16 September 2013

Impressions of my first federal conference

Adrian (far right) with Bob Maclennan and Willie Rennie
By Adrian Page
I have been a member of the Liberal Democrats for only a few months.
As a new member I was keen to attend federal conference, although I have to also admit my brother (Andrew) may have influenced that decision to some degree. Unfortunately I was only able to get to Glasgow for the weekend but it was an incredibly eye-opening experience.
The first thing to note is that I was surprised at how positive the mood was. That doesn’t mean that the party at the moment isn’t openly debating what the best way forward might be (it quite obviously is) but the people I met were positive in their outlook, even if they were less than optimistic about how we’ll perform in forthcoming elections. We’re certainly not, as you would imagine from reading the newspapers, a party suffering from crippling depression. The Lib Dems might not all be comfortable with themselves but I didn’t see anyone willing to throw in the towel just yet.
I was also struck by how many young people were at conference. This is excellent. There seemed to be a lot of LGBT people in the Lib Dems too. However, more negatively, I also noticed that there did not appear to be enough people from ethnic minority or even working class backgrounds. I was quite concerned by this, being from a less than advantaged background myself. We need a party that reflects our society and if conference was anything to go by there's a bit of a way to go. I went to fringe meetings where almost everyone present was male. Not at all good.
That said, my observations are mainly positive. I worked at Labour conference last year and was stunned by the difference. The most obvious thing is how more democratic our conference is – you know, it can actually honestly be called a conference rather than a political show. I was also able to talk to Willie Rennie, Shirley Williams, Alan Reid, Bob Maclennan, Tony Greaves and several other parliamentarians. It’s great we have a party where the Secretary of State for Scotland allows you the opportunity to chat with him afterwards, or where the chief whip comes into an SLF fringe meeting to engage openly with members.
What other party would do this?
I liked Tim Farron’s speech on Saturday. I knew a lot about Tim but I’ve never heard him speak before. He was very impressive. He seems to say the kind of things we want to hear, which is definitely good in one way. I was even more impressed with Ed Davey though, who seems both principled and practical. He’s clearly had to adjust his thinking on nuclear energy in line with scientific evidence. He’s also a very strong public speaker – it’s easy to respect him even when disagreeing with him. He seems a future leader in my book.
Willie Rennie also seems a good guy - another man you don't have to agree with to like. He's got a job on his hands to turn the Scottish Lib Dems around but he appears up for the challenge.
The rally was also interesting, not least to learn about MPs’ former employments. I didn’t know that Stephen Gilbert had such an interesting CV, or that Paddy Ashdown joined the Liberal Party from the dole queue. Of the speakers at the rally, Kirsty Williams and Paddy were particularly strong. I didn’t find Nick Clegg very inspiring – he said the kind of things that he always says: he’s sensible enough but he didn’t enthuse me.
The debate was generally informed and tolerant, which is a first time attendee I wasn’t sure would be the case. Admittedly some debates were more interesting and intense than others. I also took some time to talk to some people protesting outside against the bedroom tax, they seemed pretty reasonable to me and I think from what I saw most Lib Dems share their views. It is perhaps disappointing in one sense that the Trotskyists weren't out in force - I wouldn't have minded sharing my views with them.
It was also great it was in Scotland. I heard that it was the first Lib Dem conference in Scotland since 1995 and that the Conservatives have never had a conference here. Never. Unbelievable. The SECC is easy to get lost in and the Scottish weather was typically unpredictable but apart from that I don’t see why there shouldn’t be more federal conferences in Scotland.
Will I be going again? Most definitely. I’m already looking forward to York next year.

Adrian Page is my brother and a new member of the Liberal Democrats.

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Bill Walker MSP resigns

And not before time.

Bill Walker, who was the MSP for Dunfermline, was convicted sixteen days ago on 23 counts of domestic violence over nearly three decades. That it has taken him so long to finally tender his resignation is not altogether surprising.

Like many bullies, Walker has consistently presented as arrogant with a disregard and blatant disrespect for the concerns of others. He is not stepping down as "the decent thing"; rather the bully himself has now apparently been bullied into taking the only logical course of action available to him. Defiant and deluded until the end, Walker predictable failed to take responsibility for his actions and blamed others for his having to stand aside. Turning on the media, he claimed that the "onslaught has made it impossible to properly represent my constituents and their interests". He's made the right decision - for altogether the wrong reasons.

Walker's short parliamentary "career", if it could be called that, has been characterised by intolerance - his most notable contribution to the Scottish political conversation being his outspoken stance against marriage equality and indeed LGBT rights more generally. Without apparent irony, he considered himself qualified to be the upholder of social morality and what he termed "family values".  His then party, the SNP, failed to act decisively to challenge his homophobia. Fortunately they moved swiftly when confronted with his history of domestic violence.

Walker's contribution to Scottish politics has been so negative that today's decision has been the most constructive action he's taken in two years.

Walker has cut a distinctly isolated figure in parliament of late, abandoned by his former colleagues in the SNP. This served only to strengthen his resolve to resist the inevitable. Willie Rennie's motion calling on Walker to vacate his seat immediately was supported by the vast majority of MSPs from all parties and, despite this show of solidarity from parliamentarians, Walker showed no sign of being willing to resign...until tonight.

Parliament has shown a zero tolerance approach towards domestic violence, and that is very welcome. That Bill Walker has finally, following pressure from parliament, the media and constituents. stepped down is also positive. That it has taken so long in coming, that he was not appropriately disciplined for his homophobic outbursts and that he was able to enter parliament in spite of his history are concerning, and there remain many unanswered questions from which we need to learn.

On the plus side, Walker's homophobia did give me the opportunity to speculate about his motivations, and in doing so have a little fun at his expense. So perhaps every cloud has a silver lining.

So, farewell Bill Walker...and good riddance. It pains me to say that. There are very few parliamentarians of any party who I genuinely hope to see the back of.

Interestingly, it is not only myself and the wider public but many of Walker's old friends in the SNP who share this view. George Adam MSP took to twitter to express his relief: "about time. Bill Walker STILL remains deluded, blaming all but himself.  3 decades of abuse and its the press to blame. #fool". There were several others too. Not only does this underline how distanced Walker became from his former colleagues, but also his poor relationships with them, which seem to predate public knowledge of his violent past.

Walker's resignation is, of course, not merely a victory for the media as he suggests. Neither is it primarily a victory for parliament, or indeed Willie Rennie who has been energetic in his calls for Walker to step down. It is a victory for both justice and common-sense.

Despite his dogged defiance, Walker eventually succumbed to pressure. However, while the eventual outcome is the right one, there should be processes put in place to ensure that an MSP so convicted can never attempt to cling onto office in the way Walker did. There is a very real case for revisiting the rules, and I trust the Scottish Parliament has the courage to do so.

In the meantime, we now have the Dunfermline by-election to look forward to. I'm excited already...