The Fear of a Split Society: The Threat of Decentralization for Council Housing (guest blog by Jo Corcoran)

When H.G. Wells wrote the notorious 1895 novel ‘The Time Machine’, he envisioned a society much like the future being offered to us by new Coalition policies. A world strictly segregated by class, the privileged but helpless Eloi live in a self-constructed paradise, maintained but over-shadowed by a dark under-belly of Morlock creatures, whose position on the social periphery threatens to overthrow the comfortable existence of those above ground.

With the current spread of middle-class identity, where 70% of us associate ourselves with typically bourgeois values, it can be hard to see how this socialist metaphor for the Victorian, industrial divide has any relevance to modern society. Yet, with current drives by the Coalition to ‘remove red tape’ and de-centralise decision-making powers, allowing local councils to make vital choices about the amount of new housing developments to fund (which have the potential to help some of the 48,000 households in London currently living in temporary accommodation), this striking metaphor begins to take shape. Whereas previous government legislation would allocate how many new housing developments each local council should strive for, local areas will now be able to make their own decisions about how much, or (more worryingly) how little, social housing they will create.

Most of us, generally speaking, have some level of care and consideration towards the poor. Unless we take the form of Dickens’ Mr Bounderby, whose self-proclaimed success in climbing the social ladder causes him to tread callously on the fingers of those beneath him, we would generally like those suffering from the effects of poverty to be alleviated of their hardship. That is, ideologically speaking. We like the idea of them being helped…we’d just rather they were helped a little further away from us. A bail hostel? Wonderful! Next door? God, no. The principal is the same for council housing, we want it to exist, we want it to be habitable but we want it very definitely elsewhere.

The average person living in a three bedroom house will often have perfectly good reasons for not wanting housing developments emerging down their road. There’s the environment to think of (even though their family owns two or three cars), there’s the roads which are busy enough (even though they contribute to that busyness by driving their two or three cars) and there’s the possible effect on their own house price (a concern serious enough not to casually ironise).

The virtue of the previous, centralised policy (Stalinist though it may appear to Richard Littlejohn whom, you suspect, would see a government memo as evidence of bureaucratic, Trotskyite Eng-Soc) was that it took the nasty strain of disingenuous self-interest out of the equation.

The threat of that housing development being established down your road is nothing compared to the threat of not building new housing. If local councils in privileged areas make their domain inaccessible to anyone with a combined income below £60,000, you begin to see the effects of ghettoisation. Poorer families, living in areas with less housing options and harsher rules of eligibility, will be driven towards ‘softer’ areas, meaning that you create pockets of poverty. Much of London could become unaffordable (which, of course, is where most employment can be found), forcing families to relocate into areas which offer little chance of finding work or poses the added cost of a long commute into the city. Local elections will be campaigned differently with candidates able to legitimately promise to wealthy constituents that they will not sully the precious streets of Kensington/Chelsea with council tenants. The new policy establishes a trend towards polarisation; it condenses crime and other social problems into these pockets, thereby making it harder to tackle. By opposing integration you are, essentially, writing-off whole sections of society.

We regress into a backwards hierarchy, where opportunity and lifestyle are awarded only to those who already possess it; social mobility becomes a faded dream. Of course, according to Wells, in two thousand years, those banished to Southall will have speciated and evolved into a race of mutant monsters who feed off the pathetic, degenerate softies that used to be in charge. I’m not saying that’s going to happen. Although, if it does, I personally volunteer Richard Littlejohn for their first meal.

BUDGET 2011: the good, the bad, and the depressing

So let me start by looking at George Osborne’s budget through my moderate-libertarian right-of-centre orange-tinted spectacles. I see tax cuts: delicious tax cuts, for (almost) everyone! Tory tax cuts are all too often just a way to reward the better-off for being better-off, but this budget is different because, largely thanks to the Liberal Democrats, it should be noted, these tax cuts aren’t just a matter of doubling the drop in corporation tax (or lowering it further by no more than a measly 1%, depending on which paper you’re reading…), or sneaking an inheritance tax cut into the bargain despite it being dropped during the Coalition negotiations in May. The 2011 budget has lifted 10,000 people on low incomes right out of income tax, without passing go (or, once their VAT for the year stacks up, without collecting their £200, either). Because yes, it’s technically true to say that the VAT hike effectively cancels out the increased personal allowance – but just to give the Lib Dems a couple of seconds in the (increasingly orange-looking) sun, let’s put it like this instead: the Lib Dem adjustments to the personal allowance offset the Tory VAT hike.

Another policy that I find it hard to find fault with is the tax incentives via inheritance tax for people leaving charitable donations in their wills. Given his obsession with paying down the national debt almost entirely irregardless of human cost, it says an awful lot about our Chancellor that he chooses to make inheritance tax cuts a priority, but since George Osborne is apparently determined to make space in the budget for this beloved Conservative policy one way or another (incidentally, it always strikes me as mildly curious how many people claiming to believe passionately in ‘meritocracy’ are also against children of rich parents having to succeed entirely on their own merit), then this is a pretty decent way to do it. Anything encouraging more charitable donations is a good thing – and quite frankly I’d prefer to see money in the hands of Oxfam or the NSPCC than in the government’s greasy little paws.

In any case, George Osborne seems to be putting all his eggs in one basket – the basket being his ambitious hope that tax cuts will tempt foreign investment, and, coupled with the moratorium on regulations for businesses with less than ten people, will create a whole heap of jobs – but that’s not to say his plan is bound to fail. It’s just extremely risky. Tax cuts and a minor swipe at tax avoidance could stimulate the economy. It could also fail quite spectacularly. The danger, surely, is that if Osborne’s luck rings hallow and growth shrinks further, not only could we end up saddled with a thoroughly devastated economy, but we will also be facing the grit of a double-dip recession with a vastly pared-down welfare state as well.

So Ed Balls is not the only one calling for a ‘Plan B.’ It would be sensible, surely, in order to make the situation a tiny bit less of a mad hatter’s gamble, to – for example – make these job creation incentives available only on the condition that the businesses in question actually create some jobs? It’s hard to share George Osborne’s blind faith that most businesses, during such tough economic times, will automatically use this shot-in-the-arm tax cut to employ more people. How can he be certain they won’t just all use it to neaten up their balance sheets? Since when did extra money to sling around automatically mean more jobs and/or better wages?

And this is where, I’m afraid, my left eye takes a look at the budget and tells me I’m being more than a tiny bit naive: that what George Osborne means by ‘growth’ might not be quite the same as what, say, David Blanchflower means by ‘growth.’ Because David Blanchflower, a renowned economic expert, albeit a left-of-centre one, says the 2011 budget will cripple any growth before it starts. When Mr Blanchflower talks about ‘growth’, he means growth that the whole country shares in. Growing profits for shareholders, or growing falsely inflated property prices by lending sub-prime mortgage to the public (yes, you have heard of that being tried before, and yes, it didn’t exactly turn out great last time), or growing the amount of money hoarded by people who have lots of money; well, all of that is still ‘growth.’ It’s just not growth that necessarily trickles down to wages or jobs.

So as much as I have no ideological problem with businesses (big and small) getting offered carrots to revitalise their accounts and get some cash circulating again, I can’t help but lament the glaring absence of stick in this equation. What are the rest of us getting in return for the cuts we’re having to swallow in welfare, public services, and affordable living standards? Well, the Chartered Institute of Taxation says that one potentially progressive element to the budget is that by simplifying the tax system, (in particular, by integrating National Insurance and Income Tax), tax avoidance will become much more unlikely. (The Spectator says, and they are probably being truthful, that the integration of National Insurance and Income Tax is, for the main part, designed to make people realise “how much tax they pay,” and as a result, start voting Tory en masse again.) Either way, Osborne predicts that with all his tax avoidance measures taken into account, he will save as much as £1bn of the money currently ‘lost’ in tax avoidance. That sounds like a lot – until we consider that the total lost to the economy due to tax avoidance is actually estimated at around £30bn. In fact, Mark Serwotka, (an admittedly biased source as the General Secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union), says this new clamp down on tax avoidance will recoup only 0.8% of the total lost to economy.

But tax avoidance isn’t necessarily the goldmine cash cow that everyone from the Social Workers Party to George Osborne have come to see it as. Surely it’s difficult, if not morally ambiguous, for the state to ‘clamp down’ on perfectly legal activity? And tax avoidance is entirely legal. What is more significant is that the Chartered Institute for Taxation (who, broadly speaking, supported Osborne’s budget), pointed out that the Chancellor has so far taken no real steps to tackle the much more serious crime of tax evasion.

Tax avoidance ‘costs’ the UK £30bn a year, yet it is perfectly legal, and is often done by ordinary working people; usually self-employed, but not necessarily rich. It could even be argued that the problem indeed lies not in a private citizen ‘avoiding’ tax, but rather, HMRC wilfully misleading people about how much tax they actually owe in the first place. Tax evasion, on the other hand, is thought to cost the UK half as much at £15bn a year, but it is a serious criminal activity – no ifs, no buts.

It’s not as though the amount of money up for grabs isn’t large enough to warrant political attention. Benefit fraud – often given as the justification for Iain Duncan-Smith’s risky and expensive welfare reform plans – costs us no more than £1bn a year, and quite possibly less. The total savings being made from reforming Disability Living Allowance, a policy likely to penalise many genuinely disabled people, (in particular, the blind, and the mentally ill; two extremely vulnerable groups already being disproportionately hurt by other cuts and reforms, in areas like housing, legal aid and advice, social care, and transport) only come to £1.5bn. Plans to make Incapacity Benefit more difficult to claim are far from cheap and will harm many seriously unwell people, yet even if IDS booted one million law-abiding people off Incapacity Benefit tomorrow, the total net saving would still be less than £2bn – less than one seventh of the total lost in the illegal practice of tax evasion.

Would a crackdown on tax evasion ‘harm’ the criminals who do it? Perhaps it would. When people break the law, there should be consequences; especially when their law-breaking is so much to the detriment of their fellow citizens as tax evasion is.

Some experts are worried about higher taxes stifling productivity and scaring away foreign investment from the UK. But a crackdown on tax evasion is not a tax increase. It’s a matter of enforcing the law, and making people pay the taxes they are already supposed to be paying. It’s perfectly possible to be in favour of tax cuts for the law-abiding, and in favour a tough approach to those who think themselves above the law. In many ways it’s contradictory to support the latter without supporting the former: every penny illegally evaded is another penny on your tax bill – or cut from your public services. The government seem to be ‘brave’ enough to chase after the less-than-2%-of-benefit-claimants-who-are-fraudulent for a comparatively measly amount of lost revenue, and that comes at the very serious risk of destroying real people’s lives, too. If they’re not brave enough to tackle tax evasion – something you’d think they’d be keen to do, as it seems like a great way to pay off this enormous national debt they’re all in such a panic about – perhaps it’s time to acknowledge that a large chunk of our domestic policy decisions are dictated by people who are simply too rich and powerful to be held accountable to the laws that bind the rest of us? People who are, to use the phrase so often levied at trade unions, “holding the country to ransom.”

Better understanding of mental health could save the UK almost £50bn a year

It might sound counter-intuitive to argue that mental illness in the UK costs the economy £105bn a year (according the Centre for Mental Health), yet greater investment in mental health is still needed, in order to save money. The Coalition certainly thinks so: local mental health services could be facing up to £1.7m each worth of cuts in some areas. NHS Oxfordshire, for example, have already said they may have to cut this much as of April 2011, despite almost all mental health services being massively under-resourced to begin with. Charity Rethink warns that mental health services are always seen as a ‘soft target’ for cuts. But the cost of mental illness does not come from service provision. On the contrary, experts say the cost of the mental illness to the UK economy is so high precisely because provision is so poor – and greater support for sufferers and their carers could actually cut that bill almost in half.

Andrew McCulloch, the chief executive of the Mental Health Foundation, says that the main problem is this: sufferers tend to reach their ‘crisis point’ before help actually becomes available, thus making help “significantly” more costly than it would be, had it been available at an earlier stage. There is a cost to employers, to take one small example, of £30bn a year, as a result of long-term sufferers having to work through their illness (or feeling that they have to work through their illness) without receiving adequate support.

The bombshell cost to the UK economy is not to employers, however, nor even to the NHS and other public services. Over half the cost to the UK economy comes from “impact on quality of life” for sufferers, their carers, and their families, which Bob Grove, the Centre for Mental Health’s CEO, says adds up to a national loss of around £53.6bn.*

And these figures don’t even include the costs involved in policing, or in the criminal justice system. Every year, an additional £1.6bn is spent arresting, charging, convicting and locking up with people with a mental illness.** The Chief Inspector of Prisons in West Mercia, after visiting prisons around the UK, estimated that around 41% of prisoners held in health care centres should actually have been in “secure NHS accommodation.”** But the most important figures are perhaps these: 96% of prisoners with a mental illness were released without any supported housing, and over three quarters were given no appointments with an outside carer. And less than 1% of people issued with a ‘community order’ were actually given any treatment for mental illness included in their sentence.** The Joint Committee on Human Rights report says that this worsens mental health considerably. All this makes the chances of re-offending much more likely.

Rethink have recently called for police officers to undergo mental health training. Perhaps the rest of the criminal justice system, and other pivotal services, like Job Centre Plus, should do this too. Surely it might be at least worth exploring whether there’s a link between the lack of police awareness (through no fault of the police) about mental illness, the mishandling of mental illness in the criminal justice system, the lack of understanding about mental illness within employment and the jobs market, and fact that so many people reach their (expensive) crisis point before they seek help, before they are offered help, or worse, before they even feel that help is something they are actually entitled to?

You can help Rethink campaign against cuts to mental health services here

*Centre for Mental Health, October 2010
**West Mercia Criminal Justice Board (figures relate to the UK as a whole)

Saving the ECHR: a Lib Dem legacy?

David Cameron’s call to ‘Scrap the ECHR and replace it with a British Bill of Rights’ is perhaps the most screaming example of why so many British people were uncomfortable having a man run the country whose only serious professional background is in public relations. It is a hallow policy, a piece of limp symbolic pandering, but worse, it is devastatingly irresponsible. Not just because it could involve the removal of rights that took us several centuries to get established in law, but also because, as Michael Heseltine says, it somewhat undermines our position when we try to foster human rights agreements around the world, or speak of the international rule of law, if we as a nation have chosen to opt out of the only credible human rights agreement with the power to hold our own government to account.

The Conservatives say they want less emphasis on the rights of criminals and more emphasis on the rights of victims. Tory MP Phillip Hollobone said his constituents are “fed up to the back teeth with human rights legislation and the way it is being used to promote the rights of bad people, over the rights of good people.” But there is no such thing as the ‘rights of bad people’ and the ‘rights of good people,’ just as there is no such thing as ‘a criminal’s rights.’ The same rights apply to us all. Every right afforded to a criminal (or, and this is usually the crux of the issue, someone accused of being a criminal) is afforded to me, you, the postman and the Queen as well. There is no such thing as promoting one person’s human rights over another person’s human rights. To protect Nick Griffin and Abu Hamza’s human rights is to protect my own human rights: you can’t remove a criminal’s right not to be tortured without removing your own right not to be tortured. You can’t remove the right to burn a Quran without removing the right to burn the Pope in effigy when he visits. You can’t remove Binyam Mohammed’s right to a free and fair trial without removing your son, daughter, or mother’s right to a free and fair trial. That is the point of human rights. They belong to us all.

Prisoner voting, the latest big issue to drag up this argument about political sovereignty, whatever you may think about it (and I personally happen to have no problem with prisoners voting) is not a reason to abandon the ECHR. The ECHR is the closest thing we Europeans have to an equivalent of the American Constitution. Would American conservatives abandon their Constitution because it guarantees, say, Muslims the right to build a Mosque at Ground Zero, or black people as well as white people the right to bear arms, or socialists the right to free association? No: they argue about the interpretation of the document, but don’t call for the complete abolition of it. They understand that it protects everybody.

But – perhaps because we are still childishly determined to believe we’re a powerful force in the world without being part of Europe – a call for abolition is what seems to happen in this country. Assuming David Cameron is actually being serious when he says the thought of prisoners voting “makes him feel sick” (and if he is, I wonder how he feels about disabled people in care homes having their mobility allowance cut? It’s a wonder such a delicate flower can get through the day in such a job without vomiting copiously whenever IDS suggests a new cut to hit the most vulnerable in society, isn’t it?), it’s still hardly grounds for rejecting the entire ECHR or the Human Rights Act.

It is perfectly arguable, within the framework of the legal Articles set out in the document, that the ECHR doesn’t, in itself, compel us to give prisoners the vote, and that to argue otherwise is simply a misinterpretation of the Articles. For one thing, not every other European country allows prisoners to vote. Some simply don’t allow ‘serious’ offenders to vote (Italy, Greece, and Poland, for example), while some cunningly hopscotch around the rule by technically making it legal for prisoners to vote, but not actually making any provision for them to, say, get to a polling station or use a postal vote (Cyprus and Slovakia for example). To say nothing of the fact that the ECHR’s President, Jean-Paul Costa, actually dissented on the court’s verdict, although as the President he officially backs the final decision, in his professional capacity.

Either way, waving a Union Jack defiantly in the faces of anyone calling for prisoners to vote is more of a Jim Hacker ‘Euro Sausage’ moment than a serious policy initiative. By taking a stand on something that needn’t actually happen in the first place, David Cameron gets to look like he’s sticking two fingers up to Europe, whilst actually bending over for his own backbenchers, the tabloid press, and – funnily enough – the Lib Dems too, all at once.

Because, even though ideologically the Lib Dems are, of course, against introducing a British Bill of Rights in place of the ECHR, the opportunity to defend the ECHR from Tory destruction is a gift from God for the increasingly maligned Nick Clegg. By ensuring Helena Kennedy, Philippe Sands, and Lord Lester on the Bill of Rights Commission, it is very unlikely that any Bill of Rights drawn up will have any power to challenge the ECHR whatsoever. And the Tories are only too happy to let Clegg have the ‘credit’ for obstructing the concept of a British Bill of Rights – something they would realistically have found pretty impractical to implement had they actually been expected to do so.

David Cameron must be aware of the perceived unpopularity of the ECHR amongst what we patronisingly call ‘ordinary’ British people. Nick Clegg, meanwhile, badly needs to hang on to the support of the more left-wing Lib Dem voters. It’s a very nifty good-cop-bad-cop arrangement, from which they will both undoubtedly benefit rather nicely within their own electoral demographic.

But which position on human rights, and sovereignty, will ultimately prove itself to be most in touch with the wider British public? Perhaps we, the British public, should be asking ourselves this: what kind of neo-liberal democracy do we actually want to be? Polls, papers, and the man in the street all seem to say we want to be Cameron’s Britain. The instant throwaway junk-rage of the (often, ironically, foreign-owned… naming no names) tabloid press might celebrate Cameron’s temptation to follow the loudest crowd. But in the long-term, just as the creation of the Welfare State immortalised Beveridge, so saving the ECHR could, on a lesser scale, be just enough to keep Nick Clegg in history’s good books. And more than that: a liberal optimist might even dare to hope that even now, if we look around Britain and actually consider each other as human beings, not statistics; if we look for ourselves what Conservative Britain is already beginning to look like, perhaps, just perhaps, we’ll find we’re not all as ready to toss away the only safeguards we have against our own government as David Cameron believes we are.

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