Category Archives: Politicians

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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An order of magnitude

We know many people are bad at maths. However, most mistakes are easily spotted through experience and common sense. But sometimes, common sense is lacking: here I’m talking about the Conservatives gaff on teenage pregnancy.

So first, the Conservatives. A few days ago they launched a document called Labour’s Two Nations, that was supposed to show how there is great inequality in Britain today (let’s ignore the fact that the rise in inequality happened in the 1980s). What they wanted to point out was that under-18 girls in the most deprived areas are three times more likely to become pregnant than in the least deprived areas (Guardian). It’s not clear what this means with regards to ‘most deprived’ and ‘areas’ – I think it’s top and bottom centiles and districts – and I’m sure I could find a more shocking figure if I chose a harsher definition of most and least deprived. The mistake they did make, though, was to divide 54 by 1000 and come up with 54% not 5.4%. That’s if they did a calculation: some social statistics come as ‘per 1000’ or ‘per 10,000’ and it’s important to notice this.

This matters for two reasons. First, because 54% v 18% is a big difference and much more significant than a difference between 5.4% and 1.8% (significant thought this is). Second, because anyone with any sense would realise that 54%, that is over half, is completely absurd.  Anywhere with 54% of its teenagers pregnant would have babies everywhere. Either the writer and editor just missed this, or they genuinely believed that there could be such a place and they are massively out of touch with normal life.

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Filed under media, News, Politicians, Statistics and simplicity

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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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.


*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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One rule for us…

Once again MPs’ expenses have been deemed a disgrace, scandalous and so on. The Archbishop of Canterbury has ‘warned that a “culture of abuse” had developed in Westminster, claiming MPs only had themselves to blame’ (Guardian). Today’s Guardian also had experts deciding whether MPs’ claims were ethical, as every MP accused of having their snout in the trough has pointed out that what they have been doing is legal.

Of course, one of the main issues that arises in MPs allowances is that of the ‘second home’*. The good thing about this is that it has an exact parallel in the rules for everyone else, in the law covering council tax.

It seems that the rules for distinguishing between the main home and second home are fairly lax for MPs. In the 2006 rulebook it said:

‘The location of your main home will normally be a matter of fact. If you have more than one home, your main home will normally be the one where you spend more nights than any other. If there is any doubt about which is your main home, please consult the Department of Finance and Administration.’ (Green Book 2006)

The ‘normally’ suggests individuals can swing it the other way, if they have a convincing case. The later version is even more lax:

Main home is the term used in the Green Book for the term “only or main residence” as used in the applicable Resolutions of the House and the relevant legal provisions. It is for a Member to determine where his or her main home is based on his or her circumstances. It must be in the UK. (Green Book 2009)

A member can determine where his or her main home is!!! Now let’s look at the situation for the council tax, which almost all of us pay. For this, it’s up to the local authority to determine the ‘main home’.

We have to establish the facts as far as possible and make a decision. This may involve asking personal questions about your relationships and lifestyle and we are sorry if this offends you. Documentary evidence may also be asked for.

[Long absence for work]…the Courts have decided that in such situations the time spent away from your main residence is largely irrelevant and that your main residence is where you ‘intend to return’ & ‘where you would live if not for the demands of your work’. This is generally where your partner and children (if any) live.(Thurrock council)

This should actually be quite simple, but might need checking after the fact. If someone lives in London, continues to live in London while an MP for Stoke, and continues to live in London after being an MP, then the Stoke home is their second home. If someone lives in Leeds, becomes the MP for Leeds, and stays living in Leeds when they give up being an MP, then any London place is a second home. Of course, people might move their family in the meantime, changing the main home, and this would require documentary evidence. Perhaps this should be for the courts to decide in the event of a dispute, just as it is if people dispute their council tax. ‘This may involve asking personal questions about your relationships and lifestyle and we are sorry if this offends you.’ Surely if one makes the rules, one should abide by them.

*For now I’ll ignore the fact that MPs are claiming for food and other stuff that they’d have to buy whether or not they were working. Something that isn’t allowed in any other job.

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Charlie Brooker

Although I tend to write here about the way the media and government misuse and misunderstand social data, I like to read a good rant, and this is a very good rant:

Charlie doesn’t usually write about politicians, but Jack Straw’s article about how we aren’t sliding into a police state needed an angry response.

I’ll write something about this very soon. One thing’s for sure, the work of Detica is very interesting. I heard ex-Home Secretary David Blunkett today saying a national database of all communications traffic would be a waste of money, but watch out for the £12bn Intercept Modernisation Programme becoming reality soon.

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Hospital wards

This one, as they say, will run and run. The government has just announced that hospitals will not be paid if they put people into mixed-sex wards, unless there is clinical need (BBC, Guardian, Times).

First, one wonders why we should never have mixed-sex wards. Clearly it is more efficient to have some mixed-sex wards. If all wards are single-sex then a new patient will have to wait for a bed in the correct ward, even if there are lots of beds available in another ward. It’s ridiculous to have two permanent wards dedicated to a particular treatment or technology, if there are never enough people to fill one. In the parts of the health service where proper research has been done (mental health) it seems many patients are happy with mixed-sex wards anyway, especially when there are always staff around to increase security.

However, various incidents in mixed-sex wards, hyped by the tabloids, have made the public believe that single-sex wards are the answer. Unfortunately, the government have made it a pledge again and again (despite understanding that it makes for inefficiencies). This has meant that it can be a stick to beat the government with when any mixed-sex wards remain.

Now if you are to read the current press, you’d think that this was a recent issue, and in some ways it is. The amount of news articles about it tripled from 2004 to 2005. Is this because there are more mixed-sex wards? No, there seem to be fewer each year. Is this story newly discovered? Certainly not.

The earliest reference I find is from August 1979:

In other respects Mr Jenkin and Dr Vaughan seem to be deliberately ignoring their own protestations about the need for decisions to be taken locally. For instance, about mixed sex wards. The wards of a modern hospital are designed to take patients of both sexes — in separate bays and with separate sanitary arrangements; they can thus be used more efficiently because they can allow for a temporary excess of one sex’s numbers over the other’s. In the Nightingale wards of older hospitals — with a row of beds down each wall separated only by curtains ruthlessly drawn back for most of the time and no segregated lavatories — unisex beds cause more trouble; many women are embarrassed enough by the prospect of a man in the next bed to prefer a longer waiting time for admission to a single-sex ward. But not all patients complain. Some prefer mixed sex wards even in older hospitals; others are not bothered either way. Very clearly, mixed sex wards should be a matter for local health service managers, guided by local opinion and community health councils. Hitherto they have always been regarded as such. Now Dr Vaughan has announced flatly that mixed sex admissions into an old-type ward, are to cease. (The Economist, found on Lexis Nexis)

So when one sees the press saying the government failed in its pledge after so many years, it should be noted that these pledges have been made since at least 1979.Virginia Bottomley was making this pledge in 1994…

But let’s accept the absolute need for ‘dignity and privacy’*. The important question to ask next is ‘what does single-sex ward mean anyway?’. Total isolation of a single-sex wards behind locked doors? single-sex rooms with single-sex bathrooms down the corridor? Floor to ceiling partitions that can be moved to make each half bigger or smaller, dependent on demand?

If, as I suspect, the government has painted itself into a corner by saying ‘there will be no mixed-sex wards’ as opposed to saying people will be allowed to choose single-sex wards, and everything will be done to ensure privacy, then we’re going to have to accept a less efficient service. Pound for pound, fewer patients will be treated, as sometimes the correct space won’t be available. Either money will go into new facilities, with no corresponding increase in healthcare, or money will be shifted from healthcare to new facilities. £100 million, so far, is being put into a ‘dignity and privacy fund’. So some people will get worse care than they would otherwise have done. At least they’ll be ill with dignity.

*Although I personally don’t see why single-sex wards increase privacy. I don’t want anyone, male or female, overhearing my medical issues, or glancing up my dressing gown. However, if I was ill and told we can offer you an appointment in a week, but you’ll be on a mixed ward, or in two months and you’ll have your own room, I’d be choosing the first.

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