Budget thoughts

This is all word vomit, so forgive me.  

I really don’t give a shit about paying taxes. I don’t.  If I get decent, efficient services back from my taxes, I couldn’t care less about them taking the money off me.  My problem is that I don’t feel confident that this Government takes my tax money and uses it efficiently.  So when George Osborne stands in the Commons and says people don’t want the state to spend more, I don’t believe him.  Of course, this is only based on my views but I truly don’t mind state-spending (typical lefty) my money if I think it’s channelled in the right direction, which is open to definition depending on your political persuasion.

Problems I have:

  • Rent.  Private landlords in London are making a mint from people like me.  I support a rent cap but fuck all will be done about it whilst everyone’s favourite clown, Boris Johnson, stays in power.
  • Affordable housing.  I’d love to own my own flat or house eventually, though I doubt in my lifetime this will happen for me.  Not in London anyway.  Unless I come into a big lottery win, also unlikely.  The construction industry is on its arse in Britain, yet whenever I see housing estates and flats being built, they are simply not affordable for first-time buyers like me.  Something needs to be done.
  • Prices and incomes.  I work in the public sector and Osborne has just announced my pay increase will again be capped to 1% until at least 2016.  I understand in these tough times that we all have to take a hit.  I wouldn’t care so much if the combined hit of rent + prices/inflation didn’t have such a profound effect on my income and expenditure. 
  • Democracy.  It’s a joke in this country.  You wouldn’t think Prime Minister’s Questions is a serious tool of government accountability with this bunch of jeering schoolkids.  Actually that’s an insult to schoolkids who would probably behave better than this lot (on all sides of the Chamber).  How are we expected to take politics and our own political system seriously when the best they can do is yell and beat their chests?  The Deputy Speaker had to stop the Budget reading TWICE to calm down MPs.  It doesn’t help encourage people to participate in this system, especially at a time when many citizens already feel disengaged from the processes and decisions that affect them.
  • Transport costs.  I have had a YP railcard since I was 18 and have saved a shitload of money on travel with it.  But when I turn 26, my eligibility will be gone.  Fair enough.  At 26, there is an expectation that you don’t need a subsidy for your travel if, as expected, you are in full-time employment.  My fare will go from £51 return to £77 without my railcard (approximately).  Again, I wouldn’t care so much if I felt I got a decent service.  I have perhaps not suffered as much as people on the East Coast do.  The problems there are well noted.  But on Monday afternoon, I caught the 14:10 Glasgow to Euston service from Wigan, which should’ve arrived in London at 16:12.  Thanks to overhead line problems and a deluge of fuck ups at Euston, we arrived into Euston at 17:12.  This is the tip of travel-chaos iceberg.  This single experience is nothing compared to the stories I’ve heard.

This is all I can think of for now, but that’s probably enough. I’m angry and cynical.

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In or out

After 6 months of preparation, the Prime Minister has finally made his long awaited Europe speech.  I will admit now that I caught a mere 20 minutes of the speech this morning, but enough to grasp the main point of what David Cameron was saying: he wants us to remain in the EU but will put forth a referendum anyway.  In 2017.

There is no love lost between me and DC.  I say that like we have some kind of personal relationship, which we don’t.  But despite my feelings of general hatred towards most things Conservative, I feel a bit sorry for him.  Regardless of how much money he earns or how posh his background is, imagine being faced with that many people sharpening their knives.  He’s got knives out in front of him from the Opposition, there’s knives to the side from his own coalition partners, and his own Eurosceptic backbenchers have got a few knives of their own.  Yet what he did this morning was a shrewd, albeit cynical, political manoeuvre.

The PM committed us to a referendum, but only in 2017, which basically means that we will have to reelect this man in 2015 to have any hope of participating in said referendum.  He believes in the public “having their say” – but not for another 4 years.  Because of course it’ll take 4 years to organise this referendum.  Of course.  Let’s disregard the fact we were able to get the referendum on the electoral system up and running in 12 months.  No no!  The EU referendum – a simple choice between in or out – will take 4 whole months.

The AV referendum is perhaps a bad comparison.  It was a shambles.  Not because of its organisation as a whole, but because of a lack of awareness and education among the electorate on what they were even voting for.  That was not their fault – the powers that be did not make it clear what we were voting for.  But four years?  Four years to educate, to inform, to give both sides?  Four years to send out some ballot slips?  In my view, a cynical ploy to buy the government 5 more years.

I understand it will take time for the Prime Minister to “renegotiate” our powers, but he can’t even tell us what powers he plans to reform.  In a club of 27 member states, many of whom share in one currency, and the rest who don’t – this is going to be a long, complex process.  But in giving us a choice between his vague notion of a proposed reformed relationship and withdrawing altogether, he has left another open goal for the likes of UKIP and the tabloids.  All too often the media has been left to set the terms of this debate.  It is easy to drum up some rage when you splash a few sensationalist headlines across your front pages about how the EU is demanding we rename Bombay Mix (they aren’t, it’s a myth) or that we get rid of “Made in Britain” labels (also a myth).

I hope today’s speech will set in motion a real, honest debate about the EU that is devoid of lies, propaganda and paranoia.  My personal feelings about the EU remain the same as always – I believe it to be a mixed bag of fatcats, fascists and good men and women who desperately want to help the people of Europe without the need for more centralisation.  Like the membership of the EU itself, the PM is trying a balancing act between national interest, party interest, and the benefits the UK receives from being a major player in the Union.  For large parts, he has failed, but despite my feelings towards him and his party, I do not wish my country to be thrown into the economic gutter, either through complete withdrawal or more federalism and centralisation.  Therefore, I hope he is able to get some bottle, wrestle this debate away from the naysayers and doom mongering media, and use this opportunity to set us on a path to a reformed, and better, relationship with the EU.

Unbelievable

New child benefit changes have come into effect today. 

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-20912268

Am I the only one utterly stunned that a family with a single income of over £50,000 will lose part of their benefit, but a family of TWO incomes of £35,000 and £20,000 respectively will keep ALL of theirs?

At what point did this country lose all of its marbles?  Can we no longer do simple maths?

 

PCC elections reinforce need for proper discourse on British democracy

I listened with intent this morning as Damian Green MP did the rounds on television.  He had the unenviable job of trying to paper over the cracks that have emerged since yesterday’s Police Crime Commissioner elections.  These elections have proved, once again, that we need a real conversation in this country about our democracy.

Police & Crime Commissioners (PCCs) are another bright idea of this Coalition government, first confirmed as Conservative policy way back in 2010.  On paper, it sounds wonderful – making democracy more local, having an assigned person in control of policing priorities for specific areas.  Well and good.  But the success of such policies hinges on a naive belief that local electorates are interested and educated enough about PCCs to want to vote in such elections.

PCC elections took place yesterday across a swathe of localities.  Turnout was expected to be 18.5 per cent according to the Electoral Reform Society – but the first few results have proved this to have been an optimistic estimate at best.  In Wiltshire, turnout was just 15.2 per cent – 78,794 people voted out of a possible 520,000 registered voters.  In Greater Manchester, turnout was 13.5 per cent.  In the West Midlands, this figure dropped lower, with some election turnouts at a meagre 12 per cent.

So I was highly amused this morning to hear Mr Green come out with this hilarious quote:

“The measure of this policy is not the turnout, it’s what the police and crime commissioners achieve over the next few years.” (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-20352539)

Amazing.  Yes, Mr Green, we’re all looking forward to seeing how this experimental policy plays out over the next few years.  But what you fail to understand that, actually, the success of a policy must begin with its own legitimacy.  How can we seriously say that PCCs have a right to decide force budgets, appoint chief constables, and set local policing priorities when barely 15 per cent of the electorate gave them a vote?  How can an MP imply on live TV that a core tenet of our democracy can be dismissed as long as a policy is successful?  If you’re willing to admit on national television that turnout – whatever number – can be overlooked, what other democratic processes are similarly being overlooked?

These elections again prove the need for a proper discussion on where democracy is heading in this country.  I have read from a range of sources about the reasons people did not turn out for these elections.  Many voters did not know what they were being asked to vote for.  Candidates were unknown to potential voters.  Information was not given out on candidates and their manifestos.  How can we ever expect people to get out and vote when they don’t know what they’re voting for?

We had a similar situation with the electoral system elections and I fear that we will see a continuation of decreasing turnout in parliamentary and European elections.  We need to seize this opportunity in the wake of the PCC election results to ensure that your average Joe on the street is informed about why they’re voting, what exactly – in the most explicit terms – they are voting for, and who their choices are as candidates.  This is especially important in the case of PCCs, some of whom will be earning a £100,000 pay packet in these roles.

Apathy and disenfranchisement are crippling our democracy.  Confidence in our elected officials is at a low.  It is absolutely crucial to the future of the British political system that action is taken now to prevent these turnout figures being repeated elsewhere.  Tackling apathy starts in the classroom.  We must arm future generations with the basic facts about the country they live in and the democracy within which they will eventually participate.  If we cannot do this, then we are betraying the democracy and the freedoms which we have fought hard to keep over successive centuries.  It’s time to act now.

Widows’ benefits

I read with disgust this morning an article in the Telegraph (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/8952062/Lord-Freud-plans-shake-up-of-benefits-for-widows.html) on Lord Freud’s plan to “shake up” benefits given to widows.

This blog post may not be one of my most rational, as for me this issue is very personal.  My father passed away suddenly in March 1996, aged just 46-years-old, and left my mum, then 43-years-old, to raise my brother, 12, and me, 8, by herself.  When we lost my dad, he was the breadwinner in my family.  He had worked previously as an upholsterer, and was currently working at an engineering plant at the time of his unexpected death.

My mum has for many years lambasted the lack of support given to widows, some of whom are incredibly vulnerable.  They did not ask or choose to be in this position; they did not ask for their husbands (or wives) to be taken from them, but such is the cruelty of fate.  My mum was working as a cook in a school kitchen at the time, but thanks to the specific hours this kind of work entails, was able to look after me and my brother and see us to and from school.  But when my dad passed, we did not just lose a loved one.  We did not just lose a parent and husband.  We also lost income, security and stability.

Thankfully, my dad had two pensions, one from a former employer and one from his current employer at the time of his death.  Combined with my mum’s meagre widow’s pension, we were able to get by, and we never wanted for anything during our childhood and adolescent years.

But the fact remains that widows are victims.  And they are ignored.  Whilst some, such as military widows, get a little more attention than others, which is understandable, many struggle on in the background.  My mum is one.  Her widow’s pension has never increased by much in the almost 16 years since my dad died – I have no problem with this, as of course my brother and myself are now in our twenties and work, pay taxes etc.  But this is happening to other widows too – widows with dependent children, children with special needs, and a whole other variety of circumstances that we can’t even comprehend.  It is a silent struggle.  My mum was often too proud to ask for help.  I imagine many others – widows and widowers alike – feel the same.

And the phrase that really turned my stomach concerned the idea that benefits must be changed in order to encourage widows to go back to work sooner.  Has Lord Freud no humanity?  There is no timeline or deadline on grief.  You do not just wake up one morning, say “I’m over it” and get on with life.  It is a daily battle to face the days, but you do it in your own time.  Mourning is a long process, depending on several different factors.  My mum did go back to work eventually, but in doing so exacerbated a previous medical condition, which she has now had since 1997.  I still believe her going back to work so soon after my father’s passing added to her grief and stress.  Does Lord Freud think that widows enjoy sitting at home, trying to make sense of what has happened in their lives?  Does he not think that they’d rather be doing anything other than grieving the loss of their spouse?

At a time when many other services are being cut, I find it abhorrent that this government should now turn its eye to widows’ benefits to see where else we can make some savings.  Thank goodness that me and my brother have now grown up, and my mum can use her pension – and state pension in years to come – for her own individual purposes.  But what if this wasn’t the case?  What if this was happening to my family NOW?  Or next year?  We would be faced with the fact that my mum may lose a portion of a benefit she doesn’t even want to have to take, but must because fate has dealt her the worst hand.  The truth is, if these proposals are followed through, this will happen.

I find myself aghast at how this government can only think in terms of money, yet again.  They really do know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Skills & education

I read with interest this article during my lunch break: http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2010/dec/13/social-survey-thatcherite-britain?fb=native&CMP=FBCNETTXT9038.  It makes some interesting points about a renaissance in Thatcherite thinking and gives some intriguing statistics about the New Labour project.

However, it is only one short paragraph in this article that I am concerned with:

“In 1996, about a half (56%) thought schools taught basic skills well, rising to nearly three-quarters (73%) by 2008. But there is still deep concerns about the effectiveness of schools in preparing young people for work, with only half thinking schools do this well.”

From my experiences in both the state education system and working in the welfare-to-work industry, I have found vocational skills trianing to be severly lacking in this country.  Successive Labour governments were very keen to get low-income children into higher education, despite the obvious fact that not all children are suited to academia.

I left secondary school in 2004, and sixth form in 2006, and during both these tenures I saw time and time again individuals being bulldozed into considering university when perhaps their talents were better suited to practical, skilled work.  I attended an excellent sixth form college, repeatedly rated as 3rd best in the UK, but even here I found a lack of support for students who had no desire to go to university.  The onus was always on applying to UCAS.  Pressure wasn’t just put onto lower-achieving students, but also high achievers too, who, I felt, were forced into considering applications to Oxford or Cambridge.  I resisted such pressure and went on to get my degree at the University of Manchester.

During my time working for a training and skills provider, I saw swathes of young unemployed people, many who were male and from low-income households, pass through our doors with barely any idea of what a CV was.  Their IT skills were basic, their communication skills lacking, and they had little to no idea what employers in 2011 are looking for in a prospective employee.

If there is a problem with our education system then it is that some of our schools and colleges are too preoccupied with ratings and reputations measured only by university applications.  We simply must do more to ensure there is help and advice available for all students, whether they wish to attend university, take up a trade or an apprenticeship, or become an entrepreneur.  By addressing these problems, I think we can better prepare young people for working life and help bolster our economy by diversifying our skills base.  Furthermore, we must do more to ensure help is available from job centres and other third party skills organisations so that we can advise and help upskill those unemployed individuals who have been left behind by the education system.