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Friday, 20 April 2007

One brand that Bryan Ferry won't find at M&S

Although Hugo Boss wasn't convicted as a war criminal, he was fined 80,000 marks for his work in designing uniforms and badges for the Nazis. Now, it is rumoured, BNP bosses will wear no other suit. I'd like to have seen Boss' copywriter's efforts to promote these creations - perhaps
Our new range of formal yet unstructured menswear, suitable for both day and evening wear, for the town as well as the country. Rugged enough for active use, yet smart enough to wear to enjoy a glass of marc outside a Parisian cafe. You can feel at home anywhere in Europe with the Hugo Boss label..

Thursday, 19 April 2007

Welfare housing causes deprivation

A brief follow up to the previous post; I'll continue this as time allows. The change in the way welfare housing is allocated that has taken place over the last thirty years, away from a 'waiting list' approach to one that gives priority to 'need', has changed the composition of our welfare estates to include a disproportionate number of those who can give the appearance of 'need'.

Amongst those of working age on welfare estates, around half are without paid work. Two groups predominate amongst these; those on disability benefit, and single parents. The higher-rate disability benefit is the holy grail of the long-term claimant; it has been estimated that 90% of those currently in receipt of it should not be. Frank Field wrote in 2006:
Second, two urgent reforms to incapacity benefit must be enacted so that claimants are safely delivered back into work. Incapacity benefit recipients are by far the largest group of working aged claimants. Yet those claiming IB for two years have a greater chance of dying on benefit, or transferring to the retirement pension, than working again. Existing claimants should be told that if they get a part-time job, they can keep all their benefits for a year. The local office would then help them into full-time work.
The system itself, including welfare housing, actually creates the disadvantage and deprivation it is meant to tackle. The LSE report finds that if you have no qualifications, you will be 43% likely to be workless if you live in non-welfare housing, but 70% likely to be workless if you live in welfare housing. 35% of single parents outside of welfare housing are without work, but 64% of those in welfare housing are out of work.

Moving from benefits to paid work should be very much easier if your rent is only £35 a week; common sense suggests that those in private rented accommodation paying 3 times this at market rates should be the ones 'trapped' on benefits. Yet it is those in welfare housing that show a minimal propensity to make this move.

Welfare housing has long been a 'no go' area for party politics - there are too many votes for the parties there. With the exception of those like Frank Field who are able to think the unthinkable, no one will be debating the future of welfare housing in advance of the current local government elections. Field wrote of the welfare changes in the US that have dramatically improved the lives of millions of citizens:

Critics on both sides of the Atlantic were incandescent when Clinton signed his welfare reform bill to abolish welfare as the US had known it. There would be armies of destitute claimants scavenging for food. The talk was of bulldozing a million children into poverty. It was dubbed harsh, cruel and mean-spirited. Even the Catholic bishops weighed in, and joining them was the then Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, whose record on welfare few could equal. He argued that “No one believes the mothers and grandmothers of these children will find work.” Well for once Senator Moynihan was proved wrong. None of the research projects published on this revolutionary welfare change has been able to stand up these scare stories. The reverse is true: limiting welfare payments to five years, even for claimants with young children, has resulted in a mass migration from benefit to work. The welfare rolls have fallen by 60%, the first sustained decline since the programme began in 1935.
Is welfare housing the last great privatisation the UK needs to undo this socialist cruelty? If shares in £400bn of social housing stock were offered to the people of Britain in the same way as British Gas, with local housing companies run by effective commercial management and with a commitment to raise welfare rents to market levels over say 5 years, would we be rid of this millstone?

Wednesday, 18 April 2007

Welfare Housing destroys the lives of tenants

I don't have time today to do this justice, and will be coming back to it again. I've been going through a major report from LSE, produced for the government, on welfare housing (or social housing, if you prefer. I don't).

When this was first conceived, renting rather than owning was the norm for much of British society. The Labour government envisioned estates like twee urban villages, where the doctor and the vicar lived side by side with the butcher and the labourer in a democratic social mix. Since 1979 several things have happened; hundreds of thousands have escaped the council estate by buying their houses, a general rise in ownership has meant everyone else who wanted to and could afford it have left, and councils have been prevented from demolishing decent private housing and building welfare slums as they did with such abandon in the 60s. So where are we now? Well, a few snippets from this report:
  • The economic cost to the country of subsidised welfare rents is £6.6bn a year
  • We (the taxpayer) own £400bn in capital value of welfare housing, but our return on capital after management and maintenance is barely 1% per annum
  • It's a myth that council tenants all want to be owner occupiers; given the choice, 39% would prefer to stay as subsidised tenants
  • Barely a third of heads of welfare households are in full time work
  • One in eight private house moves are work related, but just a very few thousand moves a year amongst 4m welfare tenants are for employment reasons
  • Welfare tenants stay put in the same house for a very long time. Over twenty years, they will enjoy the benefit of subsidised rent worth £65,000 at Net Present Value.
  • Despite subsidised rents meaning that in theory it's much easier for a welfare tenant to move from benefits to work than for a private tenant, very few do so.
Add to these the fact that of all residential areas, welfare estates suck in over 80% of police, social services and other tax-funded resources - read any copper's blog to see where all the police time goes - and our continuing to support the idea of welfare housing is economically crippling and destroys the lives of millions of welfare tenants 'locked in' to a system of welfare dependency.

I'll come back to this.
UK 'two meals away from anarchy'

This was the assessment of a former intelligence boss some years ago. Few people keep food stocks in the cupboards these days - why should we? The supermarkets provide an abundance of cheap, available food, so much cheap food that we throw away 15% of what we buy. But sometimes the old certainties can vanish with rapidity.

Since the nineteenth century the UK has never been self sufficient in food. By the time of the Great War, we imported around 50% of our food. We currently import around 50% of our food. In between was the Second World War and a government policy of intensive agriculture that reduced this dependence but never eliminated it.

And since we are dependent on the sea and shipping to feed the nation, we made it a priority to have a Navy that could defend the sea lanes and break a submarine blockade. Our national survival depends on ships laden with food reaching our ports.

A new report from Prof Bill McKelvey suggests that food security may be back on the agenda. For the first time in years, food prices are rising. This is one of the factors raising the current rate of inflation. As India and China enjoy prosperity, and the better diets that come with it, there is increased competition in the world's food markets. Add to this the vast quantity of land being taken out of food production to grow feedstock for Biofuels, and a rising world population enjoying greater longevity, and the disruption of crop growth by climate change and extreme weather events, the era of dirt cheap food from Tesco and the other multiples is not sustainable.

Now McKelvey is flying a flag for GM crops - something I fundamentally cannot agree with. I don't fault his arguments, but there have to be solutions other than Frankenstein foods.

Tuesday, 17 April 2007

I'll give Oughterard a miss this year

The hatching of the Mayflies around Loch Corrib in Galway in the next few weeks would usually be the signal for a long weekend in Ireland at an old friend's cottage on the shore of this 200 square kilometre lake. The Corrib trout - proper wild brown trout - go into a feeding frenzy and even an eejit like me can land a decent catch. The local kids make a decent euro from collecting and selling newly-hatched mayflies; you 'dap' with a live fly here.

I'm giving it a miss this year. The cottage water supply is a pipe running into the peaty-brown lake. Ireland's economic boom has meant hundreds of new homes around Oughterard. All of which discharge their sewage into the lake. Everyone out there has been infected by cryptosporidium and are on bottled water.

Amazing; in just a few short years one of Europe's last unspoiled and unpolluted areas has fallen victim to man. Water that was once pure enough to drink straight from the Corrib is foul with sewage.

Warning: This DOES NOT help Terrorists

Last year at Lewes railway station (a town in which Tom Paine once lived - what irony!) I watched a couple of train spotters - purple nylon anoraks and thermos flask real train spotters - getting excited about a Victorian engineer's plate on the bridge spanning the platform. One pulled a camera out and focused. Within seconds, two coppers in full BTP riot gear had him pinioned against the fence.

I thought maybe it was a train spotter thing. Looking at trains without a permit or something.

Yesterday a colleague told me that on Sunday he and his wife had gone to a London mainline station to see their #1 daughter off on her 'gap year' travels. As daughter paused at the barrier to wave, mum pulled out a camera. As they do. Four coppe
rs in full ballistic armour, belts hung heavy with law enforcement hardware that suggests, but stops just short of, firearms, came hurtling out of their hiding place to fall upon mum.

Possession of information likely to aid terrorists. She could keep the camera if the image was deleted. In vain my colleague reasoned that any terrorist could join the tens of thousands of commuters that use the station each day if they wanted to see what it looked like. He stopped when it became likely that he would be arrested for terrorism himself.

Monday, 16 April 2007

A meme from Cityunslicker ...

My favourite things about summer?
  • Time on the boat. It's when all the frozen fingers and painful wounds of winter maintenance are worthwhile; the slap of waves on the hull, the singing of a creamy bow wave, exploring deserted creeks, the inquisitive whiskery snout of a friendly seal in the water within hands-reach and all the irritations of land-life suspended
  • Long lunches in country pub gardens. Oh, never mind the wasps getting drunk on puddles of cider, or the creepy crawlies that sunbathe on your toes, there is something about long lunches with friends and family in a small shady meadow at the back of a country pub that in Suffolk is termed a 'garden'; the kids can run about and mould mud-cows in the stream (there's always a stream), talk to the donkey and goat in the adjoining meadow (there's always a donkey) while the grown-ups watch the sun-clock shadow swing slowly around the rough picnic benches. No music except the zizzing of cicadas and the low rumbling of wood pigeons in the trees.
  • Sunsets. Vast East Anglian skies shot through with colours of lambent beauty, slanting low on fields of ripening wheat and barley, air warm as milk, shallow valleys lit like Tuscan slopes and the smell of warm grass hanging in the still air; swallows and martins diving and darting over the hedges and through the lanes at dusk - you want to stay out for ever, lie under the stars on the sun-warm earth. And it does wonders for the, er, libido too.
  • Watching people enjoying life. Pretty girls in summer clothes, lads in an open car, the crowd on a pub pavement, tourists strolling slowly drinking the Englishness in, kids squealing in delight, gentle laughter drifting over the gardens.

And many congrats to the Cityunslickers on the expected arrival!

Where are the Anthropologists when you need them?

Right, let's be very clear. I'm not suggesting that Moslems share any more characteristics with Apes than I do, which is to say 99.whatever percent of our DNA. But I'm confused by two contrasting press stories.

The first was in yesterday's Sunday Times headed 'Don't stare at Moslems' and quoted teaching advice as recommending 'staring or looking is a form of discrimination as it makes the other person feel uncomfortable, or as though they are not normal'.

The second is in this morning's Telegraph headed 'Don't stare at the Apes' and quotes an Antwerp zoo spokesman: "We are saying to visitors that, if our apes hold eye contact with them, then they should look away for a bit or take a step back. Our evidence shows that chimpanzees and other apes who have a lot of contact with visitors apparently tend to isolate themselves from their companions over the course of time."
Hilary Benn on 'The War on Terror'

I'm pleased someone else is finally realising the stupidity of this phrase. It's been banned from my lexicon since Bush first mouthed it.

Let's be clear. Terror is a weapon, not an enemy. You can no more have a war on terror than you can have a war on swords, or a war on grenades. It's meaningless.
Charles Moore and the paradox of Human Rights

In a piece in the Telegraph on Saturday, Charles Moore alluded to on the conflict between the State and our intermediate institutions, and the paradox of the reach of our Human Rights laws in eroding our essential freedom.

The authority of families and intermediate institutions will always be weak when the State is strong, and vice-versa.

The ethos of the regiment has been the strength of the British army since the eighteenth century. As with a family, it gave protection, provision, identity and pride; in return it demanded loyalty and obedience. It was a self governing, self regulating unit with its own laws and customs, an institution that enjoyed a high degree of devolved authority, beyond the pallid damp clasp of civil servants and politicians. It trained men for success in war. Soldiers put their 'human rights' on hold when they sign-up - and never mind the 'right of free speech', the essential paradox of war is that those who fight it recognise that the 'right to life' that is the basis of Human Rights law can only be upheld by men who are prepared to die in its defence.

As with the regiment, so with other institutions; the Navy, the Church, our professional bodies, the police. Many others. The strength of institutions lies in the extent to which their members subjugate their individual 'rights' to the authority of the institution. And as with institutions, the authority of the family.

A State that offers a direct relationship with every individual recognises no authority other than its own, and no framework other than a myth of freedom and liberty based on the absolute rights of the individual. Your sergeant-major is rude to you? Take him to court for bullying. Your parish congregation doesn't support your public transvestism? Claim your right in law. Your Chief Constable doesn't like you appearing in porn films? Assert your right to free speech. Your mother smacks you? Prosecute her for assault.

When you lose the authority of institutions, you lose something infinitely precious to freedom; you lose the opportunity for any devotion, any attachment to anything other than yourself. You lose the opportunity for allegiance and loyalty to something intimate and close yet greater than yourself. My father loved his regiment until the day of his death, loved it with a fierce possessive pride. He sought to make its virtues his own. As Moore says, writing of the Navy,
Behind that account is a world we have lost - of unreasoning, lifelong devotion, of love for an institution above self. If you don't have that, it is only a matter of time before you don't have a navy.