Tuesday, January 15, 2013
A moment of truth on Britain's welfare state
A system intended to promote social solidarity has had the opposite effect
I'm sure it is entirely coincidental, but since this column's pre-Christmas diatribe against the lie perpetrated by politicians of all parties - that present welfare provision can be sustained into the indefinite future - there has been a positive epidemic of truth-telling. Members of the Cabinet are now falling over one another to warn that present entitlements and universal benefits must be regarded as a thing of the past: that it is not only the workless dependency culture that needs to be dismantled, but also the system of automatic payments, which has expanded to encompass the entire population regardless of need.
Iain Duncan Smith's welfare reforms and the benefit cap passed last week are designed to see to it that those in work will never be worse off than those who are not. They are the least contentious aspect of this. In spite of Labour's politically suicidal attempts to attack them, these moves have the support of virtually every sentient being in the country.
But it is the vast, comprehensive payments structure into which we are all eventually drawn, however great our private means, that is becoming untenable. Steve Webb, the pensions minister, jumped right in this week: early retirement in the public sector would soon be out of the question, the pension age will increase with life expectancy, and pensioners will have to expect to use their savings to pay for elderly care. With an ageing population, he said, the sums just don't add up. And Nick Clegg, of all people, actually suggested that any political party "committing not to touch a single hair on the head of benefits for the most affluent people. will be found out".
As lots of people keep saying, all of this is really nothing more than a return to the original Beveridge conception of welfare as a safety net. The model we actually have of the welfare state as an all-embracing system that offers benefits to every member of society for at least some part of his life was established by the post-war Labour government, which wished to use it as a form of socialist wealth-redistribution.
The pernicious effects of this are not just economic, but also social and moral. Abandoning the "safety net" principle meant that instead of treating poverty (or "want", as Beveridge called it) as an emergency in need of temporary assistance, it would be regarded as a permanent condition caused by endemic social "unfairness" (as Gordon Brown called it) in need of everlasting support.
This transformed the function of welfare: it would not be simply a government policy of saving people from destitution when they fell on hard times. It was to be a national unifying programme that would bind all members of society into a network of interdependence. Everybody would benefit, so everybody would have a stake in the programme. The corollary of this notion that everyone should get something from the welfare state - however much he earned - was that everyone should pay into it. So the rich would get ever-increasing state pensions and all the perks that went with them, while the low paid would have to pay tax and contributions at an ever-higher level.
This was supposed to reinforce a sense of social solidarity (as the EU calls it) and communal responsibility. In fact, it has had precisely the opposite effect. Before the Second World War, a married man with a family earning the national average wage paid no income tax, nor was there any state welfare system for supplementing low wages. Would anyone like to suggest that solidarity and mutual responsibility in working-class communities is stronger now than it was then? Not only has the sense of community been undermined by the belief that only the state is obliged to respond to need, but the welfare system has become a divisive force, creating resentments between those who are thought to be overly dependent on it and those who are trying not to be. (It is precisely those resentments that the Tories are likely to benefit from politically.)
Perversely, increasing taxation on the low paid has helped to pauperise them, thus making it more likely that they will need help from the state in the form of tax credits or housing benefits. What ministers are finally coming round to saying - almost in so many words - is that not everyone should partake of the welfare state however rich they are, and not everyone should have to pay for it however poor they are. Indeed, Coalition policy is moving, albeit in baby steps, in this direction: taking more of the low paid out of tax and at least breathing the possibility of - someday, maybe - removing the more absurd universal benefits from wealthy pensioners.
It is something of a mystery, given their timidity over this issue, why the Tories chose to plunge right in with the least justifiable universal benefit cut: the removal of child benefit from higher-earning families. Child benefit was introduced to replace the old child tax allowance because - back in the day - only the affluent paid income tax and so only they got any advantage. Now that virtually everybody has to pay some income tax, the child tax break could be brought back to help further relieve the tax burden on low-income families, and the question of giving cash "handouts" to high earners would not arise. Instead, we will now be the only developed country in the world that makes no fiscal distinction between those who have children and those who do not. Tax breaks for child care (which may or may not happen) are no substitute for a child tax allowance that could be claimed by either parent, and so would not discriminate against stay-at-home mothers.
In another startlingly frank contribution to this debate (again from a Liberal Democrat, oddly enough), Norman Lamb, the care services minister, has said that pensioners should be advised to use their savings to buy private care protection packages. These insurance policies could be used to "top up" care home fees if pensioners wanted to buy better quality services than provided by the state minimum. Ah, now there is the phrase that is the key to the future: "top up", and more specifically, "top up insurance". As in the United States, where pensioners buy Medicare Advantage policies to - all together now - "top up" the basic provision of Medicare, so we shall have to open the way for this sort of solution.
Insurance that is only for topping up elderly care or NHS treatment could quickly become so popular and competitive that its premiums would be widely affordable. It would be in the interests of insurers to see to it that policyholders got value for money, which would help drive down the cost of services. It would break the state monopoly of provision, giving pensioners and patients some real choice and power. So maybe losing the universal monolithic welfare state isn't bad news at all. If ever there was a moment to make that argument, this is it.
The Jimmy Savile affair has shed grim light on procedures and systems that are woefully inadequate
Like the most unsparing barium meal, the Savile affair has forced its brutal way through the body politic, revealing only malady, dysfunction and failure. Last week's reports - one by the Metropolitan Police and NSPCC, the other by the Crown Prosecution Service - reek of the autopsy lab and formaldehyde. Yes, they give a measure of belated dignity to Savile's victims by taking them seriously at last. But the reviews do not - cannot - offer justice.
If they symbolise anything, it is not redress and fairness, but their conspicuous absence. There are few forms of solitude so merciless as the loneliness of those who are abused but not given a hearing. As recently as 2009, two years before Savile's death, the CPS missed the chance to prosecute him in relation to three victims. In 2008, a woman who had been molested by him in the Seventies made a complaint to Sussex police, who reportedly discouraged her from persisting on the grounds that he was a "big celebrity" who would make "mincemeat" of her in court.
So, having turned the BBC upside down, the Savile case is now coursing through the law and order system, undermining public confidence in police and prosecution alike, sowing doubt at every turn.
It is a storm of suspicion and recrimination that the system can ill afford, in this age of institutional fragility. Parliament is still clearing the debris of the expenses scandal, the press wrestles with the consequences of the hacking controversy and the Leveson Report, the financial sector continues to reel from the crash, the bailing-out of the banks and the consequent loss of faith in capitalism. A society's institutions give it shape and meaning, enshrining its continuities and codes. To discover that they are dilapidated, decayed or otherwise grossly deficient is traumatic for those they serve as well as for those who work within them.
The Savile case has compounded a creeping lack of confidence in the justice system. In the last week alone, a senior Met officer has been convicted of misconduct in a public office after offering to sell information about the News of the World hacking inquiry. Stephen Lawrence's brother, Stuart, has launched a legal action against the Met, alleging that he has been stopped as many as 25 times because of his ethnicity. Several of the newly elected police commissioners are already embroiled in rows about the employment of cronies. On Tuesday, Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, the Met Commissioner, was cross-examined by the Commons home affairs select committee about the extraordinary Andrew Mitchell case, now under fresh investigation. When I interviewed the Prime Minister for last week's Sunday Telegraph, he did not conceal his shock and fury that an email supporting the claims against Mitchell should have been "sent by a police officer posing as a member of the public".
Some politicians - especially on the Left, but also the new breed of Magna Carta Tories who have become disproportionately obsessed by civil liberties - take ill-concealed delight in the discomfiture of the police. The Prime Minister is emphatically not among them. It is too often forgotten that Cameron cut his Whitehall teeth not only at the Treasury, working for Norman Lamont, but also as special adviser in the mid-Nineties to Michael Howard, who redefined and transformed the role of Home Secretary. In Howard's view, it was no longer politically feasible or morally defensible to treat the job as managerial: the Home Secretary had to address the public's growing frustration with the justice system.
True Tory modernisers are uncompromisingly tough on law and order. This robustness is the flipside of the compassion at the heart of Cameron's vision of the "Big Society", but has barely been given expression during the Coalition era to spare the feelings of the Lib Dems. The appointment of Ken Clarke as Justice Secretary in May 2010 gave Nick Clegg his "sixth Lib Dem Cabinet member", but was also at odds with the needs of the time. Chris Grayling is much better suited to the role, and was pleasantly surprised on arrival to discover that Clarke had not done as much as he feared: liberal rhetoric had not been matched by liberal action.
The task for Grayling and Theresa May, the Home Secretary, is a huge one, made more challenging by the political realities of Coalition and the fiscal realities of 2013. Between them, they must do more with less; make the police more accountable, more visible and more responsive; build more prisons and declare (as Howard did) that prison works; make rehabilitation complementary to, rather than a substitute for, punishment; open up the probation system; and reform the prosecution service.
It is a formidable inventory, at least as demanding as Michael Gove's education reforms or Iain Duncan Smith's welfare revolution. At its core must be a campaign of persuasion, and one that will take many years. In all sorts of ways, the citizen has lost confidence that the system operates on his behalf and in his interests. Grayling's announcement at last year's Tory conference that householders will have the right to fight back against burglars addressed at last a deep sense of resentment that the criminal's interests were better protected than his victim's. It is no less important that a black man feels he can walk the streets or drive his car without being stopped arbitrarily; and that the victim of an assault by a celebrity who has the courage to come forward not be told that she will be crushed in court. In some areas, greater toughness is required; in others, much greater sensitivity. At all times, the objective must be to enhance public trust in the system.
In several great American cities, this has been achieved by a nuanced combination of zero tolerance and excellent links with community organisations. Small wonder that Cameron was keen to hire Bill Bratton, the former police chief in New York and Los Angeles, to take over the Met - only to be thwarted by Home Office regulations. But the fact that the PM seriously considered the idea shows how keen he is to administer shock therapy.
If Cameron gets the second full term that he wants - at the helm of a fully Conservative government - you can count on law and order and the justice system being central to its strategic objectives. The Savile affair has shed grim light on procedures, systems and cultural assumptions that are woefully inadequate. It has further eroded trust in institutions that depend absolutely upon public support and collaboration.
What a grotesque irony that a man who made his name supposedly "fixing it" did nothing but break everything he touched. But in the end, the power of celebrity trumped the majesty of the law: that is a bleak admission for any society to make. The nation's jester made fools of us all, identifying and exploiting the weaknesses in the system with ruthless success. In the absence of true justice, the only honourable response - beyond contrition and reviews - is to repair that system, and confidence in it, as if starting from scratch.
A strange definition of rape in Britain
It was consensual sex but he lied about himself. There must be millions of rapists in Britain at that rate
Two women, chatting on social media, as you do. One confides in the other that she fears her husband is having an affair - would her friend, whom she has never met in real life, be so kind as to pop round to her house and see if she can persuade her husband to have sex with her and thus prove his infidelity?
Well of course, says the on-line friend, happy to oblige. And oblige she does. Obviously in some circles nipping round to a total stranger's house to have sex with him is considered perfectly normal - indeed, enjoyable. She enjoys it so much that she returns several more times to `test his fidelity'. She even filmed the encounter and sent the tape to her on-line friend. Her on-line friend offered her money for this service, something she accepted, though the money failed to materialise.
Now before you fall into the trap of assuming that I am saying that prostitutes don't have the right to be protected by rape laws - I'm not. I'm merely making the point that this was a woman for whom sex held so little intrinsic meaning that she was prepared to repeatedly have sex with a total stranger and treat it as a commodity that could be paid for. For the benefit of the sisterhood, naturally.
However, the on-line friend was becoming greedy, and encouraged her to have ever more adventurous sexual encounters with her husband. Who did she turn to in her hour of need, on becoming alarmed by this turn of events? Why the husband of course, so good and amicable was her relationship with him by this time. He said he would `kill his ex-wife' and in due course reported that he had done so. At which point our victim turns to another of the sisterhood. `Oh my', she cries, `I'm responsible for the death of a woman.'. `Woe is me!'
Did I just say victim? Indeed I did. For the sisterhood carted her off to the local police station, and in due course they transferred her to the cosily lit and comfortable rape interviewing suite. Rape? Ms Raccoon - did you say rape? Oh, I did. For the husband has just been given seven years in jail for rape and placed on the sex offenders list for life.
You see our victim, who was perfectly content to repeatedly sleep with a total stranger; was perfectly content to provide photographic evidence - presumably so the poor sap could be divorced and denuded of his life and children; perfectly content to take money for this service; and perfectly content to turn to him for protection when she felt threatened, was `utterly traumatised' and `bravely came forward' when she discovered that the husband and the `on-line wife' were one and the same person.aye, he'd lied, tricked her even. Possibly verged on blackmail and coercion, but in these days where nothing less than a signed affidavit absolving the male of all consequences of having had sex is sufficient to prove informed consent - he was charged because he lied about himself and tricked her into bed and thus found guilty of rape.
Australia: A "misogyny" double standard. Only conservatives can be misogynist, apparently
Federal conservative leader Abbott is now routinely accused -- for spurious reasons -- of misogyny. But real misogyny from a Leftist leader has earned no condemnation at all
IMAGINE the furore if Tony Abbott were accused today of allowing pornographic movies to be played at his wife's birthday party, upsetting members of her family so much they left the venue. Consider the outrage if the Opposition Leader then admitted that, yes, those videos were played and he thought it was a great laugh, the birth of a "legendary story" for the boys.
In the wake of Julia Gillard's denunciation of sexism last October, in an outburst so impassioned it rapidly became the parliamentary version of Madonna - an international phenomenon recognisable by a single word: "misogyny" - it is highly likely Abbott's leadership of the Coalition would be dead by the end of the day.
Presenting evidence of Abbott's sexism, the Prime Minister even called him out on looking at his watch while she was speaking. One wonders, then, how the Labor women who have subsequently spent much of the summer warning us of Abbott's "problem with women" would react to the Opposition Leader's hearty public endorsement of a video called Freaks of Nature as entertainment in mixed company.
But these tawdry events did happen. And they did involve an opposition leader. The only difference is that man was Mark Latham.
Latham outlined the distasteful details himself in his 2005 memoir, The Latham Diaries. Granted, by then he had retired from politics and was no longer Labor's problem. But rumours of his unsavoury attitudes and behaviour - which would surely fit the definitions of sexism or "a problem with women" as they are being wielded today - were rife long before then. And while some of those stories may have been muddled, exaggerated or even fabricated, Latham confirmed enough of the general flavour, with gusto, in his book: how he and mate Joel Fitzgibbon, now the chief government whip in the House of Representatives, spent a cheerful night out in a pole-dancing venue in Melbourne; how he blasted the current Attorney-General, Nicola Roxon, with "five minutes of swearing" after a factional dispute; how Jenny Macklin was "as useful as pockets in underpants"; how unattractive the women of the Canberra press gallery were.
And yet nobody spoke out. Certainly they didn't take to the floor of parliament to let fly publicly about misogyny. Sexism is not some strange, virulent strain of the flu, only recently discovered; the stories that seem so distasteful today would surely have been as unpleasant to Labor women then. But they sucked it up and stayed silent.
The reason, of course, is partisan politics. And it illustrates why Australian women should be alarmed, rather than excited, about the prospect of a historic federal election in which women's interests and the women's vote are set to take centre stage.
Sexist behaviour cannot and should not be defined by whether or not the perpetrator is on your team. A pathological, criminal hatred of women - or misogyny in its traditional meaning - is far too serious to become a political plaything. The lawyer in Julia Gillard must know this. In her private moments, this woman who has made many personal sacrifices, and brushed off countless cruel smears and slights, to blaze a trail for women to The Lodge must appreciate it too. But the hardened political street fighter will ignore it anyway.
Given what is at stake - her government - perhaps this is understandable. Certainly, it is no different from what generations of political hard men, the warriors who live by the "whatever it takes" credo, would have done. Indeed, that Gillard has demonstrated she can play the game as roughly and remorselessly may be considered by some as a triumph of feminism in its own right.
She has tempted Abbott on to unfamiliar and dangerous territory - a place where he must somehow disprove the amorphous charge that he has "a problem with women" - and she will want to keep him there, under fire. This week proved what a treacherous and unforgiving position the Opposition Leader is in. When his formidable chief of staff, Peta Credlin, gave a character reference for her boss, recounting how she had been reassured as a self-described "right-wing feminist" by Abbott's positions on IVF and abortion, and had enjoyed his support during her own IVF travails, an intensely personal story was immediately decried as playing politics.
Asked about the Credlin interview, Roxon replied: "It's clear from these sorts of stories that Mr Abbott does have a problem with women." In other words, we are moving into a bizarre cycle where anything Abbott says or does to demonstrate that he values women will be held instead as proof against him, and character references from female friends, family and colleagues will be similarly dismissed.
And there's the red flag for women. When only some female voices are acceptable as representatives of "what women want", how is that respectful of women? If we truly respect women's right to the vote, and their intellectual capacity to grapple with issues and come to their own conclusions, and their equality with men generally, then we have to accept the sometimes uncomfortable reality that they will sit across the political spectrum, depending on what their own priorities are, just as men do.
The simple truth is there is no such thing as the "women's vote" and any attempt to pretend there is can usually be revealed to be a political ploy to support another group of sectional interests.
Witness the way Barack Obama's victory in this year's presidential election was immediately embraced by liberal feminists here and elsewhere as conclusive evidence that women vote as a bloc on certain issues. "Threaten women's reproductive rights and they will vote against your arse," thundered a headline on influential women's website Mamamia.
The argument there, and elsewhere, was that women overwhelmingly rejected Mitt Romney because of a string of repugnant attacks by Republicans on reproductive rights.
To be sure, exit polls revealed a significant gender gap; the US President enjoyed an 11-point margin with women voters over Romney, although that was actually a two-point drop in the endorsement he received from women in 2008. But consider this: among white women only, the gender gap reversed and was even larger (14 points) in favour of Romney. More than half of all women in this category (56 per cent) favoured the conservative, despite the baggage of Tea Party extremists in the GOP, over Obama.
The President was saved by his ability to bring out the black and Hispanic vote in massive numbers, and his awesome standing among women in those categories.
From a women's perspective, what can we read into this result? That white American women are traitors to their sex and black and Hispanic women make better feminists? More likely, voters made their choice according to an array of factors, with ethnicity and socio-economic status being at least as important as sex.
Similar factors will have an impact in the Australian federal election later this year, and will be particularly influential in some key seats. But the same polling that gives us the "Abbott has a problem with women" headline already points to a similar diversity in the way Australian women will vote. Throughout last year, about 40 per cent said they preferred Gillard as prime minister, while about one-third favoured Abbott and one-quarter were uncommitted, indicating they may not like either particularly much.
That is hardly a uniform "problem with women" or evidence of misogyny. And the oft-overlooked "uncommitted" category - which remains markedly higher than in previous election years - may give an indication as to what women really want.
Perhaps discerning women want to hear about what these leaders will actually do for them, in policy terms. Perhaps they feel irritated, even demeaned, by this hysterical nonsense about whether or not the candidates "like" women, coupled with sinister but unsubstantiated whispers about what rights they intend to take away. Both leaders' relatively high disapproval ratings suggest voters generally are sick of negative smears.
Abbott's greatest vulnerability here may be that he is yet to release policies on a number of areas that might engage women, and particularly show them how a Coalition government would make their day-to-day lives and the lives of their families better in practical, "real world" terms.
However, as a prolific writer and speechmaker never shy of an impassioned debate, he has left a rich seam for his opponents to mine and quote, often selectively, to fill the void. Having chosen to put his religious faith, including his friendship with Cardinal George Pell, into the public sphere, it is now necessary for him to clarify whether and how he intends to keep those beliefs separate from policymaking - and then get on with it. Just like men, the majority of women couldn't care less what religion their leader practises, provided it doesn't impinge on them or their family.
Meanwhile, the danger for Gillard is that Labor's stoking of an artificial gender war, to stage a character assassination, will look increasingly opportunistic. Where are the policies to tackle income equality, improve community and health services, or promote women's economic security, particularly when they are most likely to be the ones juggling the care of children, ageing parents and family members with a disability?
Given this government has just drastically reduced the incomes of almost 100,000 single parents (most of whom are women), while its female Families Minister assured them that she could live on $35 a day, they are fair questions. Women certainly have the right to ask whether this newfound angst about sexism in all its forms will continue after the next election. Indeed, will it spell any meaningful change or improvement at all in the lives of Australian women?
Political correctness is most pervasive in universities and colleges but I rarely report the incidents concerned here as I have a separate blog for educational matters.
American "liberals" often deny being Leftists and say that they are very different from the Communist rulers of other countries. The only real difference, however, is how much power they have. In America, their power is limited by democracy. To see what they WOULD be like with more power, look at where they ARE already very powerful: in America's educational system -- particularly in the universities and colleges. They show there the same respect for free-speech and political diversity that Stalin did: None. So look to the colleges to see what the whole country would be like if "liberals" had their way. It would be a dictatorship.
For more postings from me, see TONGUE-TIED, GREENIE WATCH, EDUCATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL, FOOD & HEALTH SKEPTIC, AUSTRALIAN POLITICS, DISSECTING LEFTISM, IMMIGRATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL and EYE ON BRITAIN (Note that EYE ON BRITAIN has regular posts on the reality of socialized medicine). My Home Pages are here or here or here. Email me (John Ray) here.