Category Archives: government

Hard to reach?

A long time ago I worked for a company specialising in researching the ‘hard to reach’, by which we meant the poor, the needy, including the elderly, drug users, asian Muslims, the white working class. Essentially, the kind of people that don’t respond to mail surveys as often as other groups. And in order to talk to these people we went to where they were: the street, bingo halls, community centres, drug treatment centres.

Which is why the headline ‘Church of England eyes £5m of state funds to combat extremism’ (Guardian) made me laugh. The CofE claims it can enable “Mr and Mrs Smith, Mr and Mrs Patel, and Mr and Mrs Hussain” to engage with each other through coffee mornings and so on.

First, they will use money so that vicars and imams can get to know each other. Fair enough, but there’s plenty of that going on already, and I don’t think vicars and imams are failing to get on (unless we’re thinking about the fundamentalists and crazies and they aren’t invited). But once this has happened, then what. In a working-class estate where I’ve worked recently, of around 7,000 residents only 50 or so have any regular involvement in the church. The vast majority of UK adults go to church less than once a year, probably for weddings and funerals (tearfund) and as I expected, it’s the middle classes (AB) and pensioners that are most likely to attend church.

Now forgive me if I’m wrong, but the government isn’t worried about middle-class pensioners starting riots. The kids that fight each other over their backgrounds won’t be reached through the church, and many won’t be reached through the mosque either. Contrary to stereotype, Muslim youth also ‘stop going’, rebel against their parents. If government wants to bring people together why not invest in the truly public sphere: make our parks more appealing, set up sports events, invest in council housing with genuine public spaces where neighbours can get to know each other.

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Income distribution

A couple of weeks back I went to a debate about the legacy of the miners’ strike. There was a lot of shouting at Edwina Currie, being the only Conservative there, and a member of the government at the time. There was an element of nostalgia too, with mining jobs being romanticised a bit too much (George Galloway and Ken Loach were there too). However, the fact remains that these dirty and dangerous jobs seem to pay better than the service sector jobs that have replaced them.

One of the more interesting claims was that British workers have really good earnings. Edwina pulled out the ‘creative industries’ argument, like Charlie Leadbeater’s Living on Thin Air, effectively saying we could all be earning good money designing computer games. It is of course true that the average British wage is high, and the creative industries is profitable. But for the worker at the bottom of the pile, it’s the distribution that counts.

For example, if a company makes £1m p.a., after costs, and shares it between 50 workers equally, then they all get £20k each. But if they decide to ‘award’ the 4 managers with £100k salaries, then the remaining 46 only get £13k each. The mean wage in each is the same, so in any analysis we should examine the distribution, not just the minimum, maximum and means.

Thus, on the one hand the government can tell its domestic audience that we’ve never had it so good, and that we’re paid really well. This was Edwina Currie’s line. But when its audience is overseas investment, a different story is told:

‘The UK has a competitive salary structure in the service sector [i.e. cheap], particularly when compared to countries such as Germany, Ireland,Spain, Sweden and Switzerland… hourly compensation costs for production workers in the UK are also lower than in many other countries…’ (UK Invest)

The same document also shows that the UK has the reputation of the most flexible labour market [i.e. best for business, not workers], except for China:

UK has most flexible labour market

But internally, businesses give the impression of being hampered by red tape, unions with too much power, and the minimum wage. The CBI originally said the minimum wage would reduce the number of jobs, then each time there’s due to be a raise they say the same thing.

Perhaps at GDP per head, the UK is doing well, but we also have the most unequal wage structure outside the US, so people can still be badly paid here.

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Chinese whispers

While reading my local paper online, I came across a contribution from the public that complained that Muslims in the UK are given latitude to act differently to the rest of the people, showing that Muslim lobby groups have the government in their pocket. Combined with the Islamophobia that is prevalent now, it feeds into the idea that a different group is somehow taking over. And as ever, the full story is ignored for the game of Chinese whispers that is our media machine.

The specific claim is that ‘Ed Balls has made it legal to smack children in muslim schools’, and this something that can’t be done elsewhere. As ever, the object of the attack is the Labour government, who are seen to be ‘bending over backwards’ to incorporate minority viewpoints (usually accompanied by the claim that they rely on minority votes).

Reading this, I thought ‘this seems unlikely to be true’. Making opt-outs from laws on ‘community’ grounds, whether religion/ethnicity or anything else is fraught with danger, and the government would avoid it at all costs. And, of course, it isn’t true. The truth behind this story is that staff in schools haven’t been allowed to use physical punishment children since 1999 (for England and Wales) and in state schools this happened earlier. However, parents aren’t banned from smacking their children (unless it is ‘cruel and degrading’), and thus anyone standing in for parents (in loco parentis) isn’t banned either. The only people banned are teachers in schools. And to define a school, the government chose to define them as establishments where kids go for 12.5 hours or more. Therefore, football or gymnastics coaches, sunday school teachers, music tutors, home schooling tutors, scout masters, parents’ friends and family, and anyone who is asked by a parent to look after children is allowed to smack. The BBC have posted a good history of the law, and point out that:

‘Some MPs have proposed a new clause for an education Bill currently before Parliament… meaning that only a person with actual parental responsibility for a child could continue to justify battery of that child as “reasonable chastisement”.’

So how did this claim about muslim schools come about? First Ann Cryer, MP asked a question in parliament about ‘teachers in madrassahs or in other religious schools’ (Hansard, BBC). Ed Balls pointed out that ‘there is not one rule for a child in a madrassah and another for a child in a school or in any other circumstance’ but didn’t promise to do something about part-time settings, presumably knowing that it would be a step towards a ban on smacking by parents too.

Next, and because of the simplification required for the headline and first two or three sentences in news pieces (see Wikipedia for a good explanation – I think this is a Nut Graph(!)) the story became:

‘Under existing law, teachers at state and private schools are banned from smacking children but their counterparts in faith schools are not.’ (Keighley News)

This claim is a lie, and is only explained properly at the middle of the piece.  But this sentence gets repeated:

‘A loophole in the law means that while teachers in state and private schools are banned from smacking children, their counterparts in faith schools are not.’ (Guardian)

This is so close that in an academic context could be considered plagiarism, unless citing the source. Again, explaining the actual law comes later.

But that dig at journalism is a digression. Now we have the idea that all faith schools are exempt (due to simplifying the story), and that it’s got something to do with Islam. Then politicians get back in on the act with the Lib Dem spokesman saying “The government needs to legislate to protect children – not leave an opt-out simply because it fears some ethnic or religious backlash.” (Guardian).

So instead of a bigger story about the fact that piano teachers are still allowed to rap children’s fingers with a ruler, Koran and Bible classes can enforce rote learning with similar methods, and parents, friends, family and babysitters are allowed to smack children in their care, we end up with the false claim that teachers in Muslim schools can smack and other teachers can’t. Is that right? No. Is it true. No again.

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No good reason

News that caught my eye this week included the rise in fines levied on people who take their children out of school. In the UK, a school can fine parents £50 (rising to £100 if not paid in 28 days), if their children are absent without good reason. The spin on this story is that some people are taking their children on foreign holidays in term-time because it’s out of season and so cheaper, and these people are damaging their children’s education.

However, it’s important to note that there are a number of reasons why a family can take a child out of school and will get permission. These include religious observance, weddings and so on. These absences can, of course, damage a child’s education, but the assumption is that these days can’t be changed, whereas a holiday can. Here is the official guidance.

This privileges certain kinds of events (religious festivals, taking part in ‘approved’ sport, wedddings) over others. It’s difficult to see why the state or headteachers should be able to make a value judgement as to which is worthwhile. Should a child be given an authorised absence for a political conference or a protest march? Who decides which religions count? What about looking after family members? One can see the puritanical hand of government here – work and education good, leisure bad – and also the audit culture: some absences count against the school’s attendance record and some don’t and schools don’t want bad statistics.

And when it comes to justice, it also raises the question, ‘what is freedom?’. Yes, theoretically all parents could choose to take holidays out of term time. But many can’t afford to. Perhaps there is greater harm in a child never having a holiday away from home than missing some school days. If the government really want to ensure people don’t take their kids out in term time, then perhaps they should force holiday companies to alter their pricing, subsidise poor people’s holidays, or, as a simpler solution, increase the minimum wage and benefit rates /introduce a citizens’ wage.

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Prejudice and equalities

Yesterday’s UK papers have been covering a spat between Philip Davies, a Tory MP, and Trevor Philips, the head of the UK ‘equalities’ body (see the Guardian, the Times). I do support the work of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, but Trevor Philips doesn’t do the cause any favours in some of his answers to the MP’s letters.

The Tory MP is a mischief maker with too much time on his hands. He’s written lots of letters about ‘political correctness gone mad’ that fit into a Daily Mail view of the world. In this view, anything and everything is done for the benefit of ‘minorities’ and that would include ‘wimmin’, gay people, ethnic minorities, and anyone different to the norm. This argument takes in the myths about banning golliwogs and Christmas in schools.

Part of the problem comes in the name of the body. The word ‘equality’ means different things to different people, and political philosophers have used up much paper and ink working out what equality, justice, and the ‘good society’ should be. Particularly in the literature on multiculturalism, there’s the big question of group and cultural differentiation and rights. In essence, should people be treated differently just because of their (assumed) membership of a group, and the further (assumed) differences in needs and capabilities. This raises questions of the form ‘should women have separate sports sessions, as they may be put off by the presence of men?’ or ‘how far should employers adapt their working hours for those who need time off for religious reasons?’. Treating everyone the same isn’t equality, as people have different needs and capabilities (see Amartya Sen on capabilities), but treating people differently merely on the basis of group membership can create new injustices (see Sen again in Identity and Violence).

Of course, the work of the EHRC is informed by the historical injustices of the UK. So our history of colonialism and inability to welcome or assimilate newcomers leads to problems with regards to race. Moving from a patriarchal society means that gender issues are important, and so on. However, the EHRC also suffers from its own history. It was formed by the bringing together of a number of bodies that did similar work (the Commission for Racial Equality, the Disability Rights Commission, the Equal Opportunities Commission) but only on one inequality each. There was hope for ‘joined up thinking’ whereby the way that individuals’ multiple identities combine to form injustice could be addressed. Furthermore, other injustices could be addressed.

I was actually a researcher on a small study that informed the creation of the body, Melanie Howard and Sue Tibballs’  Talking Equality (2003). I remember that the interviews and focus groups added a further source of inequality that got lost from the agenda: class. Indeed, if we added class to the mix it would help with some of the other injustices. It is surely more just (in terms of numbers), and so a higher priority and more likely to be supported by the public, to argue for equal pay for female cleaners than to examine the numbers of women in boardrooms. Similarly, addressing literacy problems across the board, and especially in white and Asian working class families, should be more important than BME business initiatives.

To go back to Trevor, and what I think he’s missing in his replies to the MP, just addressing the five or six ‘inequalities’ identified so far doesn’t bring justice. I know he was probably bored of the correspondence by this point but this exchange is particularly problematic:

Should anti-discrimination laws ought to be extended “to cover bald people (and perhaps fat people and short people)”?

“The answer to your question is no.”

Now I haven’t read anything about bald or short people, but there’s plenty of literature on discrimination or prejudice against fat people. Trevor Philips should have said that the body works to eradicate prejudice wherever it is found, and that if a group or type of people is found to be unjustly discriminated against then measures could be needed, perhaps laws, perhaps not. He’s fallen into a trap: he didn’t want to play into the anti-PC brigade (imagine the Daily Mail headlines re. short people), but instead he’s telling us that only some groups deserve protection, so we can have Daily Mail headlines saying that the body only protects ‘minorities’, so can be cut by a Tory government. A broader support for human rights and tackling discrimination is more likely to be achieved if it isn’t about sectional interests, or the different, but is for everyone and is promoted as being for everyone.

P.S. If you think that other, less talked about, prejudices are never as serious as racism, remember that one young woman was recently murdered for being a goth.

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Lightbulbs

Much of the UK media, and most of the people here to be fair, love to knock the EU. Perhaps this is sometimes justified, but many stories are exaggerated or re-spun to give it the greatest anti-EU, faceless bureaucrats* theme in order to allow us the feeling of righteous anger. Don’t ya just love it.

Recently I heard a piece on ‘Does 75 per cent of UK law come from Brussels?’ on Radio 4’s More or Less. Of course, this is very difficult if not impossible to answer reasonably. We could count the number of laws, the words used, or try to estimate each laws influence on people’s lives. As Tim Harford said, 40 laws on the regulation of car wheel sizes will be less important than a single law restricting the right to a trial by jury.

Often, though, the EU laws and regulations are misrepresented to the point of outright lie, and this is especially true where some people can make money out of the misinformation. Let’s take the humble lightbulb as an example. The news seems to be that incandescent bulbs are being banned, we’re all being forced to use the mini flourescent ones, so the EU is evil and we need to stock up now.

THE old-fashioned 100-watt incandescent lightbulb is to be phased out across the EU.

Countries will have to use energy-efficient compact fluorescent lamps instead. They use up to 80 per cent less electricity than standard bulbs and could cut a home’s annual energy bill by up to £37.

Experts say they will also help reduce carbon levels, curbing climate change. But some campaigners claim energy-saving bulbs may trigger migraines and worsen skin conditions. (The Sun)

I suppose the first line is true, but given that they’ve started with 100w bulbs I find this amusing, because I don’t think they get used much anyway. Most light fittings only take bulbs up to 60w, and we’ve got two years of 60w normal bulbs anyway. So there’s no need to panic… ‘Congratulations to anyone who can find 60 or 100W bulbs to hoard’ (contributer to BBC).

However, it’s the second line that is completely untrue. Old-style incandescent (i.e. a glowing filament) are going, but newer style incandescent lamps are perfectly fine (see  the EU document). So all the complaints about not being able to use dimmer switches, slow start-up times, or having a different quality of light are from people who misunderstand the law. Greenpeace would like to see these banned too, but given that the new bulbs can have a B or C rating, that won’t happen.

So given that we’ve got a little while of old-style bulbs yet, that we aren’t being forced to use the compact flourescents, and that the EU is encouraging new-style incandescents anyway, it seems this story is mainly being written in the dark.

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*Indeed, I’ve always loved the ‘faceless bureaucrat’ argument as it seems to be made by people who don’t understand how democracies work. Yes, the EU commission (bureaucrats) write the EU laws, and then the Parliament (an elected body) and the Council (the EU heads of state) have to pass them. But these laws can also be requested by the Parliament or the Council. And this is also how the UK system works… it’s the civil servants that write the laws as politicians don’t have time for the details. As far as I can tell, the usual is that a government policy commitment is given to civil servants to create green papers, white papers, and laws, and the ministers and eventually parliament sign them off (see this, or even Yes, Minister!). On occasion, for example where the police request new powers to deal with a particular problem, the initiative starts with the civil servants too. This looks much the same to me.

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Illegal downloads – the economy

At least 7 million people in Britain use illegal downloads, costing the economy billions of pounds and thousands of jobs, according to a report. Shared content on one network was worth about £12bn a year according to the research commissioned by the Strategic Advisory Board for Intellectual Property. (Guardian 29 May 2009)

At least this research is done by a government body and not funded by the entertainment industry, so it’s likely to be a bit less biased. To be fair, I’d say that the ‘7 million’ figure is probably much too low. But, my argument is about the second part of their argument (the one the govt, and especially the Treasury is most interested in) and that is the billions of pounds and thousands of jobs this costs.

As the research is done within strict bounds, as most research is, it doesn’t have the reach to see where these jobs and money would come from, and what are the secondary effects. It just makes the assumption that if people weren’t downloading illegally, they’d be paying, and paying the current rate, for their music and video.

Now it is true that the record industry (from production to sale) has been losing jobs. However, this may well have happened without illegal downloads. Amazon has had a huge impact on record shop sales: I’d bet that this has had the most impact on the problems of HMV and Virgin Megastore. People can buy CDs and DVDs cheaper and easier, with greater choice, online. And these can be delivered with fewer jobs. Consolidation in the big record companies, and copycat artist development (as opposed to the lone A&R man) also requires fewer jobs.

Most importantly, though, is the question of whether total sales would have fallen anyway. CDs and DVDs are in no way a necessity: we buy them out of our spare cash or pocket money, when we’ve bought everything else. Given that there is now a larger choice of entertainment objects to spend this spare cash on, it would make sense for music and video (and other downloadable stuff) to lose market share. If people are spending £25 per month on a mobile phone and £20 per month on Sky, then this is £45 they can’t spend on CDs. The Guardian article’s argument rests on the assumption that if people couldn’t download for free, they’d spend enough money in the shops to get this music and video.

Indeed, many of the downloaders will be kids with no money: so they won’t be increasing GDP and jobs if they stop downloading. Unless the people with money are putting their CD spending money into savings, people who end up buying more CDs and DVDs will have to cut back on some other luxury. Using the Guardian’s figures, 7 million people are sharing content worth £12billion pounds a year, so they’d end up spending an average £1700 per year more on CDs and DVD. I find this unlikely. Even if they could afford it, they’d be switching the money from other purchases. So GDP wouldn’t be affected, and jobs gained in the entertainment industry would be lost in the restaurant or clothing sector.

More importantly for the economy, the stuff that can be downloaded costs next to nothing to distribute. Once a film or album has been made, digital distribution pushes the additional unit cost to zero. Apple doesn’t need to hire more people to sell more music through iTunes. Any sales that come over from illegal downloads can be almost all profit. And amusingly, none of this would add to the wealth of the UK. Even if GDP increased by £12bn (which I feel is unlikely), most of this money would be heading westwards and not providing wealth to the UK.

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