Harry Burns on mortality figures

I’ve recently joined the board of Barony Housing Association, which is part of the Wheatley Group, and consequently was invited to a institutional lecture by Prof Sir Harry Burns, who was considering mortality statistics in Scotland and the UK.  He made the case that, despite the emphasis on nutrition in much of what’s written about public health, nutrition is not at the core of the problems.  Scotland’s nutrition-related mortality follows a pattern, astonishingly, which is not much different from Finland’s.  Finland has an exemplary nutritional policy and lots of virtuous practices, and Scotland (notoriously) doesn’t.

The real difference in mortality, he argued, occurs in younger age groups; and the primary issues for the mortality of younger adults are drugs, alcohol, violence and suicide.  All of which are social.

British democracy faces an existential crisis.

The government of the  United Kingdom has always had an unwritten constitution, and that position has been defended on the basis that it allows governments a degree of flexibility in dealing with complex situations.  That position has been tested to breaking point in recent months.  Here are a few concerns.

1.  The Conservative Party is standing on a manifesto which commits them to change the basis on which laws are made and reviewed.  The Manifesto states:

After Brexit we also need to look at the broader aspects of our constitution: the relationship between the Government, Parliament and the courts; the functioning of the Royal Prerogative; the role of the House of Lords  …

2.  At the same time as Britain withdraws from the governance safeguards imposed by the European Union, it is proposing to weaken  other safeguards (such as human rights and judicial review) which derive from other sources.   The Manifesto again:

We will update the Human Rights Act and administrative law to ensure that there is a proper balance between the rights of individuals, our vital national security and effective government. We will ensure that judicial review … is not abused to conduct politics by another means or to create needless delays.

3.  The present government is firmly committed to legislation on Europe that will give Ministers extensive ‘Henry VIII powers’ – the power to change laws without scrutiny or the prior approval of parliament.  The election was called, not because Parliament had failed to agree the EU Withdrawal agreement, but because it had demanded the rights to scrutinise the bill that enacted those powers.

4. The government has responded to criticisms in the media, the courts and in Parliament by threatening to close them down – most recently threatening Channel 4’s licence to operate.

5.  Members of the government have no scruples about lying about its aims, objectives, situation, process or outcomes.  There is a depressing catalogue of falsehoods listed by Peter Oborne.  It is probably no less dangerous, however, that so many government ministers don’t do detail, and say things that are false simply because they don’t know any better.  Recent examples are the confusion between the EU and the European Court of Human Rights, the mistaken statements about state aid and the EU, or the ill-informed statements made by Johnson and Patel, in the wake of the recent terrorist attack, about the release of prisoners on licence.

These things threaten three key elements of any democracy.  They are the rule of law, public accountability, and open discourse and deliberation.  The threat to democracy is chilling.

The election campaign has been marked by a flurry of lies

Lies are a rarity in British public service.  Most public servants know to avoid them, for a simple reason: they will be found out.  The nature of modern government means that everything is somewhere recorded (usually in writing), subject to exposure or liable to be the subject of legal action.   Public servants, in the best tradition of Sir Humphrey, can prevaricate, obfuscate, divert or distract, but if they’ve got any sense, they don’t say things they know to be untrue.

The Brexit campaign was bizarre, and alien to our political culture.  There were not only deliberate lies (for example, about Turkey’s entry to the EU), but deliberate and flagrant breaches of electoral law.  It’s not going too far to describe those breaches as ‘corrupt’ – the first legislation on electoral spending was, if I have it right, contained in the Corrupt and Illegal Practices Act of 1883.  Now, two elections on, we’ve seen a repetition of many of the same practices. 40 new hospitals and 50,000 nurses belong with the lie on the Brexit bus.

The cavalcade of lies is spearheaded by Boris Johnson.  The Conservative journalist Peter Oborne, horrified by what’s going on, is maintaining a tally at https://boris-johnson-lies.com/ .  I suspect he’s finding it hard to keep up.  Only this morning, the Guardian reports preposterous things being circulated about prostitution, immigration and spending,  and less preposterous (but false) statements about state aid, trade unions, tax and defence.

The main offenders are the Conservative party, but the Labour opposition is not exempt.  Accused of a ‘mendacious fiction’ in saying that the Labour Party had deal with all cases of antisemitism, Jeremy Corbyn did not try to say (in his interview with Andrew Neil) that the statement he’d made was true; he said only that the accuser would have to prove that it was ‘mendacious’, or deliberately untrue.  So the statement was false, but not intended to deceive?  Politicians really ought to be aware that people will on occasion listen to the words they use and judge them accordingly.


The WASPI women are going to have to be compensated, regardless of who wins the election

There is one fascinating exception to the failure of the parties to engage with fundamental issues: that is, the position of the WASPI women, two and a half million women who have had their expected retirement dates delayed and their pension entitlements radically cut.  This is yet another legacy of bad policy decisions taken in recent years.  It has led, however, to Labour and the SNP making a commitment to compensate the women for the loss of rights that have been earned through contributory benefits.

The current position of the UK government has some parallels with the behaviour of Glasgow Council, which persistently underpaid women who ought to have had equal pay.  Both of these problems have come about because the public authorities were looking for ways to save money, and they thought that it was easier to do that by taking the money from women, largely because women’s incomes are considered secondary to men’s.  In both cases, the injustice is obvious and palpable.  And in both cases, the main ground for resistance now is simply how much it will cost to set the issue right.

The WASPI women are set to appeal from the case they lost in the High Court.  For what it’s worth, I think that ultimately they are going to win.  The DWP’s rules are mainly determined through secondary legislation, but there are other rules which have a higher status in law.  The case has direct parallels with a human rights case taken in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, in Five Pensioners v Peru.  The decision in that case centred on the suspension of pensions by the Peruvian government.  Disappointingly, the court did not attach much weight to the idea that social security was a human right; but they did think that there was a human right not be be deprived of one’s property, and that a contributory pension was the property of the pensioner, not the government.

That has implications for any future government.  The bill to compensate the WASPI women is going to be presented in due course, and regardless of the political complexion of the government, it is going to have to be paid.


The last of the main manifestos, from the SNP

The Scottish National Party’s manifesto is the last of the main manifestos to appear.  It’s a reflective document, explaining the SNP’s work in opposition, their role in Westminster and some of the things they hope to lobby for.  In the field of social security, that includes ‘halting’ Universal Credit – presumably that means halting the roll-out, scrapping the two-child limit, ending the freeze on uprating and protecting the WASPI women.   That platform brings them quite close to Labour, who are similarly trying to reverse some of the negative policies of recent years.

I have to accept, reviewing the clutch of election manifestos, that I’d been looking for something that none of the parties is really ready to consider: some thinking about what government should be trying to do for its citizens, what might be done with benefits, what principles we would want to uphold.  I had imagined, after the great splash on social care in 2017, or the continuing problems in health care marked by the troubles of A and E, that some party would have run with something more innovative – for example, what should be done by contributions (the German approach to social care), what by different social arrangements (such as the Kerr reforms of urgent health care) or what by redistribution.  However, these are not the sort of things that our political system is engaging with.  It’s easy to blame Brexit for monopolising everyone’s attention, but I think it goes deeper than that.  After decades years of neoliberalism, marketisation and ‘austerity’, there’s little appetite for solidarity, redistribution  or the expansion of public service.


A minority government is a government that is not supported by a majority. The clue is in the title.

I’ve been irritated by the apparent failure of BBC journalists, in questions put to both the Liberal Democrats and the SNP,  to understand what a minority government is or how it works.  It’s not difficult: we’ve got a minority government at the moment, we’ve had minority governments before (e.g. under Wilson in 1974) and the SNP is technically a minority government in Scotland.  The 2010 Coalition was not a minority government; it had a majority.

Every question which asks minority parties, “who would you support for Prime Minister?”, is irrelevant.  The whole point about minority governments is that they don’t have majority support.  All that has to happen is that there is not actually a vote of no confidence – that minority parties abstain.

In principle, a minority government should work by selecting policies or legislation which can command support – policies that will get through Parliament.  This approach has been undermined to some degree by the present Conservative administration’s refusal to compromise or act as if is in a minority, but there’s nothing wrong with the principle; the current government has simply demonstrated, through repeated losses, how ridiculous it is to ignore the parliamentary numbers.  This election has been called because of the government’s refusal to compromise – not on the Withdrawal Agreement, which had reached a second reading, but on the sweeping authoritarian  powers (“Henry VIII” powers, in the jargon) that they were determined to enact.    Any majority government which took that position would represent an existential threat to our democracy.

A minority government is not a bad thing; it can be a good one.  Lacking a majority forces governments to common ground or compromise, and in our present predicament those are positions devoutly to be wished.  Unfortunately, no-one can actually vote for a minority government; it’s not on the ballot.  All you can do is to vote for a minority party, in the assurance that if there are enough minority parties, there won’t be a majority government.   And that promises a better outcome than any prospective majority government is likely to offer.


The Conservative manifesto is out

I have very little to say about the Conservative manifesto, because it has very little to say about the issues I am generally concerned with.  The manifesto does say (on page 17) that the Conservatives want to reduce poverty, but not how.  The misplaced emphasis on stopping fraud is hard to reconcile with the benefit system’s real failures.  And somehow, carrying on with the roll-out of Universal Credit and extending the life of PIP assessments doesn’t quite seem to address the core problems with benefits, low income,  destitution or debt.

That might, of course, raise the question of why I have not been more enthusiastic about the policies promoted by other parties.  I’ve previously explained that I was looking for a different approach.  Here, with apologies for repetition, is a list of some of the measures that I believe would have a beneficial effect.

  • To make commitments to the principles of income security, meeting need and social justice.
  • Reconsider what people need benefits for, providing services rather than cash where appropriate.
  • Offer a wider range of benefits to improve the security of people’s income and to meet social objectives.
  • Move away from means-testing, with greater reliance on contributory benefits and universal allowances.
  • Rethink how things are done: aim to have benefits with simpler rules, fewer conditions, fewer personal adjustments and longer time scales.
  • Secure benefits for disability to secure their financial status and their dignity.
  • Protect the position of children in disrupted families by directing benefits to the child
  • Improve provision for the oldest pensioners.
  • Reform occupational pensions, to secure the future of pension entitlements and to ensure that pensions funds are invested in the British economy.
  • Protect people better during the interruption of earnings caused by sickness and unemployment.
  • Separate benefits and employability provision; they are doing different things.
  • Provide more public sector jobs, to do the things that we want to have done.

And here is a rough indication of what the parties have promised on those issues.  It’s rough, because it’s easy to miss things; the manifestos tend to pass over minor topics such as ‘poverty’ in a sentence or less, and costings documents are now routinely hidden  somewhere else.  If I’ve missed something important, please let me know.  I’ll try to refine this table as the election campaign goes on.

Labour Conservative Liberal Democrat Green
Principles Dignity
End poverty
Get people back to work Financial security
Provide services, not cash, where appropriate Free broadband, extend child care, free personal care, free primary school meals Free child care for 2-4s Free child care, free personal care for older people
Wider range of benefits
Less means testing
Less intrusion
Secure disability incomes “The support they need”
Benefits direct to children School meals
Older pensioners
Reform occupational pensions For miners and postal workers
Income smoothing
Separate benefits and employability
Create jobs Infrastructure development Infrastructure development Green jobs


Liberty, equality , fraternity: now on open access

I’m delighted to report that my 2006 book, Liberty, equality fraternity, is now available free on open access at the Policy Press website.  From the website:

“Paul Spicker’s book takes the three founding principles of the French Revolution – Liberty, Equality, Fraternity – and examines how they relate to social policy today. The book considers the political and moral dimensions of a wide range of social policies, and offers a different way of thinking about each subject from the way it is usually analysed.

The book is in three main parts, one part devoted to Liberty, Equality and Fraternity in turn. Each part explores the elements and dimensions of the key concept, its application to policy, its interrelationship with the other two principles, and how policies have developed to promote the principle in society. The conclusion outlines three models of radical politics, based on the main concepts.”

The book presents several arguments that are quite original, it refers only to examples from life, and it hasn’t dated.

This is the sixth of my books to be available freely to all.  Find it and others on my open access page.


The Plaid Cymru manifesto

Plaid Cymru have done what they can to stop anyone who isn’t very determined from finding their manifesto on the web, but here’s a link.  There are echoes of several other manifestos – green jobs, avoiding Brexit with a People’s vote, improving mental health, and animal welfare among them.  But there are also some interesting further initiatives – up to forty hours free childcare, a new system of support for renters, and the possibility at least of decriminalising drugs.

It seems to me that there’s an appetite in several opposition parties for  rather more radical solutions than either Conservative or Labour have been ready to countenance.  Their critics will say that that’s because they won’t have to pass these policies in practice, but the support for parties which are trying out unfamiliar ideas should at least be an indicator of a change in the political wind.

Suffering for my art

I’ve been trying to catch up on reading for social policy, and it’s not been a rewarding experience. I’ve just read two books on inequality that couldn’t tell me was inequality was; three books on austerity, two of which could have been written at any time since 1980; several papers that have gratuitous numbers and more references than text; and two and a half books on social work which have told me useless things like saying that capitalism is bad or that people have problems, without giving any hint or clue about what social workers might actually do about it. I’m not going to name those books, because throwing around insults isn’t going to win any friends, but I will mention the one glimmer of light, which was Frances Ryan’s book Crippled: austerity and the demonisation of disabled people. It’s about people’s lives, and everything rings true. If only there were more like it.