Archive for August, 2009

Before I put on the gloves, a word in defence of Dan Hannan

As some of you may know, I am very scathing about Dan Hannan in general. He was vaunted for what was, in my opinion, quite a humble pot-shot across the bow of Gordon Brown’s ever-sinking ship, and ever since then people have been more inclined to listen to his tastelessly neo-liberal views, judging them not on their merit but on the skill of Hannan’s rhetoric, which is undeniably good.

Furthermore, Hannan has felt the need to interject in the American Healthcare debate, urging them to defend their system against an alternative no-one there in a position of influence has actually proposed. Given that Hannan has given the Americans no credible reason to stick with a system that charges them more in tax for healthcare than our supposedly costly NHS does, for far less healthcare coverage and, for the most part, lower quality government care, this seems stupid to say the least. For this reason, I find myself frustrated that not only did Daniel Finkelstein find it necessary to defend Dan Hannan on the grounds that what he said was “unconventional”, but he subsequently thought it necessary to criticise him on even thinner grounds than he defended him, for citing Enoch Powell in a way the rises above the historical stereotype.

I am not particularly sympathetic to Hannan’s citing of Powell as a “hero”, but the furore over this has been nonsensical. If you were to compile a list of what Powell had done in his life other than give the infamous “Rivers of Blood” speech (and its aftermath), it would probably account for 99% of the total, and be completely unknown to all but a minority. Likewise, were you to assess Winston Churchill’s contributions to history, one might conclude that there was a significant amount that failed to live up to the reputation created by his place in the second world war.

This is, in fact, the argument being used by all reasonable-thinking people in the fallout from Hannan’s perhaps inadvisable comments (I think even the most ardent of Hannan’s admirers would reluctantly conclude that Hannan should probably have mentioned that he did not approve of Powell’s views on immigration, for example) in the pages of power today, but it does not appear to satisfy Daniel Finkelstein. This is, it appears, because he has chosen to inflict upon us another of his pet theories following the success (yeah, right) of his citing the “Endowment effect” in an article about healthcare in a way in which it need not factor at all.

This time, after putting the “Endowment effect” to such good use in patronising Healthcare reformers, Daniel Finkelstein appears to have picked on “central intervention”. Those eagle-eyed (or eagle-eared) among you may have noticed that when politicians coin grandiose phrases it invariably follows that the ideas lying behind them tend to be proportionally less impressive. And yes, the same would appear to be true of media commentators.

Daniel says:

Churchill was flawed. He said many things that were wrong. But the central intervention of his life was heroic.

In Powell’s case the position is the opposite. he was right on many things, but the central intervention of his life fell far below the level of heroic. You cannot possibly assess his contribution to public life without including his Tiber speech.

Daniel’s point seems to centre around some kind of quasi-mythical “defining moment” that a good chunk of character writing in fiction seems to be dedicated to. You know the drill, after a lifetime spent on the streets as a hopeless boozer, smoker, journalist, you pick your pejorative term, character A decides to do something fundamentally worthwhile, and is subsequently redeemed.

On the other side of the coin, character B, after appearing to live a life of continual (snobbish) good behaviour, good deeds to the poor, table manners, etc., suddenly proves himself to be a right and utter bastard by reacting the wrong way when the love of his life suddenly decides he is not Mr. Right.

Daniel Finkelstein appears to be trying to apply this method of analysis to political history. Perhaps we could call it the “Climax method”. Historians analysing the life of a person should look to see where the climax should come in a (semi) biographical thriller, what would make the most sellable “defining moment”. In writing the concluding summation of said person’s contributions to history, the bottom line must hinge on the character of their defining moment. Was it sad, tragical, comedic, farcical, villainous, heroic, or ill-definable? It would certainly spice up the work of our nation’s historians, and possibly generate a boost to our film industry in the process by providing them with many more scriptwriters.

But to cease the sarcasm-laden analysis for a moment, who really decides what the “defining moment” of a person in history is? There are many different factors, but what it rarely is is the person themselves. Why should we regard the book as closed on the lives of historical characters when in fact, as any historian will know, there is so much we do not know, and so many ways in which new material could completely change the way in which they view them? Why should we make assumption the watchword of the day, and stifle much-needed debate on the quality of a person’s life?

Daniel Finkelstein is a media commentator, and clearly likes things to be cut and drawn, so he can tell us in an instant how we will react. The media has a lot of power already over how people react to everyday life, but his interjection smacks of wanting more, to have his cake and eat it. He should not complain when someone decides to stand up and challenge a stereotype, just because it goes against the media’s chosen line, rather than complements it.


Lies, Damned Lies, and the Heathcare debate.

David Frum writes — or rather wrote — in the Times today (or rather a few days ago) an article which attempts the impressive feat of trying to convince a British audience of an American argument on healthcare reform.

As you can tell from the above, I have been on holiday. To Sweden (any one who thinks that I may have miraculously been persuaded of the “evils” of public healthcare will no doubt give up right here). Whilst there, I have had a peaceful, laid-back time, in which I have not even felt the urge to write a note. Well, I’ve felt the urge, but I’ve actually resisted it, which is at least something. Being away might turn out to have been a wise long-term choice. I may have missed the worst of Swine flu in Britain, but far, far more importantly, I may have missed the worst of the apoplectic style ranting about healthcare.

Indeed, the worst offenders I have come across have not been American, but rather British. Dan Hannon has been sticking his head out, and regrettably, since mouthing off against Gordon Brown, people seem to be more inclined to listen to what he says. Indeed, Hannon has evidently so taken to the American people that he wishes to save them singlehandedly from the misfortunes of a system where they would pay less in taxes for more public coverage, despite the fact that it isn’t even being offered anyway. No doubt he is proud of his life-saving interventions.

I have also discovered the existence of an even darker side to the Conservative party in the form of a blog that’s nutty as a fruitcake, but thankfully, at least, no-one seems to be listening to it, so I don’t think it’s high profile enough to be worth mentioning. The relevant people (or rather person) will know to whom it applies.

But in general, even from the enlightened holiday-place of Sweden, I have managed to notice an awful lot of rubbish being spouted about the healthcare debate. What has been pretty thin on the ground is a clever argument, what with all of the nonsense about death panels, healthcare rationing, monopolies, higher taxes, socialism, communism, pinko liberal communism, yadayadayada, etc.. Which is why I found David Frum’s article so refreshing as to be worth posting as a link, despite the fact that I still disagree with it, and I still think many of the arguments are just as misinformed. This is because it at least tries to engage meaningfully in debate about the issue, rather than rant incoherently about socialism and evil.

It’s a clever article. Frum clearly knows his audience, and tries to argue in such a way as to persuade it. For example, he uses none of the exaggerated language that most of the right in America does (and instead posts exaggerated examples of the arguments we use against the US system). Frum clearly tries to position himself on the open-minded side of the spectrum, ignoring the extremes from both sides and embracing the facts.

It’s an interesting article, but it fails. Because it doesn’t.

After a refreshing introduction, Frum starts to go wrong almost immediately.

Tens of millions of people lack insurance. Yet they do not go uncared for. Rather they use the most expensive care, emergency care, and hospitals add the cost on to the bills of paying patients.

In beginning the argument in defence of the way the American system treats the uninsured so simplistically, Frum is immediately condescending to their plight. Insurance is based around addressing long-term risks, but in making this argument Frum ignores the most obvious potential ailment, long-term illnesses.

Saying “they do not go uncared for” because the uninsured get emergency care is like saying “he did not go uncared for” once the proverbial good Samaritan fails to turn up because the victim gets a flashy funeral. The real scandal of US healthcare centres around conditions, not emergency care.

Not only are you screwed if you develop a long-term condition and cannot afford insurance, but you are often screwed full stop if you develop a long-term condition and do not have insurance, even if you had been able to afford it previously. The insurance system is wonderful at delivering the best coverage to the people who need it least. If you have a long-term condition, good luck in trying to find affordable coverage.

But apart from all this, it isn’t even factually in terms of detail. Many hospitals in the US will charge emergency care fees, even if they aren’t allowed to turf you out the door. So the costs are not always passed on to the paying patient, contrary to Mr. Frum’s claim.

On to paragraph number two…

Almost all the problems of the US health system trace back to a pair of unexpected ironies: profit-driven private insurance corporations find it much harder to say “no” than governments do, and American governments are more unsustainably generous than their European and Canadian counterparts.

I find it difficult to believe that profit-driven private insurance corporations find it much harder to say “no” when they are famed for putting such lucrative resources towards finding creative ways of denying costly coverage. I also find it difficult to believe in face of the numerous accounts of insurance companies denying treatment at the most needed times, due to smallprint clauses and other get-outs. I also find it difficult to believe in light of his second statement that “American governments are more unsustainably generous than their European and Canadian counterparts”.

But to throw Frum a bone here, I don’t agree with that statement anyway. When it comes to Medicare, he may have a point — I don’t know enough about it, really, to comment — but when it comes to Medicaid it is well known that the coverage is very, very basic.

I’ll add a caveat here — it is true that the American government spends more on healthcare than, for example, Britain or Canada — but this isn’t out of the spirit generosity but high costs. They don’t have a choice in this and it’s precisely because of the private insurance-based model. More on this point later.

I agree with Frum’s next paragraph, but unsurprisingly, it is a critical point of the US system in any case.


For all practical purposes, healthcare is just as much a right in the US as it is in Europe. Since 1986, federal law has required all hospitals that receive federal money (ie, just about all of them) to provide emergency care to any patient who presents himself or herself. Many states back this federal law with even stronger laws of their own.

This is largely the same stuff as two paragraphs previously. Emergency care =/= all healthcare — it’s not even close. Only the last statement is true, although I haven’t heard of a State introducing something truly radical, such as a single-payer system or a public service competing within the market. Massachusetts, which I have heard cited as one of the more progressive states in this area, has instead opted to make some form of insurance coverage compulsory.

Frum’s next paragraph is very interesting:

Government generosity drives private health costs higher and higher. Health insurance is regulated by state governments. Each government decides what local insurers must cover and how they may cover it. Fifteen of the 50 states require insurers to cover fertility treatments. Twenty-four states require coverage of eating disorders. Thirty-five states require coverage of reconstructive surgery after a mastectomy. New York state requires insurers to charge the same rate for all customers, regardless of health conditions, while 11 other states tightly restrict the ability to charge more for more sick patients.

I don’t really disagree with what he’s saying. Government “generosity” is driving private health costs high and higher because it’s all in the field of regulation, rather than provision.

This is a distinction I have been coming to more and more of late, which I believe is as fundamental as the distinction between the public and private sectors. When government regulates the private sector, it nearly always drives up costs in some way or other, because it’s an inherently clumsy control that the private sector rarely truly cooperates with because of its for-profit basis.

Whereas where government provides alternative services, it invariably removes the need for a certain amount of regulation. Where the US regulates healthcare is not, as the right mistakenly believes, due to government generosity, but due to the fact that they don’t have any choice. The government is pushed from two different powerful forces, the voice of the society, rising up against injustice, and the voice of powerful insurance lobbyists. The government mistakenly tries to reconcile these two, with the result that healthcare costs are driven higher and higher as the government tries, and fails, to placate both voices at the same time.

The result is that the insurance companies fight against the government anyway, and the public still aren’t covered well enough. Both have contempt for their political masters, who lack the guts to take any real action to improve anything. The government will have to prevent the worst injustices from happening in the system, otherwise the public will do them in, but they have to do it in the most expensive way possible, otherwise the insurance companies will do them in. It’s heads they win, tails you lose.

Again, in no other system is as much in tax spent in securing as little in healthcare. The US has the highest healthcare costs, for the least in treatment.

Frum goes on to point out how there is in fact less difference between parties in their record on healthcare than people realise, which is again fair enough, although it is worth noting what different governments attempt, and fail, as well as what they do. Again, the politics of government are different to the politics of political opposition. Governments are torn between the two forces, whether it is the Elephant or the Donkey.

Frum also tackles expensive medicare for the Elderly, which further complicates the equation. How to improve coverage without readjusting public priorities? Within the incredibly expensive private insurance system it seems an impossibility.

But again, only within such an expensive system need it be so. If the State actually provides an universal public alternative, rather than trying to play everything through the wealthy and powerful private entities, then it can secure far, far more public coverage per taxpayer dollar by slashing regulation on the private sector and allowing people to choose between public and private provision. But of course, this is what private providers fear the most: having to compete in a way that forces them to offer value for money to the consumer. Far better to have the government as their tool, as a way to increase and improve their domination of the healthcare market.

Then we have:

Objective studies find little difference in outcomes between America’s costly care and the much cheaper care in more statist systems.

Frum here makes the classic mistake, again disguised through placatory language: describing Universal Health Care systems as more “statist”.

Yet he provides no argument to actually back this assertion up. And what makes America’s regulation-heavy system less Statist than one that provides a public option to compete within the market? From a control perspective, certainly, Britain’s system is less Statist than America’s, as it revolves around State provision rather than State control/regulation. The “Statist” argument is a misconception that the US healthcare debate suffers from all too often.

All of these misconceptions that litter Frum’s article in defence of the American system undermine and deride his final points, that

What the US system offers to those who enjoy good coverage is much harder to measure: convenience, security, responsiveness to patients and personal attention from doctors who compete to attract customers.

Perhaps it is cynical, but I find it all too easy to think that the reason that this is “much harder to measure” is that it doesn’t really exist. A system which offers no security for those who need it most (those with constant long-term healthcare problems) is not a system which offers security in any meaningful way. A system which only offers convenience to those least in need of it is not a system which offers convenience in any good way. A system which offers responsiveness only to an elite with the most expensive coverage is no system worth defending.

And as for competitiveness, Frum fails to show how the US system makes providers in any way more competitive than a system which allows people the choice between a universal public service or private coverage, when common sense would dictate that the latter is far more competitive. He also ignores the facts: people have a choice between Doctors in the United Kingdom, and our personalised GP care is well-known, regardless of broader issues with the model. The UK health system is in fact one of only a few which allow access to a Doctor to be absolutely free at the point of delivery.

In essence, this is the problem with the debate on healthcare within the US. This is an example of one of the more nuanced arguments; yet it is wrong in nearly every detail that matters. In a debate where contributions are only more vitriolic and closed-minded, meaningful reform is only likely to be years, if not decades, away. Let us hope that this is not the case.

Why the right veered towards Primaries as the left veered towards PR, when the sunlight briefly shone out on our Politicians.

The scramble towards constitutional reform when the sunlight, grandly taken advantage of by the Daily Telegraph, shone through a haze of mist on MPs expenses; was amusing from the perspective of a student of politics, even more so a thoroughly amateur one. For many reasons, quite a few obvious ones that do not need going into (such as the only tangential connection to the actual scandal itself), but one of the less remarked upon ones being the way in which each party”s line of direction so aptly reflected its historical ideologies.

One of the things which fascinated me the most was the way David Cameron played his hand. Ever on the nervous look out as the result of the more extravagant expense claims, perhaps not surprisingly, being disproportionately amongst his own party; he had to be careful to ensure that the field of debate was not captured by the left, or the government, both of whom have felt more comfortable in the field of Constitutional reform than the Conservatives in recent years (though admittedly, the Conservatives’ hiatus from government possibly had something to do with it). This is mostly due to the Conservatives’ historical attachment to traditional institutions and practices, and their recent savage opposition to any form of electoral reform (to the extent of applying arguments against PR to thoroughly non-PR alternative voting systems, as Cameron did in a recent Prime Minister’s Questions).

Shrewdly understanding that he could not compromise on this important — and recent — support of historic tradition in the Conservative party, coupled with his evident need to make a contribution to the debate, Cameron obviously spent a little time researching other forms of Constitutional reform that lie outside the field of alternative voting systems, enough so to have at least a better grasp of them, though the extent is debatable. When he made his move, therefore, he was able to talk with apparent ease about such diverse ideas as fixed-term parliaments, recall elections, and Primaries; as if they had been key to the conservative tradition all along.

Except to an extent, this wasn’t just clever manoeuvring, for though the latter isn’t demonstrably connectible to conservative thinking in recent years, it is far more palatable an idea to the right than it is left, and in a savage world where a possibility exists that one must choose between being reformers or being left out in the cold, it is not surprising that the right latch on to it with such fervour. Because introducing open primaries throws the political equivalent of a massive spanner in the works of the left’s agonisingly slow progress towards promoting reform of the voting system.

I was struck by Vernon Bogdanor’s contribution to the Indie’s ‘panel of experts’ analysing the expenses scandal back in May, that I only dug up today. In it, he says:

Primary elections would ensure that MPs were chosen by a wider group than the small unrepresentative cliques who often now act as an electoral college. In the long run, the single transferable vote method of PR would give every elector the chance to combine a vote in a general election with a vote in a primary election.

In it, Mr. Bogdanor seems to believe that a change to open primaries could be part of a gradual transition towards imposing the Single Transferable Vote. But I feel that this is a grave mistake to make.

Primaries are not perhaps quite as individualist as caucuses, but they are the closest democratic thing, and as such they would make the perfect reform for the right to make to stave off reform of the voting system for decades. For whilst STV is intended as a compromise between a desire for broad proportionality, and retaining the individual basis of elections; open primaries are an active attack on the role of parties in the political system, designed to weaken them permanently. Hence from a politically individualist — and broadly right-wing point of view — open primaries are the perfect weapon against reforming the voting system. “Why”, the question would run, “is reform of the final election process needed, when we have opened up participation in the build-up by so much?”

But if this explains why the Right is broadly far happier with the idea of open primaries, and why it caters to their sensibilities, it doesn’t cover the left’s preference for reform of the voting system, and why it should be hostile to primaries or not.

And when I come to think about it, it actually surprised me how much reason the left has to be hostile to primaries.

It has to do with more than just ideology, or semantic disputes about exactly what role parties should serve in the electoral process (I saw a debate which I felt fell into that trap, concentrated in a small-scale dispute over the nature of consensus politics versus democratic choice). It has to do with real-life evidence, and the far greater importance, to the left, of equality, freedom from economic circumstances, and demographic representation.

Proportional representation systems, and moderate representation systems such as STV are equipped with the tools to represent broad ranges of opinion in a community. In the former grouping it is through the power of the parties, who can institute selection procedures such shortlists designed to favour demographic equality if they so wish. In the latter it is through the system itself, which is designed to deliver a minimum of wasted votes and ensure as many votes as possible are used in allocation of each seat.

For this reason, persons at a disadvantage when it comes to standing for election (those with limited financial resources, business-unfriendly, union-unfriendly, independents, etc..) tend to do better with non-primary systems, and better still with STV (so long as they build up a profile with the people that matter, the local voters; at least in theory that’s how it works). Primaries disproportionately punish all these people, because they make campaigns by necessity far longer, and thus far more expensive, and you can probably see where this is going — they vastly increase the political power of money.

For this reason the left should be very, very cautious about primaries. For campaigns which involve a lot of money vastly increase the hold of businesses over politicians, and could potentially introduce a number of problems with the process of government similar to those seen in America. And if the left supports primaries on the false assumption that doing so will improve social democracy, it is badly mistaken, and could breed a generation of future struggle for itself, needlessly. It should be aware, and beware, of any reform that places more influence into the hands of lobbyists.

House of Lords Reform ~~ An Update

In reading about the House of Lords in a 1990s book “Does Parliament Work?” — in an effort to improve my knowledge about the Lords and Parliament in general — and reading with interest the part about the house’s greater informality than the House of Commons, a thought struck me.

One of the things most agreed by consensus in favour of the House of Lords is its ability to include expertise and specialism when debating legislation. I have often argued in the past for the crossbenchers, among whom are experts appointed by the House of Lords Appointments Commission, to stay holding the balance of power within the House of Lords, whatever other reforms are made to its composition, to secure as best possible the retention of this expertise, complementary to the other purposes reforms may serve. But it struck me that there exists an even better way of ensuring the expertise, as well as the continued informality of process. And, as my friend Ewan Short would like, a check upon the potential for democratically elected peers to get ideas above their station in the event of democratic reform.

I think that the House committees should have the ability to, if sufficiently inspired, offer temporary rights to people outside the House of Lords to take part in debates and have limited voting rights. This would open up the House to popular participation in a more informal, caucus-style way than pure democracy would, which would reward popular participation and, more importantly, dedication in areas of public interest.

It would also prove a check against democratically elected peers getting the idea that they were the most “important” part of the house in a part-democratic House of Lords. It would (if used properly) strengthen the houses’ claim to diversity, speciality and expertise, and make it a better understood and respected national institution. It would also promote it as an alternative means of representation to the House of Commons.

It strikes me that if we go down this route, it will also take fire out of the hands of “all-or-nothing” democracy campaigners for the House of Lords, which would be No Bad Thing. All in all, I think this could be not only quite a nice idea for the future of the House of Lords, but potentially quite an important one as well.

As usual, please notify me if I have completely missed obvious or important things by adding your comments underneath.


Whip round note.

This is a “whip round note”, when I post something on facebook where I feel a particular need to draw attention to my waffle, and tag anyone I think would (or should) take an interest in a leading issue. Obviously, that doesn’t apply at all here (this is technically another archive, from a few days ago), but it explains the title.

The issue is Extradition. The Catalyst is Gary McKinnon.

I wish to focus more on the former than the latter because, like it or not, Gary McKinnon is only one small piece in the overall larger picture of concern that is laid before is from time to time. I sympathise with his case, and strongly object to his being extradited, but in fact much more is at stake with this issue.

Gary McKinnon committed a serious crime, but moreover the fact is that at every point the American approach has been wrong.

Firstly, they have unequal arrangements constitutionally. It cannot be in doubt that were we to try and extradite an American citizen in similar circumstances, it would most likely be blocked at the first hurdle, due to the superior constitutional protections for US citizens.

Home Secretary Alan Johnson was correct to argue that the legislative conditions of the treaty were more or less equal, but only technically. One cannot divorce a law from it’s constitutional connections, and our lack of constitutional protections re: extradition makes the arrangement a lop-sided one.

Secondly, the are attempting to bring a prosecution on what amount at best to highly unreasonable charges, and at worst outright malicious ones. Had Mr. McKinnon been tried in Britain, he would have been tried for the actual crime. In the US, they wish to try him for terrorism charges, and, to put it bluntly, exercise the maximum possible punishment for exposing the inadequacies of their network security.

The Pentagon asserts that Mr. McKinnon’s actions cost them “$800,000” — one wonders, from the information available, this was merely the price of installing competent network security.

Thirdly, it is possible that the severity of the charges pursued are intended as a leverage to ensure Mr. McKinnon’s cooperation and secure a plea bargain to save the irritation of seeing the process of justice through.

For those of you who might think this justifies the excessive charges, let me persuade you to think again.

The entire concept of plea bargaining is anathema to the concept of justice. It creates an assumption of guilt; not only generally, which we know of Mr. McKinnon, but that the entire approach of the prosecution is correct, which is far more in doubt. It assumes that the the process of a fair trial is merely an inconvenience, not the centrepiece, something that should be brushed aside by those prosecuting as easily as possible. It is perhaps one of the most abhorrent institutionalised mechanisms to load the trial in favour of the prosecution and against the defendant. It is fundamentally unjust.

When regarding the extradition treaty, we should bear in mind just as much the concern over the US process of justice as we do individual cases such as Gary McKinnon’s, or the weighted nature of the treaty arrangements. Even in cases where guilt seemed as clear-cut as the Natwest Three, plea-bargaining has rendered the process murky.

Finally, the galling conclusion is that this ongoing case is that of a country that is only pursuing such a disproportionate reaction against this person because of reasons of government embarrassment. By all accounts, the US network security was laughable. But instead of acknowledging the fact, the US seems hell-bent on bringing disproportionate charges against a conspiracy-obsessed hacker, and ignoring far more real cases of terrorism.

The case of Gary McKinnon against his extradition should be supported across the board, but more to the point the legislative case for amending the treaty arrangements, currently being brought by both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, should be supported with equal passion. For there will be more abuses of justice unless the root cause is targeted and attacked.

People complain that tuition fees have destroyed aspiration. But who is to blame, the government, or those who promote the myth

Speaking in the Times someone of evident distinguished nature proceeds to demolish Mr. Milburn for daring to chair a commission into Social Mobility, grandly exposing the politician as party to the wholesale destruction of the hopes of the poor to ever attend University. Or so I imagine the writer of this letter imagined as he wrote it. In reality the true picture is perhaps less compelling a tale of betrayal and treachery as many think. In fact, do they not know it, but they may in part be inadvertently responsible for this image of destroyed aspiration themselves.

Mr. Rees proclaims from his ten foot armchair of justice, that “Today’s average student debt of about £40,000, encouraged by Mr Milburn’s government, is a significant factor in prohibiting those from poor families entering a long degree course”. He also boldly proclaims that “This was the dying era of university grants, which enabled me but not my ancestors to access higher education”, despite the fact that grants were progressively slashed during this “dying era”, to the extent that I can live on a far healthier diet through today’s support granted to University students than my eldest siblings could back in the 90s. This is a funny way of assessing the enabling qualities of university grants.

Furthermore, Mr. Rees contends the Today’s average student debt of £40,000 “prohibits” those from poor families from entering a long degree course. Perhaps he would have done well to consult those from poor families on long degree courses. They might have given him a slightly more nuanced answer.

I am not from a poor family, but I am on the full means-tested grant, used to cushion the long-term costs of university education (IE the so-called “debt” – more later) for poorer students. I am also on a four-year course. Therefore I feel qualified to comment in considerably more detail than Mr. Rees has done.

The combined effect of the student loans, tuition loans and maintenance grants means that I can live far more adequately at University than my predecessors (IE siblings) have done. I thus do not feel more “prohibited” than they do, having chosen to take up a course in Music and risk the £40,000 of debt.

Here we come to my biggest point of contention. The £40,000 of debt that Mr. Rees makes such a big deal out of is in fact not the prohibiting factor he makes it out to be at all. This is because it is actually deferred taxation, and thus the main striking feature of it is that it cannot bankrupt you. Thus this image of prohibition Mr. Rees conjures up suddenly vanishes with as magically as it arose. For though the prospect of being taxed 9% extra on my earnings over £15,000 per annum does not exactly thrill me, it is in no way, shape or form a prohibiting factor. If anything, it merely gives me cause to reflect on whether I am certain of my priorities.

What it might, possibly do is encourage me to be prudent with the money the government allows me for my University education in the knowledge that the more I save, the more I can pay back earlier. This might even not be such a bad thing. Adjusting to the fact that everything costs money in life, whether through up-front fees or taxation, is often something which can be hard for young adults. I may have cause to thank the government for forcing me to consider this earlier rather than later.

But what may prove damaging, even devastating, for some people, is if commentators and members of the public persist in claiming as loudly as possible that University education is now unaffordable; cherry-picking the pacts so to make many people from poor families believe that they face a choice of not going to university or bankruptcy. If this is shouted loudly enough from the pages of the mainstream media, who knows, it might even become true. Fancy that, a myth becoming self-fulfilling. I hope the press enjoy their new found powers of prophecy – because I know that precious few of the rest of us will.

The Strange Case of Sir David Freud

Sir David Freud, the Government’s most prominent and controversial welfare advisor, has quit to become a front bench Tory spokesman.

This may in time highlight the dangers of giving prominence to an agenda you do not fully believe in. David Freud has far more chance of a significant impact with the Tories given an increasingly likely election defeat for the government, and the Tories are already known to support his agenda far more fully, in practice and in spirit, than Labour do. You can get a good idea of Freud’s ideas by looking at his telegraph profile:

…and his BBC one:

Some of Freud’s overall beliefs are very reasonable, and difficult to argue with. The welfare system is almost certainly over-complicated, bureaucratic, inefficient and sometimes counter-productive for people going back into work. His rejection of the malicious description of people on the dole as inherently lazy is also to be admired:

“There’s good, evil, laziness and hard work in everyone, it’s a question of motivation. I do not accept the rhetoric about lazy scroungers. Even if they’re a Jack the Lad or a Jill the Lass, there’s usually something else as well – they’re illiterate or they’ve got no social skills.”

Freud is also willing to see serious money invested into helping people back to work – something that should be more widely followed as an example, as many people who moan about the problems of the welfare system are all too often ignorant as to why it was needed to begin with, and how much it costs to solve what are very real problems.

What is worrying is actually the attitude Freud takes towards approaching the solution of these very real and complex problems, however. Having been shocked at the overall complexity of the system, it should have rung alarm bells as to how complex the overall problems it dealt with were, but Freud shows little appreciation as to how difficult it is to “solve” anything, instead describing the solution as “obvious”, which is worrying, considering that he doesn’t specify what “obvious” is.

The Telegraph then says, grandiosely:

“There can be few things more horrid than the welfare system. “It’s a mess nobody understands or can manage,” [Freud] says. He took three weeks to research and write the first draft of his report”,

…as if three weeks was a particularly long and arduous time to spend researching such a thing. But I find it incredible that as little time as three weeks is needed for researching such an issue. The welfare state is well known not only as one of the most complicated organisations in existence, but also as an organisation whose need of reform over the last half-century has only been matched by the lack of success of those trying to reform it. The failure of countless governments, advisers, experts and managers to agree on how to reform the welfare system into something more efficient and successful, provides us with a big clue as to how difficult the task awaiting any energetic and bold David Freud, and to claim that the task is anything near “obvious” or simple smacks of naivety, or even carelessness.

Freud’s most prominent idea, it seems, is the outsourcing of jobseeking programmes. This would involve both the voluntary and private sector, though it would seem from Freud’s comments that he is thinking mainly of the latter – more on the voluntary sector later. Though I’m generally not a fan of employing the private sector to this end, because there’s a very real danger of the creation of lots of non-jobs which mess the system around and do nobody any good in the long-term, I recognise the fact the private sector can play a useful role in creating new jobs for the long-term unemployed, and has been used to at least some success in, for example, Denmark. However, it has to be regulated carefully, and more to the point is at its least likely to be useful in the midst of a recession, when the problem is that of the most expendable jobs being shed in the ruthless pursuit of companies cutting cost. Not, then, the most likely time for a business to think of taking risks in creating new jobs for the unemployed, even if there are significant financial incentives to do so.

The other, more deep-set, problem is simply that the private sector is not going to prove an impartial mechanism for everyone seeking work – which means that quite apart from being potentially unreliable, this solution only covers one part of the problem. No matter how much you make this a lucrative market for the private sector, there will:

a) Be certain jobs and certain employees who are in least demand, which will mean significant sections of the unemployed largely left behind by this reform.

b) More to the point, the Private Sector would by no means automatically provide the right job for someone. I am by no means advocating that people on jobseeker’s allowance should be fussy over what work they go back into, but on the other hand there are always potentially jobs which are “not right” for somebody’s situation, circumstances or even health. Unemployment benefits were introduced to give people freedom from economic oppression, and some control over their lives – in other words, a liberal policy. It would be a pity to lose this element – after all, Beveridge’s second groundbreaking report was called “Full Employment in a Free Society” for a reason.

This brings me on to a second issue – that of single parents, or “lone parents”, the most obvious candidate for potential jobs being “not right”. Now, Freud makes a point of saying that lone parents should “have to work when their children reach five”. But he appears to fail to appreciate exactly why they haven’t “had” to work until their children reach 16 or leave full-time secondary education, up till now. The reason is that there are many different types of job which can be incompatible with parenting. Even with cheap-to-free childcare – for whatever some people might like to believe, childcare simply is not a panacea for lack of parenting time, and it isn’t healthy to view it as such. It can be useful, but healthy parenting necessitates spending time with your kids, and if you have to commute two hours each way to a low-paid, 6-day, long hours job it is not likely to impact positively on one’s ability to give children enough time – and furthermore, parents should have a right to quality time with their children. That can only be a positive thing, it ought to be recognised as healthy to both parent and child. Simply put we should have recognised this fundamental point long ago.

Now, I have no wish to see parents forced into “economic house arrest” and encouraged to stay at home and watch daytime TV, as Freud puts it. People should be rewarded for being productive and doing work compatible with their children, either voluntary or paid. It’s good for us, it’s good for the economy, it’s good for society. But people should be encouraged, and given the freedom to choose work compatible with parenting, not forced into finding any generic work, because that takes away such freedom and risks striking right at the heart of Thatcher’s favourite community: the family. And that would be wrong, plain and simple.

Freud says “The point about my approach is you don’t need to make a huge fuss about categorising people – everyone should be able to work.” But this almost sounds childish in its simplicity: no-one should be “categorised”, but sometimes people have circumstances that need to be taken into account. To suggest that parents with children do not have important circumstances different to others is simply absurd. And it doesn’t stop there. The point about welfare to work is getting people into a long-term, lasting and productive job when at all possible, and never forcing someone into a job which causes damage to both themselves and their family. And this should be a fundamental principle of the welfare system.

Finally, Freud is also right to point out the way the Incapacity Benefit has been abused – not least by governments keen to make use of an unemployment benefit that doesn’t add to the unemployment figures – but his comment about GPs “classic conflict of interest” is somewhat tactless to say the least. GPs are supposed to be a medical confident of people, and look after their patients’ needs, and to suggest that independent GPs start performing tests for disabling conditions is travelling down the dangerous road towards entirely impersonalising healthcare and removing patient rights. Far better, for once, to take an idea the government is now bringing in: after a certain amount of time on Incapacity Benefit a more detailed assessment specifying what work their patient is capable of doing is required, and then it is negotiated with your personal advisor at the job centre – a capability assessment.

Incidentally, Freud does not even appear to have all of his facts right about the IB claiming process: though your local GP is involved, an approved healthcare professional now has to be involved in assessing your claim, who produces the separate capability report: in other words, not only is this “conflict of interest” tactless, it is also misleading. GPs and patients do not have full control of the IB assessment anymore, even if they once did.

In conclusion, if the Tories win the election, David Freud might be something of a cause for concern, despite his good intentions; at least, if he does not do more in-depth research and analysis into the problems of the welfare state. Because though existing problems are often obvious, potential solutions rarely are – otherwise the welfare state when introduced would have been perfect, as it was set up to address one of the most obvious and shocking problems of human history.

[This note is archived from 17 February 2009]