Saturday, 30 August 2008

Your choice: more equality or less inequality?

One could ask that question about all areas of equality policy, I want to see how it relates to claims that we should aim for more financial equality or, as it usually put, for less financial inequality. As I mentioned in one of my previous witterings, "wealth" can refer to income or it can refer to capital assets, for present purposes I will look at income.

The way the policy is argued for is very interesting to me. If you want to narrow the gap between the richest and the poorest you have a choice between arguing for greater equality of income or for less inequality of income. Those on the left seem to argue against inequality far more then they do for equality. Perhaps this explains why their chosen method of securing their aim is to tax the wealthy. It is implicit in that method that the disposable income of the wealthy will be reduced, but it does not follow for one nanosecond that the poor will necessarily receive a penny. Yet, surely, the moral argument must centre around how to improve the lot of those at the bottom of the pile? Simply removing some cream from the top achieves nothing apart from satisfying a rather pathetic form of blood lust. Once they have skimmed the desired amount of cream they say that they have reduced inequality. Indeed they have, as a purely statistical exercise. And what good has it done? Of itself, I can see none.

Equality policy can only be justified if inequality causes a problem. Therefore the problem should be identified and the cure must be just that, a cure for the problem. What is the problem in one person having an income of £1million and another's being just £3,000? The problem is that £3,000 is not enough to pay for him to live. So the problem is not that the one person receives £1million a year it is that the other only receives £3,000. Any policy aimed at curing this problem must find a way to increase the poor man's income.

If making the rich man poorer would achieve this, all well and good, but I see no evidence that that happens to any appreciable extent or that it would happen to a more meaningful extent if the wealthy man were taxed substantially more than he is at the moment. Instead money is taken from the wealthy, laundered through the great black hole known as HM Revenue & Customs - during which process a lot disappears in administrative costs - and is then deposited in the government's spending fund. The spending fund includes some measures for improving the income of the least well-off through payment of benefits, but none of them does anything other than take a few people who would be below the poverty line and put them above the poverty line, it does not make them appreciably wealthier and nor could it ever do so.

A modest increase in marginal tax rates for the wealthy might increase government income a little, although it will also increase incentives to avoid (legally) and evade (illegally) the additional tax. Even if it does lead to an increase in income, because there are so few at the top and so many at the bottom it cannot do anything substantive to solve the perceived problem.

One then has to build into the equation that those who bleat about inequality are generally in favour of government spending money. They believe, erroneously in my view, that government has magic powers and can improve life for all if only it spends enough money. This causes the spending fund to be under permanent pressure to spend more on this, more on that and more on everything. Putting more cash in the pockets of the low earners is just one item on the list. As revenues increase political pressures to give some to favoured groups come into play. We cannot assume that additional taxes on the wealthy would ever be reserved wholly to pay more to the poorest, but even if that were the case how much would they get?

Paying an extra £1 a week to all those claiming "out of work" benefits and tax credits would cost in excess of £350million a year. In other words, for every £350million in additional revenue from increasing tax on the rich the most that could be achieved for those at the bottom of the pile is an extra £1 a week. Let's say the rich are absolutely hammered for additional tax and an extra £1.5billion is raised from them, assuming no extra administrative costs the poorest people would receive enough to buy a packet of cheap cigarettes.

I do not suggest for one moment that an additional £4 or £5 a week would not be most welcome for those struggling to make ends meet, of course it would because every penny helps. But it only happens once, the same tax rates next year will not allow for a further £4 to be paid but they might allow the increase of £4 to remain in place. All that can be achieved by even the most grandiose attack on inequality of income through tax is a tiny increase in the incomes of those at the bottom. It is such a small amount that it does not get anywhere near curing the problem.

Perhaps this is one reason why the left is so keen to complain about inequality. They know that if they argued for more equality rather than against inequality they would have to explain how it can be achieved through tax and the plain fact is that it cannot. Their current approach requires only that they point out the gap between rich and poor, for them that is enough in itself to justify taxing the rich. It is gesture politics of the pettiest and most ineffective kind, they claim to give the poor hope when the measure they promote cannot possibly deliver anything but a tiny sum. To my mind it is a cruel approach to a difficult and important problem.

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Blubber and the noseprods

I suspect I am not really more than averagely bigoted, but I am most definitely fat. Today I heard the Conservative opposition outlining plans to attack the chubby and I just sat here. No rage, no surprise, just a resigned shrug that in the modern world of noseproddery any deviation from a randomly selected norm is fair game for a cheap headline. We are used to it by now. Smoking, drinking, eating red meat, driving a car and being a portly fellow are all on the naughty list and must be quelled by massive taxes and further additional direct penalties when the taxes don't work.

Do not mistake my position. I am not saying that being fat is a good thing. Frankly, I find it a touch depressing when a six foot six hugely muscled boxer weighs in for a super-heavyweight contest and tips the scales at less than than my five foot nine corpulence. It is obvious to any but the most moronic that being fat puts strain on the heart, increases the risk of contracting a number of serious medical conditions, causes joints to wear out, reduces the ability to engage in sports and, in the eyes of many, is aesthetically displeasing. I do not need a politician to tell me that, I know it already because I am not mentally retarded. It is also obvious to any but the most moronic that the vast majority of fat people are fat because they consume more potential energy than they expend actual energy. I could shed my diet of at least 1,000 calories a day if I stopped drinking booze. There is no need for anyone to tell me, I know already because I have a brain.

So, why don't I lose weight? I could do it and have done it before on occasions, the last time was about five years ago when I stopped drinking for a few weeks and lost over two stones in weight. The reason I do not reduce my calorific intake permanently is as simple as simple can be, it is because I enjoy eating and I enjoy drinking. They give me pleasure so I do them. I weigh that pleasure against the health risks and against the shame and discomfort of being a sweating ball of blubber. To date the pleasure wins, hands down. And the reason it wins is because only I can judge how I value that pleasure and how I value the downside. Any number of do-gooders and experts can tell me that I will feel much better if I cut my drinking or eating in half, but in saying that they make a fundamental mistake. They assume my definition of pleasure to be the same as theirs. "Ah, Mr FatBigot, you will feel much happier taking a gentle mile jog every evening so put down that pork pie and pint of cider and shed those naughty pounds!" Who says I will feel happier? Only I can judge whether that would be the case and, having once been younger and fitter, I have experience of gentle mile jogs and can say without fear of falling into error that I am happier at this stage in my life with the pork pie and pint.

You see, it is my life. Only I live it. Only I have lived any part of it or will live any part of it in the future. Only my life began when I was born and only my life will end when I die. Only I have ever enjoyed the collection of experiences that make up my personal history, no one in the future will have the same life and no one has had it before. It is unique. It is mine. It is me.

For a politician of any party to tell me that I must change my behaviour because it will be better for me is for him to prove himself unfit for election to anything. By all means legislate against behaviour that does harm to others. By all means make provision for those who wish to change their behaviour and need a helping hand. But do not ever presume that you have the right to remove my choice of how to live when my choice can harm only me. Mr Cameron and his merry men seem to feel that New Labour interference is now the norm and that they must engage in the same in order to avoid being labelled uncaring. I can tell them they will gain more friends by announcing that they will leave people alone to live their lives as they see fit.

Tackling poverty, part three

Poverty is only a potential problem for those in employment, for those without work it is often a stark reality. I suggested yesterday that subsistence benefits should be paid to those who are unemployed but looking for work. My reasoning is that those who are prepared to take any job rather than exist on benefits should not be dissuaded by benefits being too generous. It is a tough stance but one which I believe to be justified because I have great faith in the inherent decency of people including that strand of decency which makes them want to work rather than, let's put it bluntly, scrounge.

One of the strongest justifications for having a national minimum wage is that it guarantees a living wage for those in full time work. I will not pretend that life on the minimum wage is a bed of roses for a couple with children who decide the best interests of their children requires one of them to stay at home, but a full working week will bring in a living wage provided the income tax threshold is increased to a sensible level. But what of those who do not want to work? To what extent is it appropriate to protect them financially from the otherwise inevitable consequences of their idleness? Merely asking the question would label me a fascist in the eyes of the left, but that is no more than a label and I am not interested in being unfair to anyone, my concern is that the system should do everything it can to bring the best out of people and encourage everyone to support themselves if they possibly can. Not only will that reduce the burden of tax on those who work willingly, it will also improve the lot of those who currently live on benefits a little above subsistence level but would do a lot better if they found a job.

I believe two changes to the current system to be necessary. First, permanent dependency on the State by reason of physical or mental incapacity to work should be limited to those who really are incapable of work. Over the last eleven years the government has made it easier to claim incapacity benefit, so much so that something in the region of 2,500,000 people currently claim a benefit which should be available only to those genuinely unable to work. Idleness and fecklessness are not incapacities, they are idleness and fecklessness. Fictitious bad backs are not incapacities, they are bogus excuses. No one knows how many of the 2,500,000 are really unable to work, but we all know that it is good for unemployment statistics if a vast number who are out of work are classified as unwell rather than unemployed. Yet governmental attempts to hide the true level of unemployment do not fool anyone, it is obvious (according to my personal version of common sense) that in a population of some 30 million people of working age it cannot be the case that 8% are incapable of holding down a job. The most dangerous consequence of trying to mask unemployment by calling it incapacity is that the government has an incentive to continue the pretense. For so long as they feel there is political mileage in reducing the headline unemployment rate by attaching a different label to a large number of unemployed people, they have no reason to change the system. In turn that locks the people on incapacity benefit into that state, they receive more than if they were "ordinarily" unemployed and the financial gap between being on benefits and being in work is reduced.

Secondly, those who are able to work should only be allowed to receive benefits of any kind for a limited time. Will this push them into starvation? No, it will push them into work. For quite some time this country has been able to absorb migrant workers for one reason and one reason only, that those who live in this country have been unwilling to do the jobs the migrants have taken. Not unable, unwilling. How many office cleaners, parking attendants, roadsweepers, kitchen porters, hotel chambermaids and dustmen are white and British? In all cases the answer is very few in proportion to their number in the country. That is not because the foreigners who fill those positions have stolen jobs, it is because those sitting on benefits have not applied for the work. This is a systemic problem caused, I believe, by the easy availability of benefits. I do not believe most of those on benefits would think it such a good life if they tasted work and the self-pride it brings, but there is an underclass who have never worked and have no comprehension at all of self-worth.

Recently we saw a fine example of the hopelessness benefit dependency brings. The by-election in Glasgow East highlighted an area in which generation after generation of families never work. They do not need to because they receive housing for free and enough to live on. They are told by those on the political left that they are victims who can never improve their lot because the system does not allow it. I disagree, they are not victims of a wicked capitalist economy, they are victims of those who have told them for decades they have no hope of improvement. By my definition they are not in monetary poverty but they are certainly a lot poorer than they would be if they took the jobs people travel thousands of miles to fill and they are in poverty of expectation.

It will not be an easy task to change the culture on the sink estates of Glasgow East and the other inner city constituencies and there is no painless way of changing that culture. Yet it must be changed if those people are to have a chance of living a life in which they can walk down the road with their heads held high, knowing that they are providing for themselves and their families. It is a harsh method, but imposing a strict time limit on their State benefits is, I suspect, the only way to get them out of their rut and give them an opportunity to live independent lives and enjoy the satisfaction that brings.

I cannot accept that those on the sink estates want to live on the poverty line forever, nor can I accept that they are unwilling to work under any circumstances. What I can accept is that they have been labelled victims for so long that it will take time to persuade them they can cope on their own. The jobs are there, Glasgow East is a short bus ride from vibrant hotels, pubs, restaurants and clubs who need staff, lots of staff. Thousands of jobs currently filled by transient employees from overseas could be filled just as well by locals if only they felt there was a reason to do them. It is time to be cruel to be kind. That would be real social justice.

Monday, 25 August 2008

Tackling poverty, part two

My first suggestion for tackling poverty was to increase the income tax threshold to such a level that no one has to pay until they are not just above the poverty level but substantially above the poverty level. The minimum wage means that all those in full-time employment are necessarily above that level and those who work part-time only need to work about 21 hours a week to be avoid poverty. Today I want to look at the position of the unemployed. What can government do to ensure they are not in poverty? Again I use the definition of financial poverty I gave a few days ago - being unable to pay for housing, heating, water, food and clothes.

There are, of course, some people who are unemployed but not in any financial difficulty because they have savings, but for most this is not the case. Government's role, in my opinion, is two-fold. First a subsistence level of benefits should be paid to ensure they do not starve. Benefit activists moan constantly about the amount paid being too low to allow people to live but I have seen no evidence of anyone starving to death because they have not been paid enough to buy food. They might not be able to buy flat screen televisions, computers, Axminster carpets, foreign holidays and cars but it is not the job of government to take tax from people who struggle to buy such luxuries from their wages in order to allow those not working to receive them.

Government's second role is to interfere in the world of business as little as possible. Whether business can employ everyone in the country is a moot point, what is plain fact is that increasing the administrative costs of the productive sector reduces the number of people that sector employs. Whether it be a requirement to undertake equality audits, an obligation to pay for lengthy maternity and paternity leave, the need to comply with petty health and safety regulations or any of the other hundreds of things business has to do to dance to government's political tune, it all costs money. Increases in the costs of any business must result in (i) reduced profits, (ii) other costs being reduced or (iii) increased prices. They cannot have any other effect because money does not grow on trees and businesses cannot magically create money to pay for overheads imposed by government. In all but the most exceptional circumstances, reduced profits result in a business being less attractive to investors thereby putting at risk expansion and, in many cases, making refinancing of existing debts more expensive. Similarly, increasing prices is something a business will seek to avoid because of the obvious risk to sales. That leaves cutting other costs as the first port of call and shedding non-essential staff is often the only sensible choice to make.

Those who suffer most when businesses have to cut staff to pay for bureaucratic overheads are those whose work can most easily be done by others or dispensed with altogether. That tends to be those of fewest skills, the very people who find it most difficult to find work and who, therefore, are most likely to have no cushion of savings to prevent them falling into poverty. It is no answer for government to say they will pay subsistence benefits, there is no benefit in benefits, those people want to work for a living and would be able to if it were not for government piling unnecessary costs onto business.

Regulation makes it more difficult for the unemployed to find work. My second suggestion for tackling poverty is, therefore, for government interference in business through regulation to be reduced to only that which is essential to protect against the greatest dangers. Most health and safety regulations are completely unnecessary because the risk they seek to eliminate is minimal and the cost of implementing them is vastly disproportionate. Equality and diversity targets serve no purpose at all - any employer who rejects the best candidates on the ground of race, sex, sexual proclivity or age ends up with an inferior workforce and should be left to stew in his own narrow-minded juice. In fact I am unable to think of any red tape which is of net benefit to business. It might result in some nice lists of statistics for government to manipulate as it chooses but it achieves nothing other than to increase costs and put at risk the jobs of the lowest paid.

It was not very long ago that vast numbers of wholly unskilled people were employed in small businesses even though they served little useful purpose, it happened because throughout the country there are small businesses based in villages and small towns and those businesses wanted to be seen to be part of the community. If there was a young person fresh out of school or an older person who had lost his job it was a common occurrence to find a broom and a brown overcoat being made available for them so they could be employed at a low wage to sweep the floors and empty the bins. All it took was a quiet word with a sensible owner who knew it was better to create a job and bear the modest additional cost rather than refuse, it kept the existing workforce happy because they wanted to see poor Johnny in work and it cemented relations with the village. Be in no doubt, that happens still, but not as much as it used to. Margins are trimmed by expensive red tape and the obligation to pay Johnny the statutory minimum wage makes him too expensive for many.

I have attempted to explain why I believe unnecessary regulation hits the unskilled in two ways, they are often the first to be laid-off to cut costs and many of those who would be hired voluntarily become too expensive. The real problem is that these effects do not stand alone, there are already plenty of unskilled people without jobs. Any step taken by government which increases their number makes it all the more difficult for a single one of them to find work and raise themselves above the poverty line by their own efforts.

Tackling poverty, part one

Old jokes often contain interesting messages. Take the joke about a couple who are lost in their car in the middle of nowhere and stop a passing local to ask directions to London, "London, you say? Well, if I wanted to drive to London I wouldn't start from here." The message behind this tale is that you should think carefully about what you do in case it makes your eventual goal more difficult to achieve. This is important when we ask how poverty can be tackled. With prices of food and fuel going up at an alarming rate we will hear a lot about poverty in the months ahead because it is those on limited income who are hit most by increased prices for essentials.

Yesterday I tried to explain why I believe "poverty" is a word best confined to describe the state of those with an income below subsistence level, I also explained (by use of very rough-and-ready figures) that I estimate something like £10,000 a year to be subsistence income for a childless couple and £6,000 a year for a single person, perhaps more in areas where housing is expensive and undoubtedly less in areas with cheap housing. Before asking what can be done about poverty we need to look at why some people have such low incomes. I am not interested in airy-fairy theories, I want to look at real life in the real world.

There will always be those without the skills to earn anything more than a low income and there will always be those who, through indolence or lifestyle choice or bad luck, find themselves with very little money. "Let them eat cake" is a fair approach to take towards those who will not help themselves but I do not believe most of the people in poverty in this country to be in that camp. I believe that the vast majority wish to work in order to support themselves and their families, they do not want to be dependent on the State. Some, of course, have no choice because they suffer from a physical or mental condition which precludes them from earning a living even though they are of normal working age. These people are in a special category which I will return to another time. Others cannot work because of their age, the position of those outside normal working age is also outside the scope of today's thoughts. Today I want to look at the lot of those who are in work but earning very little.

First it is sensible to make clear that for the vast majority in this position their only poverty is financial. A common error on the political left is the belief that those who earn low wages feel resentful towards those who earn more and are unhappy with their lot simply because they do not have much money. That is complete nonsense. Ask the average road sweeper whether he thinks an accountant should earn more than him and his answer will be "yes" because he knows that the accountant could sweep the road but he could not be an accountant. Ask him whether he feels unhappy that he is not an accountant and his answer will be "maybe it would be nice, but I do what I can, I work hard and I support my family ... here's a picture of my little girl at sports day, she won the egg-and-spoon race, she's a lovely girl". Of course he will also say he would like to earn more, but what is most important to him is that he is able to support his family through honest work. Many on the left think his income, social background and employment define him but he knows better, he knows that his values define him.

The road sweeper is employed providing a service and there is a limit to what can sensibly be afforded to pay for that service. So it is also with those in the private sector performing mundane manual tasks. The work requires little skill and adds little value, pay too much for people to do it and you price your goods out of the market. That is why automation in factories has advanced so much over the last thirty years and more. Those without skills who would formerly have been cutting shapes out of sheet metal on a foot-operated press have been replaced by computer guided machines and have had to seek employment elsewhere. Their lack of skills limits the type of work for which they can be hired and necessarily means that anything they do will be low-paid. In turn this means that their poverty is a direct consequence of an inescapable fact of life, that we can only ever be paid what our work is worth.

Government has a part to play in assisting those whose income is below the poverty line and in preventing those above the line from slipping below it when costs of living rise. Government can have both an active and a passive role. The active role involves paying money to those in poverty, the passive role involves not taking money from them. In relation to the unemployed who are seeking work the active role is potentially important but for those in work the passive role is far mightier. To illustrate what I mean I want to look at the threshold for income tax.

For the tax year 2008-2009 the income tax threshold is a touch over £6,000, less than £120 a week. Yesterday I explained how I estimate that figure to be subsistence income for a single person living alone and renting a small room. It is an income level at which saving for the future is impossible, even the need to replace a broken kettle would cause hardship, and yet additional earnings trigger a requirement to pay 20% of the extra money in tax. This is simply obscene. What makes it absurd as well as obscene is that we now have a statutory minimum wage which is meant to represent the fair minimum amount someone should be paid if they are working. It was said to be a recognition of the minimum earnings required to be able to live to modest but acceptable standard and is not, therefore, a definition of a subsistence income. The current minimum wage for someone aged 22 or over is £5.52 per hour, £220.80 for a 40-hour working week, £11,481.60 per year.

So the government tells us that £11,481.60 is the very least anyone should be paid for a full working year, yet on that sum almost £1,100 will be payable in income tax. This might not involve any chicanery because by saying £11,481.60 is the minimum to be paid the government knows it amounts to just over £10,000 after deductions. The absurdity, however, is in setting the tax threshold below the figure the government considers necessary to live a tolerable existence. Reverting to what I said yesterday, it is important to bear in mind what subsistence level income means - it means being able to afford housing, heating, water, food and clothes and having a tiny amount for discretionary spending. To impose tax at 20p in every pound above such a low level of earnings is nonsensical.

The first thing government should do to tackle poverty among the employed is to raise the tax threshold to a much more realistic level. The net income resulting from the statutory minimum wage would be a good start because it would put the threshold at a nice round figure of £10,000. We could make it £10,400 so that it is exactly £200 a week. That is hardly a fortune. Such a change would acknowledge that people in this country should not be dependent on the government to keep them out of poverty if they are able to do so by their own efforts. It would also acknowledge that it is beneficial for those in work to have use of as much of their own money as possible because they can, if they choose, save it, but the government cannot save it for them. You want to be fair to those in employment? You don't start from here, you don't start with a tax threshold so low. If it were not for years of allowing the threshold to lag the problem would not have arisen.

So, that is my first suggestion. It is not a new idea but it is fair. It will also reflect the values of those in low paid employment who take great pride in being able to pay their way. One problem with charging income tax at the margins of subsistence earnings is that it tilts the balance of power towards the government. "We will allow you a bare subsistence income but after that you must pay us one fifth because we have plans" is the current position. I want the narrative to go from the taxpayer to the government, not vice versa; I want to hear "I now earn enough to support myself in a modest lifestyle, I will now allow you to have one fifth but don't waste it." My further musings on poverty will be made against that background.

Sunday, 24 August 2008

Financial poverty, a definition

It makes me cringe to hear poverty defined by reference to a given percentage of average national income because there is no principle to it. The average and percentage used are just random choices and can be selected to suit political preconceptions. If we are to find a principle by which to define poverty we have to ask what poverty means in practice and extrapolate a principle from that. Logically there is a prior step, which is to decide whether we mean relative or absolute poverty and I have no doubt that we can only ever talk of relative poverty because it would be to abuse language to define someone with a weekly income of £50 in Britain as not being in poverty simply because such an income would provide very nicely for all their needs if they lived in a mud hut in deepest Africa.

So, what is involved in being in poverty? I suggest that it means being unable to pay for the essentials of life: housing, heating, water, food and clothes. Housing is the most complex of these needs because it is not enough to have four walls and a roof, you also need furniture, cooking and eating equipment and all the other bare essentials which make it possible to keep yourself alive. Generally speaking heating, water, food and clothes do not vary enormously in price throughout the country but housing costs do and being able to share some of the costs of living with others also affects the amount required for someone to be able to maintain a basic life.

One can find all sorts of measures for these costs and I want to take some general figures for the purposes of this essay. Rather than relying on massaged statistics produced by government or academics I thought I would find out for myself by asking people I know who do not have a lot of money; I asked two of the chaps who deliver pizzas for a local shop, one of them lives by himself and the other lives with his girlfriend, they are both in their early twenties and have no family or property in the UK.

Taking the single man first, he pays £55 a week to rent a small room in a local house, water and electricity are included but heating is by a metered gas fire costing him about £10 a week for about six months of the year. He has some meals provided free of charge by the pizza company and spends about £25 a week on food, Leaving aside special items, his clothing comes from low-priced chain stores and costs him about £200 a year. His annual expenditure just to keep himself housed and alive is around £4,600.

The man who lives with his girlfriend also rents a room and for this he pays £110 a week including heating, lighting and water. He and his girlfriend spend about £40 a week on food, his clothing costs are the same as the single man and his girlfriend's clothing costs about £450 a year. Their combined expenditure to stay alive is just under £8,500.

Renting basic accommodation like this in many other parts of the country would cost a lot less, they both live close to their work in Islington, North London, which is an expensive area. There is nothing scientific about these figures, they are just a snapshot, but they suggest that something like £6,000 for a single person and £10,000 for a couple is a subsistence level of income in modern Britain. This will allow a meagre social life to be financed together with a television and telephone. To my mind, these are appropriate figures to take as the poverty line. By coincidence income tax bites on earnings just above £6,000 for the current tax year. It goes without saying that children will increase the subsistence costs of a couple and that we have to add on something to get a figure that matches their circumstances.

Those earning a little more than these figures are not, on the hypothesis I am advancing, in poverty although they are certainly on low incomes. I believe "poverty" should be reserved for those whose income is not sufficient to allow them to pay for housing, heating, water, food and clothing. In other words it should be measured by subsistence costs not by the random application of a mathematical formula.

Once we see poverty in these terms we can distinguish clearly between those in poverty and those who are merely poor. As costs of subsistence rise so the poverty line figure rises and some who were previously poor and taken into poverty. Recent steep rises in electricity and gas prices will almost certainly require landlords to charge a higher rent to lodgers and the enormous rise in food prices over the last year have also increased the poverty threshold. The rough figures I have given might be £500 or £1,000 short of the mark in a few months time.

The importance of defining poverty by subsistence costs is that it gives a fixed point of reference which does not do damage to language (after all, defining poverty as not being able to afford a subscription to Sky and a flat screen television would be absurd). "Poverty" is a strong and highly emotive word, it describes an extreme situation and to use it for anything else is to undermine the seriousness of that situation. Someone who cannot afford to live the most basic existence is in a terrible position and deserves to have their plight recognised for what it is. By setting the bar too low you risk undermining the seriousness of the situation faced by those below subsistence income.

The measure used in this country by government and by so-called anti-poverty campaigners is 60% of median national income. I believe median income to be around £23,000 at the moment, so 60% is just under £14,000. For a couple with two children living in central London that is probably not far off subsistence but for those in areas of the country where housing rents can be £300 or £400 a month lower than for a similar modest property in London it is absurd to say they are in poverty because they have several thousand pounds more spending power than the Londoners. And why take 60%, why not 50%? After all £50% has been the conventional figure in many countries for decades. The truth is that £14,000 is no more an accurate poverty line than £13,000 or £15,000 or even £10,000. These are just random figures which might or might not represent the difference between the poor and those in poverty in each village, town and city.

I believe it to be important to define poverty accurately because different policy considerations come into play depending on whether the subjects of them are in poverty or merely poor. To raise people from below to above the subsistence line is far more important than to lift those already above the line a little bit further above the line. Over the next few days (or weeks if I get distracted or run out of ideas) I want to talk about some of the policy issues which affect the poor and those in poverty and I will do so against the definition I have sought to explain today.

Saturday, 23 August 2008

What is poverty?

With food and fuel prices rising by huge amounts we will hear much over the coming months about poverty and it will all concentrate on money. It is quite right that money should feature high on the poverty agenda because most definitions of poverty look at nothing else. My intention is to address the monetary side of poverty in a series of ramblings over the next few weeks, but today I want to challenge the concept that a lack of money is an adequate definition of poverty.

Lack of money is a common theme in politicians' rantings whenever problems arise in the inner cities. Many examples can be given: teenagers terrorise a council housing estate, the child of a teenage mother starves to death, children are found to be eating burgers and chips as their main meal seven days a week and so it goes on. Often, the first thing that is said is to blame lack of money. If that really is to blame, an increase in income for the people concerned would prevent the problems being repeated. I doubt very much that that is the case. I can explain why by looking at the particular examples I have given.

When a gang of teenagers terrorises an estate you can be sure of one thing. There are far more teenagers living on the estate who do not join the rampage. When a child dies in horrible circumstances you can be sure that many more children of teenage mothers are being cared for very well. For every child eating burgers and chips every day you can be sure there will be many eating sensible balanced meals. The well-behaved teenagers will not have parents markedly wealthier than the parents of the hooligans, the teenage mothers of living children will not be markedly wealthier than the mother of the dead child, the parents of the children on balanced diets will not be markedly wealthier than the parents of those fed burgers and chips. It is not money that differentiates between those who behave well and those who behave badly, it is values.

That is not to say that values are absolute things, they can be affected by all sorts of external influences. Peer pressure can persuade a teenager to join in with the terrorising gang even though he would never dream of threatening anyone if acting alone. A bad example can temporarily override a strongly held opinion that something is wrong. Money can also play a part, as in the case of many poor people who steal goods from shops when they would not do so if they could afford to buy them. Of course that raises the question why they chose to steal when others would just go without and the answer is simple, the values of those who steal are less powerful than the values of those who go without. It must not be overlooked, however, that financial poverty is only a cause of theft when the theft is necessary to be able to provide the basics of life (housing, heating, food, clothes) which, in my view, is never the case in this country.

I do not suggest for one moment that life is easy for those on low incomes. They have little if any opportunity for discretionary spending, the vast majority of their money has to go on housing, heating, food and clothes. I can understand why someone in that position who has become accustomed over many years to having two packets of cigarettes a week will buy smuggled smokes at £3.50 rather than paying £5.80 for exactly the same product in the shops, the difference of £2.30 a packet is significant to them. What I cannot understand, and do not accept, is that a lack of money causes people to behave in a way that is harmful to others. Such behaviour is a consequence of the people concerned not having good values.

There is another non-monetary aspect to poverty. So far I have discussed only poverty of values. Values are taught by our parents, our schools and others who have had a significant effect on our lives. Those influences generally apply in our early years and they provide us with the individual moral standards we carry into adulthood. When in adulthood, most people have children and they hope their children will learn the values they learned. They also hope their children will receive a good education to give the opportunities they had to build a career or start a business or have a steady job. Sadly we seem to have reached a position in this country in which education is viewed by government as a means for social engineering and a statistical resource rather than a means for developing minds and teaching skills. Unless schools allow each pupil to develop to the best of his or her ability they fail in their central purpose.

These days the curriculum is crammed with touchy-feely eco-multicultural nonsense. Children are taught that Nelson Mandela is more important than Isaac Newton, Al Gore more important than Winston Churchill, rights more important than duties and equality more important than quality. There are so many tests and league tables that it is more important to get the marginal fail up to a marginal pass than it is to teach the bottom few to read or the top few to excel. One of the greatest successes of schools in the fifties and sixties was to get those from modest backgrounds into the best universities and the most challenging professions. Means tested grants were given to the best students so that their nascent talents could flourish. Naturally some withered, but that will always be the case, those who flourished were able to pursue careers their parents could only have dreamt of, but not now. There is genuine poverty of opportunity because state schools have to follow political diktats.

Lack of money is the third type of poverty, third in my list and third in importance. If you have no values it does not matter how much money you have you will harm others throughout your life. Poverty of opportunity condemns future generations to under-achievement and, necessarily, condemns the country to fail to benefit from their talents. Monetary poverty is not a barrier to high values and should not be a barrier to good education. I will return to various aspects and effects of monetary poverty in future musings, today I have endeavoured to explain why I believe that poverty of values and poverty of opportunity are more detrimental than monetary poverty.

Thursday, 21 August 2008

My turn at Paedophilia

Today has been paedophilia day in the blogosphere, so I might as well join in, not in kiddy-fiddling, you understand, in commenting on it. The main area of debate has been about the fairness and effectiveness of the sex offenders register (yes, I know there should be an apostrophe after offenders, but there isn't) and the consequent need for those on the register to keep the police appraised of their movements. I am no expert on this area of the law and have no intention of looking it up, so I will start by explaining my understanding. I believe the register operates as an additional sentence when someone is convicted of a sexual offence, additional to imprisonment or community service or whatever other sentence is imposed and that not every sexual offender is placed on the register for life. I believe, also, that the register is not invoked automatically for all sexual offences, for the more serious it is compulsory but for some it is an option open to the sentencer. The restrictions imposed on a registered sexual offender are intended primarily to be of assistance to the police so that they know where convicted sexual offenders live, although other restrictions can also be imposed such a requirement not to go within so-many yards of schools or playgrounds. The penalty for not complying with the terms of any order made are very much the same as the consequences of not carrying-out community service properly or not paying a fine, the offender can be brought back before the court and imprisoned for the breach.

The register is a somewhat unusual sentencing tool, but those who have commented that it is unique are mistaken. Everyone convicted of murder received a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment but very few serve the remainder of their days behind bars, the average time spent in prison is around ten years but on release (whether after forty days or forty years) the convicted murderer is not given absolute freedom but is only on licence, he must report his address to the police and can be taken back to prison at any time to continue serving the life term on commission of any other offence. Being placed on the sexual offenders' register is akin to being released on licence. And it should not be overlooked that a conviction can adversely affect someone's ability to obtain employment even though they have served their sentence, that is an on-going penalty.

That the register is not a unique post-release penalty is not, of itself, justification for its existence or for how it operates. The real problem with it is that it is too blunt a tool to address the problems associated with convicted sex offenders being at liberty. Paedophiles come in all shapes and sizes and in all levels of potential danger to potential victims. One can categorise them in different ways, I suggest the following four-part classification illustrates the position quite well.

Some make a mistake once, acting entirely out of character, and present no risk of repetition because their self-disgust strengthens the code of behaviour from which they slipped only once. Placing their names on a register which can blight their prospects for years ahead is no deterrent, because there is nothing from which they need to be deterred, and protects no one, because there is nothing from which they need protection.

Others have a general propensity towards a type of behaviour, know it is not acceptable and are usually able to resist temptation. For them there is a risk of repetition but only if they are placed in the particular position at which temptation gains the upper hand over reticence. A register saying, for example, "no work with teenage boys for this former scoutmaster" might be a valuable thing. It helps to prevent the former scoutmaster from being placed in a position where his lusts override his judgment and it protects teenage boys from a risk.

The next category is those who believe the behaviour in question is entirely acceptable and cannot understand why anyone should ever think otherwise. They are not mad, the view they have formed is rational even though it is repugnant to the vast majority. Many paedophiles fall into this category, they persuade themselves that children benefit from sexual experience. These are the people for whom the register is really designed because they are a constant threat to children.

Finally you get those who do not have the capacity to make a value judgment at all and act purely on an instinct of self-gratification in the same way that they would reach for a drink if thirsty. Thirsty people might prefer water, fruit juice, tea or beer; those with a desire for sexual gratification untrammelled by any kind of self-control might prefer women, men, boys or girls; whatever the drink of choice it satisfies the need and all they are concerned with is satisfying a need.

The difference between the first and last of these categories is not one of degree it is one of substance. The once-in-a-lifetime groper on a bus has nothing in common with the psychopathic rapist, yet the register condemns both under the single heading of "sex offender". There is little sense in the groper being treated in this way and the appropriate course to take with the psychopath is detention under the Mental Health Act for so long as he is a threat. It is hard to see that the register serves any useful purpose in either of these cases. The second and third categories are much more difficult because in each there is a risk of repeat offending but the risk is different.

We are dealing here with practical politics and practical law, it is all about value judgments. There are few, if any, absolute rights and wrongs and practical criminal law cannot be absolutely flexible, it is necessary to draw lines at various points in the hope that the lines are drawn in a way that is generally fair and balanced. However, as with every blunt instrument employed in an emotive field, it is the most serious cases which are highlighted and which, by a process of reverse logic, define all other cases and that necessarily means that some people will be treated unfairly.

Our starting point must always be an examination of the values which the law seeks to uphold in the only way it can uphold values - by criminalising conduct that contravenes those values. Current law defines the age of consent for sexual activity to be sixteen. Other countries choose different ages, some greater some lesser, but that is neither here nor there because we cannot legislate for them. We then have to decide on definitions for the various types of conduct which contravene the prohibition on sex with those under the age of 16 and we have a range of different offences which carry different maximum sentences. We then have to decide whether, as with convictions for murder, there should be a continuing sentence once an offender has been released from prison. The value judgment at that stage is to balance three factors: (i) the risk of the convicted person re-offending, (ii) the damage they would cause if they did offend again and (iii) the right of the offender to his freedom once released from prison. This is not a simple exercise and it does not allow for a simple one-size-fits-all solution.

As our society is today, we quantify the damage done by the commission of sexual acts with children to be very high. This has nothing to do with whether we have children, want to have children or even like children, it is a consequence of the prevailing view that children should be allowed to grow up free of traumatic experiences. It follows from this, that those who present a continuing risk to children inevitably present a risk of doing something to which we have ascribed a high negative value. Thus, factor (ii) is always high.

So we then have to look at factor (i) and factor (iii). Because factor (i) includes those who have no inhibitions about having sexual encounters with children and it is not always possibly to decide whether a convicted paedophile is in that category or in a lesser category, we have to rate the general value of factor (i) against the general value of factor (iii). Factor (iii) is important but because we value factor (ii) particularly high, there is a sound argument for factor (i) generally outweighing factor (iii).

The only remaining issue is whether the restrictions imposed on a convicted paedophile after release are proportionate to the risk he presents. For so long as we have the view that protecting children from harm is a very important aim, requiring those who have shown a predeliction for sexual conduct with children to let the police know where they are living seems a small price to pay.

Cricket, the key to good government

Many have already written about our present government’s unstoppable urge to pass new criminal laws, roughly a new crime a day has hit the statute books since they took office in May 1997. Many have also written about the way in which both central and local government now pry into aspects of our lives which were previously private and seem keen to use every opportunity to extract fines and fixed penalties for breaches of petty regulations which no sensible person would consider worthy of any sanction. I am not going to rehash those matters but I do want to consider a highly important consequence of them, the way they have changed the relationship between the governed and the governors.

I consider the correct relationship to be one in which both central and local government are servants of the people not their masters. There is, I believe, a need for government to make and enforce laws just as there is a need for a body to make and enforce the laws of cricket. Similarly there is a need for government to organise beneficial facilities which would never otherwise be available as there is for a committee to run a cricket club. And there is a limit to what government should consider within its purview just as there is for the committee of a cricket club. So let me continue the analogy by examining why we have cricket club committees and what they can and cannot do.

A cricket club cannot operate efficiently throughout a season without a considerable amount of planning and organisation. Fixtures need to be arranged, the pitch needs to be prepared weekly, teams need to be selected, a tea rota is a must, the pavilion needs cleaning, coaching sessions for the junior players must be held, kit must be purchased and, most importantly of all, the bar must be stocked. These ordinary activities of a cricket club will not run smoothly or efficiently if left to chance, they must be organised and some take a great deal of work. Those of us who have no skill for organisation or insufficient motivation or time to do so, elect a committee and then things get done. The sole purpose of the committee is to do the things which cannot be done efficiently without a degree of central planning.

One aspect of the committee’s task is to suggest ways in which both membership of the club and playing cricket for the club can be made more enjoyable for the members. They might decide on quiz nights, barbecues and an annual dinner and they might decide to have club rules about dress and behaviour on the field of play or in the pavilion. In order for any rules of conduct to be an enhancement of the members’ enjoyment they must be just that, an enhancement. A dress code requiring members to wear a club blazer in the pavilion might enhance enjoyment if blazers can be bought for £25 a time but not if they cost £250 and cause people to resign their membership. It is all a matter of balance and the committee knows that because the members of the committee know they are elected to serve all members of the club and not for any other reason.

What, I wonder, would happen if a cricket club committee tried to tell the members how to play? “Jones, when batting you must always play a sweep shot to the third ball of the over and you may not hit any boundaries. Smith, you must never bowl an off-cutter, every other ball must be a full-pace in-swinging Yorker.” By the time Jones has started the response with the letters F and U, Smith will have completed it with F and F. Once on the field of play the committee’s only task is to sit back and enjoy the game. The club might or might not win the fixture but the players on the pitch will always do best by being left to their own devices, they will also enjoy the game more that way, win lose or draw.

There is no difference in principle between how government should operate and how a cricket club committee should operate. Government exists to arrange the things that need to be arranged and to provide the facilities which are necessary for the people to be able to live their lives to best advantage. In the same way that cricket club members must pay for club facilities through their annual subscriptions and match fees so the people must pay for government organised facilities through tax. And in the same way that interference by the club committee with the actual playing of the game would be counterproductive, so is undue interference by government in the way we live our lives. What makes a cricket player tick is having a good ground to play on, a team to play with and the opportunity to use his own skills as well as he can.

People tick in their normal lives in exactly the same way. When I say “people” I do not mean the people in government. I do not mean friends of the people in government. I do not mean financial sponsors of the political party of the people in government. I do not mean Eurocrats. I do not mean the criminal classes. I do not mean the professionally indolent. By excluding all those groups we find what I do mean, namely, the hard-working and law-abiding majority in the United Kingdom.

What makes them tick is really very simple, they want to go about their daily business without fear and without undue interference in how they live their lives. They have a strong belief in treating others as they would like to be treated themselves, it is what makes them hard-working and law-abiding, and they expect government to treat them in the same way. Today in Britain the government is the cause of much fear and unwarranted interference through its desire to criminalise all sorts of harmless activities and regulate the minutiae of our lives. It is their most serious mistake and has created a society in which we have to look over our shoulder at all times for fear of an official slapping a fixed penalty notice on us. What I find mysterious is why they think it was the right thing to do with their time in power.

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Prince Charles and GM crops, oh dear

Genetically modified crops, that's the subject of today's waffle because Prince Charles has described them as giving rise to the greatest threat to the world since whatever he last got into a twisted-knicker situation about. Oh yes, I remember now, it was man-made global warming. I must not give the impression that I think Prince Charles is a nutter because I do not, I believe him to be a great asset to this country, I also believe him to be wrong on this issue so I had better explain.

Plants are jolly interesting things. I have taken pleasure over many years from sowing seeds in the greenhouse in early Spring and seeing them turn into little shoots, then pricking them out and seeing further development until they are big and strong enough to be planted out in the garden where they produce flowers or vegetables. Of course not every seed germinates and not every seedling is strong and healthy, the seeds that don't sprout just rot in the compost and the weak seedlings are discarded, my garden only holds the finest examples of each year's greenhouse activity.

In an indirect way I am interfering with the genes of the plants by getting rid of the weaklings because I allow the very best plants to develop seeds and collect those seeds for the next year's Spring sowing. When the following Spring arrives and I waddle to the greenhouse I use the children of the strongest plants, some of the genetic weakness in last year's seeds was eliminated when seeds failed to germinate or seedlings were puny and discarded. Over a number of years the plants I sow become marginally stronger because of this. It is the way commercial seed merchants and plant growers have worked for generations. No doubt it takes a very long time to make any significant difference to the average strength of the gene pool in any given species but removing the runts of the litter does strengthen the next generation which is one reason why we can grow more reliable flowering plants and vegetables today than fifty years ago.

On another aspect of the same subject, as I sit here in my study I can look out over the garden behind FatBigot Towers and see a massive London Plane tree, one of the most beautiful examples you could ever hope to find. The London Plane is genetically modified, it is a cross between the American Sycamore and the Oriental Plane. Like many cross-bred plants it takes some of its qualities from each parent and the reason it has been planted in huge numbers in London and many other cities around the world (I noticed loads of them on a trip to the wonderful city of Chicago) is that the particular cross makes it an excellent large tree for urban areas, much better, indeed, that either of its parents.

Both in the selecting of seeds from healthy plants and in cross-breeding plants we make modifications to what would otherwise be the "natural" gene pool in future generations. I do not hear Prince Charles complain about these processes, perhaps because it has happened on his estates since long before they were his estates.

Genetic engineering of commercial crops is different in method, but not in substance, from what gardeners have been doing in their greenhouses for donkeys' years. It might take two hundred years to breed-out or weaken significantly a gene which makes a crop susceptible to a given disease or attractive to a particular pest, and there are many examples of such breeding having been done successfully (for example some roses have been developed which are resistant to blackspot, potatoes which are resistant to blight and lupins which are not attractive to aphids). I see no difference in substance between removing genetic susceptibilities over months in a laboratory rather than over decades a greenhouse.

No one should imagine that selection of strong parent plants and cross-breeding is always successful, sometimes removing the apparently weak gene leaves a plant open to other diseases or pests because the original version relied on the removed gene as its defence against these attacks. Similarly some cross-breeding produces a new plant with all the weaknesses of both parents. But that is part of the process, there is no magic involved it is all about trial and error.

So, what are the risks of genetically modified crops being harmful? There is no evidence that they are.

If we mean harmful to the people who eat the stuff the answer is that there is no risk. Eating cereals and vegetables gives us carbohydrates, vitamins and fibre but it does not affect our genes. During the digestive process we break the vegetable matter down, absorb the good stuff and dispose of the rest. If we eat the wrong things they can poison us but no one is suggesting that genetic modifications to try to make carrots unattractive to root fly turns them toxic, and if it did they would never be sold. There is no apparent danger to human or animal consumers.

That just leaves other plants. Is there a danger of genetically modified wheat causing harm to non-genetically modified wheat? I do not know, but it seems rather fanciful to suggest that any harm can come from a variety of wheat resistant to a particular disease crossing with a variety which is susceptible to that disease. One problem I can envisage is that a gene which makes a plant susceptible to a pest or disease might also make it resistant to a different pest or disease but it would be surprising to find any GM crop being planted commercially until such potential side-effects had been examined.

Maybe there can be risks beyond my feeble imagination, but I have never heard anyone suggest that current GM crops have caused any problem to anything. By happy coincidence, while writing this piece I am listening to the radio and have just heard a spokesperson from Friends of the Earth support Prince Charles. And what did she say in support? Did she say GM crops are dangerous to humans or animals? No. Did she say GM crops affect other crops adversely? No. All she said is that there is no evidence that GM crops can solve food shortages in poor countries. Friends of the Earth, like all narrow-issue fanatical groups, are very astute to latch onto even the slightest piece of evidence in support of their position and all they can say is that there is no evidence that GM crops will solve the problem of starvation in overpopulated countries. That tells us everything we need to know about the evidence of GM crops being harmful.

Incidentally, that Friends of the Earth support Prince Charles's statement that GM crops are harmful on the basis that there is no evidence that they will solve world poverty tells us a lot about Friends of the Earth.

On this one Prince Charles is, I am sorry to say, barking up the wrong end of the stick.

A thought on football yobbery

So, the football season is with us again. Today we had the grand unwrapping of the new "Respect" programme which pretends to promote good behaviour of players towards referees. It will, I confidently predict, result in no change whatsoever.

Players do not intimidate referees for the fun of it, they do it because their managers tell them to do it. The managers do not give those instructions for the fun of it, they do so because they know a cowed official is more likely to favour their side. The only thing that will eliminate this dreadful spectacle is the imposition of stiff penalties, as there are in rugby and cricket. A single word of dissent in rugby leads to play moving 10 metres closer to your line which gives a significant advantage to your opponents; not surprisingly, arguing with match officials in rugby is rare. A single word or gesture of dissent in cricket leads to warnings, financial penalties or even suspension; a bowler who dissents can be prevented from bowling further in the innings. Not surprisingly, dissent in cricket is rare. If you go back thirty years you would find occasional instances of this sort of behaviour in the more excitable countries of Europe and South America, now it is universal.

Misbehaviour on the football pitch goes much further than dissent against official decisions, sadly. These days it seems to be compulsory for players to let out a string of abusive language if they make a mistake, but you would not have seen Bobby Charlton, Pele or Franz Beckenbauer doing so; they would shake their head, sigh and get on with their work. What I find most disappointing is that the culture of vulgarity in football is not limited to badly brought up thugs like Wayne Rooney and Joey Barton. Even intelligent men who were raised to be polite and respectful, such as the Neville Brothers, have been caught by it and do things they would never dream of doing off a football pitch.

The causes of this problem are so complex and long-standing that it is impossible to change the whole atmosphere quickly. One problem, in my opinion, is that football is treated in the press and on television and radio as though it really matters. It does not really matter, it is a sport, an entertainment, a side-show. That does not mean that entertainments cannot be an important part of people's lives, but when they become an obsession they can be damaging. If you doubt that many take support of their team too seriously, listen to a radio phone-in on football, you will witness the most extraordinary lack of perspective from many of the callers. Not once will you hear the host of the show saying "it's only a game", instead they stir-up and encourage obsession, thereby giving a form of "official" approval. This is carried onto the terraces, leading to an atmosphere that many, myself included, find intimidating.

A good start would be immediate yellow cards for any dissent and for excessive swearing (it would be unreasonable to punish the occasional exasperated outburst). The referees will need to be strong and to be given unqualified support by the organising bodies and, if that happens, strong penalties for dissent will result in a cultural change for the better.

The "respect" programme will not result in any improvement because it fails to provide effective sanctions. Another season of organised yobbery will follow and this time next year another weak proposal will be made. Eventually they might get the message.

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

An Olympian waste of money

Oh well, the Olympic Games is underway without me again. One day it might get through that I will never be an international sporting icon.

The cost of staging the Games this time was around £22billion up to the end of last year. That is more than the gross domestic product of about two-thirds of the countries in the world. It is an awful lot of money. The latest estimate of the costs for the London Games in 2012 is £9billion for everything, not just up to eight months before they start. When the Minister for the Olympics, Tessa Jowell, announced the revised estimate of £9billion she was swamped with criticism because it was more than double the original estimate. Less noticeable was criticism that £9billion was inadequate and the real figure will be at least twice that sum, I believe that criticism to be the more valid. The cost of the Beijing Games, in a country of cheap labour and cheap bureaucracy, supports the argument that 2012 will cost well over £20billion.

£20billion equates to about £300 per person in the UK, £1.50 a week between now and the opening of the 2012 Games. Looked at in that way it does not seem so scary, but spending on the Games does not happen in a vacuum it is additional spending, everything else carries on and we have to spend this money on top. Only a few weeks ago the government was plunged into the deepest mire by having to borrow £2.7billion to negate, for one year only, part of the damage done by removing the 10p tax band; £2.7billion is only 13.5% of £20billion, it would take seven and-a-half years at £2.7billion a year to borrow £20billion. Knowing that £2.7billion throws the government's budget into freefall gives us an idea of just how much £20billion is.

What will we get for this money? Obviously we will get a new big stadium in East London. But we have just spent £800million on a new big stadium in West London. We will get various other sports facilities which might well cost less than if each were built as a single project. We will get a few new train lines and a lot of improved stations, some new roads and some housing. We will also spend vast sums on entertaining the great and good from every country and from every sporting organisation, a good fifty percent of whom will be odious authoritarians.

Much is spouted about "legacy", a quaint name for the fanciful hope that holding the Olympics will cause a significant upturn in numbers engaged in regular sporting activity. What we will see is what we see when Wimbledon is on the telly. Park tennis courts are busier for two weeks then revert to their normal pattern. There is no reason at all to believe that the Olympics will have a greater effect on participation. Those who want to play sports regularly are already regular players and will continue to be, those who don't want to might dabble for a short time then they will be back on the sofa with a pizza and a can of lager.

Is it worth the expense? It seems to me that one way we can judge this is by looking at what has happened to the hugely expensive facilities built in other host countries over the last few Olympics. How many of them have become iconic national stadiums, flocked to by sports lovers from the world over? As far as I can tell the answer is a big fat none. How many of the countries have seen a sustained increase in the percentage of their population engaged in regular sport? As far as I can tell the answer is a big fat none.

How many of them have faced financial problems? Montreal was almost bankrupted by the 1976 Games and spent more than a decade paying-off the debt. Los Angeles (1984), Atlanta (1996) and Athens (2004) overspent and had to be bailed out. We will never know the financial details of 1980 in Moscow or 1988 in Seoul. Only Barcelona (1992) and Sydney (2000) appear to have balanced the books but that was only because they made realistic estimates in the first place. They still paid a huge amount of money and Sydney, in particular, has been blighted by the facilities turning into unused white elephants.

If it is a hugely expensive exercise and the facilities are underused afterwards, what is the point of hosting the Games? I think I can see a point, a broad political point, but it is a shallow point. Just over three years ago I was in front of my television when the announcement was made that London would host the event in 2012, it was enormously exciting. My chubby chest swelled with artificial nationalistic pride but, in truth, the joy was in the defeat of Paris not in the victory of London. I take little joy, however, from knowing that Paris and the other bidders wasted millions and millions of pounds putting together their unsuccessful bids. There has to be a better way.

In the mid-1990s there was discussion of setting up a permanent Olympic venue in Athens, it was a good idea at the time and it remains a good idea today. A lesson can be learned from other sports. One consequence of the US Masters golf tournament and the tennis grand slams always taking place in the same venues is that the facilities at the hosts are of the very highest order and all year round those who compete at those venues enjoy the added thrill of knowing they are playing somewhere special. There is no hint of familiarity breeding contempt, in fact the opposite is the case.

It is patently absurd that every four years a dozen countries spend millions on bidding and the winner spends billions building new facilities. The facilities built just four years before, at phenomenal expense, were designed to cope with the demands of hosting the Olympic Games yet they will never again be used to full capacity. What a terrible waste.

The solution is, I would suggest, obvious. Take it home to Athens, let the IOC pay for necessary upgrades every four years, avoid the bitterness and waste of the bidding process and save the taxpayers of the world a fortune.

Monday, 11 August 2008

Bail and the presumption of innocence

I have just heard on the radio that the Conservative Party is to suggest a tightening of the law on bail so that people with previous convictions for serious offences should be kept in custody when arrested and charged. The details of their new move have not yet been disclosed, but I want to address the principles of the subject.

The starting point of any discussion of this subject must be the presumption of innocence. We are all presumed to be innocent until the contrary is proved beyond reasonable doubt. When someone is arrested by the police it is because they are suspected of having committed an offence. One thing is so obvious that it should not need to be said: nothing has been proved at that stage. They might have done it, they might not. But there is more to it than that because the mere fact that they have done it is not enough, the State must prove that they have done it. If the State cannot prove a charge, the suspect must be freed.

Does this mean that thousands of guilty people walk free from court every year? Yes, of course it does. Does this mean that thousands of guilty people are arrested but not charged? Yes, of course it does. Why? Because the harm done by convicting one innocent person outweighs the harm done by letting thousands of guilty people walk free. The case of Barry George is a salutary reminder that the innocent are sometimes framed by over zealous police officers and even the most fair minded coppers are sometimes mistaken in their belief that a particular person has committed an offence. The presumption of innocence is not a wishy-washy concept designed to protect the guilty, it is a sensible principle designed to protect the innocent. Applying a presumption of innocence we must ask what is sufficient to justify attaching the label "criminal" to the accused person. Our answer for hundreds of years has been, proof of guilt beyond reasonable doubt. Only if that very high standard of proof has been met can someone be subject to a criminal sentence. Then we have to ask what the sentence might be. Obviously it depends on the offence, some offences justify a fine, some justify community service and the most serious justify imprisonment. Lest there be confusion, when I say "justify" I mean "justify according to present sentencing guidelines". Prison, the deprivation of physical liberty, is reserved for the most serious offences. Even if the current threshold for imposing a prison sentence is too low, it will still be reserved for the most serious offences.

So, where does bail fit in? Once someone has been charged a decision must be made whether he should be kept in custody pending trial or allowed his freedom. The jargon is that he is "released on bail" or "remanded in custody", bail is the obligation to turn up for trial to answer the charge. It is an exception to the presumption of innocence. Because an accused person is presumed to be innocent the mere fact of being accused should, one might think, carry no penalty. Such a thought would be correct. But there is another factor at play, the need to uphold the integrity of the court system. The essence of the current law is that an accused person should be released pending trial unless there is a substantial risk that he will not turn up for trial (bail can be refused on other grounds but this is the most important one).

If there is a substantial risk that someone will not attend court there is nothing unfair in taking steps to reduce that risk, however all steps taken must balance the need to secure attendance at court and the need to maintain the presumption of innocence. Detaining someone in custody pending trial is a serious step. Just a few weeks ago we were all asking how detaining suspects for up to 42 days without charge could be justified and the government's pathetic response was that there might be exceptional cases in the future in which such a power will be needed. It seems pertinent to ask what difference there is between detention before charge and detention between charge and trial. The only difference is that those responsible for laying charges have decided there is evidence which might result in a conviction, that is not much of a difference yet it brings into play the rules on bail which, if refused, can result in months of custody despite the suspect being presumed innocent at all times. It must be borne in mind that a decision to refuse bail can usually only be reversed if circumstances change, so bail should only be refused for very strong reasons.

The refusal of bail simply because the suspect has a long criminal record would be a dangerous step to take. Under the current law a history of offending can justify detention in custody pending trial but the presumption is that it should not. I infer that the current proposal involves a reversal of that presumption and I believe such a reversal cannot be justified. It is fundamentally inconsistent with the presumption of innocence and gives rise to a substantial risk of serial offenders being pressurised into pleading guilty to a lesser charge because they are going to spend months in prison come what may. It matters not how many examples can be cited of people with criminal records committing offences when on bail because to suggest that that justifies such people being refused bail is no different from suggesting that they should be imprisoned for life because they might commit other offences if allowed their liberty.

Either we have a presumption of innocence or we do not. For as long as we do, we must protect it vigorously and create exceptions only where there are extremely strong reasons for doing so. Grabbing headlines is not enough.

Saturday, 9 August 2008

I think I know why they meddle

These days government seems to meddle in everything and 10 Downing Street seems to meddle in all aspects government, but it was not always so. When James Callaghan held the top job, Prime Minister Questions in the House of Commons was a very different beast from what we see today. "Will the Prime Minister explain why his prices and incomes policy is falling to pieces?" was not met with a list of statistics or accusations that the questioner does not know what he is talking about, instead the answer would have been "That is a departmental matter for the Secretary of State, you will have to ask her next Monday." There could be no comeback because the answer was absolutely correct, heads of Department were responsible for the implementation of policy and had to answer for themselves. The Prime Minister has direct ministerial responsibility for the civil service and, arguably, the treasury, but nothing further; at least that is the constitutional position.

Things changed when Mrs Thatcher came to power. Instead of deflecting questions about other ministries she addressed them herself. Perhaps this was just her way of doing things, it certainly accords with what one has heard and read about her dictating details of policy to some departments and being a general bossy-boots. But I think there was more to it than that because she was not known to dictate to every department in the same way, it seemed to depend on who the senior minister was and what she thought of him. Those held in high regard were not bossed-around as much as those she viewed as being either lightweight or not fully committed to her plans for change. At heart, it seems to me to have been about trust. She viewed the task she faced in dragging Britain from the gutter to be a supremely important job and one that could not be approached half-heartedly or with less that full energy. Those whom she perceived to be less than fully committed in attitude or industry were letting the side down and she had to intervene. She could not trust them to perform to the standard she required and if they did not perform nor would their departments, that was unacceptable to her.

This type of lack of trust is nothing to do with fears of plots and insurrections or suspicions that someone has his fingers in the till, it is all about performance. It does not mean that she did not trust them to do the right thing in the end, but she felt a need to do the right thing now not next year and could not rely on some ministers to deliver.

It is hardly surprising that a Prime Minister who takes on more and more departmental decision making herself will need a lot of persuading that a new minister can be trusted (left alone, if you prefer) to do the right thing. Especially when she has been in government for a few years and they are new to the top level. She feels she should keep her hands on the reins to see how the new minister shapes up. Over time the new order becomes the established way of doing things and calls for a return to generally autonomous departments sound like the first rumblings of a coup. There were many factors which combined to cause Mrs Thatcher to resign in 1990, her accumulation of power to the centre was only one, but it was one.

When the Labour Party came to power in 1997 it did so against a background of decades of fighting within the party. As recently as 1983 they had fought a general election on an explicitly Marxist platform, advocating that the State should be in control of the creation of wealth and should then distribute that wealth among the people. This meant State control of industry in partnership with the trades unions (many of whose leaders at the time were dedicated revolutionary socialists), high tax rates at all levels of income, high capital taxes and a massive bureaucracy to administer the redistribution. They received a pummelling at the ballot box and Neil Kinnock took over as leader. Many of the more extreme elements within the party were expelled but there was still a substantial body, both within and outside parliament, who were unapologetically in favour of the 1983 approach. Party policy started to recognise that the State is not an effective vehicle for creating wealth and the rhetoric was toned-down over redistribution. The change was not enough to gain power in the elections of 1987 and 1992 but by 1997 it was and Tony Blair entered 10 Downing Street.

His policy platform was substantially different from the 1983 manifesto and he knew it had to remain so or he would be out at the next election. In order to keep to policy it was necessary to take power to the centre of government for fear that the, still active, radical socialists in his party would have influence. He knew that the greatest potential danger to his own position was a re-emergence of calls for the State to have control of the production of wealth. His party as a whole could not be trusted to keep that idea away from government policy so he had to do it himself, using a small band of close colleagues and advisers to help him. Those people could be trusted, the rest of the party could not. As under Mrs Thatcher, power was moved from government departments to 10 Downing Street and, as under Mrs Thatcher, it was because others could not be trusted. Of course that does not mean that the lack of trust was the same under both Prime Ministers; Mrs Thatcher could not trust some colleagues to perform without her intervention whereas Mr Blair could not trust his party to stick to the policies on which he had gained office.

Things were rather different when it came to the redistribution agenda. Gordon Brown, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, was in charge of redistribution. He could certainly trust his party to back all moves to increase taxation and all moves to have a massive government bureaucracy dedicated to handing-out the cash. What he could not do is trust the recipients of the cash to use it as he wanted them to. Vast quantities of money were pumped into the National Health Service but doctors, nurses and managers could not be trusted to use their judgment about how it was best spent in their area or hospital, targets had to be set from the centre. Head teachers and school governors could not be trusted to decide how additional money for state schools would be spent, targets had to be set from the centre. Everyone's performance had to be measured by ever more complex means so that the government could announce (as they always did and probably always will) that money taken from taxpayers was achieving beneficial results.

But it did not stop there, it was not only those paid from taxes who were subjected to a lack of trust, many in private businesses were subjected to the same abuse. Newspaper headlines about individual accountants or lawyers giving a poor service were treated as signals that the government had to step in. One might think every barrel to contain a rotten apple or two and one might think those in the professions would have the greatest motive to find the rotten apples and cast them out, but that is not the way the current government thinks. One rotten apple, they surmise, is evidence of a widespread malaise which only the all-wise government can cure. You cannot trust professional people to enforce professional standards because, they surmise, it is an old-boys' club which will fight tooth-and-nail to keep one of their chums in business. It is complete nonsense, of course. Your local solicitor's business is dependent on him being trusted by local people, he has to maintain as high a standard as he can in order to be able to pay his mortgage, he wants the incompetent and fraudulent excluded from his profession because their presence in it can diminish his reputation. But that is the real world, not the world of government. So they send out the message that the professions must insist on their members taking refresher courses each year to keep their knowledge up to date, with the background threat that it will be forced on them by legislation if it is not done voluntarily. The result is that all practitioners are deemed incapable of doing the very thing they have to do day-in and day-out in order to earn their living, namely research matters before they give advice. Many deeply resent having to attend courses so they can tick a form and get their practising certificate for the next twelve months, they resent not being trusted to do their work properly.

Lack of trust is now built into the system for accountants and lawyers, it might also be for architects, surveyors and others for all I know. I know that it certainly is for dry cleaners who have to spend a substantial sum from their modest earning to gain official approval, without which they cannot open their shops in the morning.

This lack of trust had a very different effect from the lack of trust Margaret Thatcher showed in some ministers and Tony Blair showed in his party because it affected ordinary people in their everyday lives. None of us is likely to care very much whether the Prime Minister trusts the Secretary of State for Overseas Development because that is just an internal squabble far removed from us and what we do. It is rather different when we are told the government does not trust us.

We now find ourselves in the ludicrous position that the government appears not to trust anyone. They do not trust themselves, they do not trust their party, they do not trust the people they pay to manage schools and hospitals, they do not trust the professions, they do not even trust dry cleaners. They meddle everywhere, despite their own inability to organise anything efficiently and to spend our money without vast waste, because they do not trust us. It is hardly surprising that we do not trust them.

Friday, 8 August 2008

Are we cleverer than we were?

Today I want to start by saying something with which, I think, everyone will agree. Some people are better at sports than others. We know this because we all witnessed it as children and have continued witnessing it ever since.

When a dozen boys gather at a park to play football the two captains make alternate picks until each side has six members and week after week the same boys are picked first and the same boys are picked last. There is nothing nasty about it. Everyone knows Jimmy is the best player so he is picked first, then Tom and so it goes on until only Ed and Charlie are left, and Charlie is almost always picked ahead of Ed. Occasional variants might arise by which Ed becomes first pick on his birthday or he is picked ahead of Charlie because one of the captains likes him more, but the overall pattern is always the same. And it is the same for the very obvious reason that the boys have different levels of skill.

Some would consider this exercise in team selection to be a divisive practice which humiliates Ed and Charlie week after week. It is nothing of the sort and we only need to ask Ed and Charlie to know this because, you see, Ed and Charlie know why they are picked last. They do not turn up at the park in order to be the best players, they turn up because they enjoy the game. They do not pass the ball to Jimmy or Tom because they do not want to dribble forward and score spectacular goals themselves, they do so because they know Jimmy and Tom can do it and they cannot. One of the great joys for Ed and Charlie comes when they have a particularly good game, when a tackle is executed perfectly or a long pass lands in the perfect spot, on those days they get more praise from their teammates than anyone else because all recognise a special achievement. They are not humiliated by being the two worst players, if they felt humiliated they would not turn up at all.

Sporting achievement is not all about basic physical coordination, that is obvious; technical skills are required as are physical fitness and concentration. However, no matter how fit you are, how much coaching you receive and how well you can concentrate, your level of physical coordination will determine how far you can go in your chosen sport.

Recognition that there are different levels of skill helps us to engage a lot of people in regular sporting activity. Take cricket clubs as an example. At the top level we have the England team, full of people with a standard of skill possessed by only one in tens of thousands. Then there are County Cricket Clubs comprising those who play for England and those who play extremely well but not well enough to play for their country. Next come the County Leagues from which some players will move up to play for a County but most will not. All these strata of the game involve players of very substantial skill. Within such a select group there are still discernible bands separating the very good from the exceptional from the brilliant. Not surprisingly, there are very few in the top band, more in the next and far more in the next again.

The level below County League standard is more difficult to define because the number of participants is much larger. There are many clubs like my own in which the best players in the First XI could hold their own in the County League but most could not. We run a number of teams on Saturdays and Sundays (as well as many junior teams). There are dedicated players of reasonable skill who only ever play in the Saturday Third XI or the Sunday Second XI because they would struggle at a higher level but, by playing against players at their own general level of skill, gain great enjoyment from the game.

What is probably not known very widely is that clubs at the lower levels of the game also make room for those who simply do not possess the level of basic physical skill to make a meaningful contribution in any match. They will not play often, perhaps just a couple of times each season, but if they are keen to play and are prepared to stand up and say they would like a game they will be accommodated. By organising cricket in a way that reflects different abilities we maximise the benefit for all those who want to play. Movement between the different levels is not only possible it is to the advantage of the higher ranking clubs, thereby allowing those who improve their game to achieve their potential. The same applies to football, rugby, hockey and the rest.

Exactly the same pattern arises when we look at academic ability rather than sporting skill. Some people are staggeringly clever, some are irredeemably thick and the vast majority are somewhere in between. We do not need any studies by governments or think tanks to establish this obvious fact because we have all witnessed it at every stage of our lives. We have also witnessed clever people who are lazy and average people who worked hard, each might gain the same grades at one level but at the next level the lazy clever person can cope and the hard working but not very clever person cannot. Everyone finds their level, but only if the standard of measurement recognises different abilities and says "you can go this far but no further".

The task of schools, so far as academic study is concerned, is to recognise the different abilities of the pupils and seek to get the best out of them. In the same way that physical coordination provides the absolute limit to what a sportsman can achieve, so what we usually refer to as intelligence sets a limit to academic achievement. Also, in the same way that good coaching, fitness training and enhanced concentration can improve sporting performance, so good teaching and motivation can enhance academic achievement. But to what extent, and how do we measure it?

There is a lot of rubbish spouted about exams. Formal written tests have their limitations but there has to be some measure of attainment, some way of letting others know what each pupil can do. Until a better method than exams is found, I will support them (yes, I know this is a self-fulfilling prophesy, but this is my blog so it is allowed.)

For generations we have had tests at age 16 ("O"-levels, now GCSEs) and tests at age 18 ("A"-levels). In recent years there has been a seemingly unstoppable upward movement in average grades awarded. More and more children at 16 are gaining passes at grades A-C in their GCSEs and more and more are gaining As at A-level. The government claims these figures show their education policies have increased standards in schools, their critics claim the exams have been made easier in order to manipulate the statistics so that the government can take credit.

It is obvious that easier exams will improve average grades but so will harder work and an improvement in teaching standards. The difference between making exams easier and improving teaching standards and greater industry is that the latter two factors can only do so much. The pupil of average intelligence who is taught badly might get a grade D whereas good teaching might result in a C and a combination of good teaching and very hard work might squeeze into the bottom of the B bracket, but that pupil should never be able to attain a grade A because his intellectual ability cannot cope with the more difficult aspects of the subject which must be understood in order to justify a top grade.

I find it difficult to accept that children work so much harder and are taught so much better than in times gone by that exam results should improve by several percentage points each year. To me it just does not make sense. Perhaps on average they do work a bit harder and they are taught a bit better, but my idea of common sense leads me to conclude that a modest increase in average grades would result from that and a plateau would be reached fairly quickly, not a year-on-year upward leap. I find myself forced to conclude that the standard of achievement required to secure each grade has been reduced.

This conclusion appears to be shared by some of the country's most distinguished Universities who feel unable to accept "A"-level grades at face value because they have experienced growing numbers of students with straight As who have been far below the standard of straight-A students a generation ago. Employers also complain that young people with high grades at GCSE are incapable of reading, writing and doing basic arithmetic.

The tragedy of grade-inflation is that it cheats everyone. It cheats the pupils because they are given a false impression of their ability when the truth would benefit them more in their future lives. It cheats employers who take on young people only to find they are not up to the job and have to let them go; thereby evidencing the need for young people to know the truth about their limitations. It cheats colleges who have to undertake remedial teaching to bring new charges up to the true entry-level for their course. It cheats true straight-A students who lose places at their university of choice because someone with pretend straight-As has been given a place (and so it goes down the scale with courses requiring AAB, ABB, BBB and so on). It cheats past generations who see their C grades now being awarded to the barely literate. Perhaps worst of all it cheats those at the bottom of the intellectual pile, those with no formal qualifications at all. They appear now to be deemed officially worthless.