Once again, I will not negotiate with terrorists.


Ok, let’s try this again.

This has nothing to do with games and is not a matter of legitimate public interest, but is simply a personal matter. I would hope and request that the games press be respectful of what IS a personal matter, and not news, and not about games. This is explicitly about…

Eurozone negotiations, 18th century style.

The chaplain then recounts the case of a Jaeger subaltern who was assailed “by an Englishman in his cups” with the declamation: “God damn you, Frenchy, you take our pay!” The outraged Hessian replied: “I am a German and you are a shit.” This was followed by an impromptu duel with hangers, (a kind of cutlass, rather than coat hangers, which was my first thought), in which the Englishman received a fatal wound. The chaplain records that General Howe pardoned the Jaeger officer and issued an order that “the English should treat the Germans as brothers.” This order began to have influence only when “our Germans, teachable as they are” had learned to “stammer a little English.” Apparently this was a prerequisite for the English to show them any affection.

From : ‘Steven Schwamenfeld.”The Foundation of British Strength: National Identity and the Common British Soldier.” Ph.D. diss., Florida State University 2007, p. 123-124

Poor Law, poor law.

You are a woman leaving, finally, an abusive man. You are either sent due to a lack of local provision or choose to go away from the area in which you have lived with your abusive partner. You enter the safe space of a women’s shelter. You begin to heal. If you’re very brave, and very lucky, he is convicted, and/or given a restraining order. If you’re even luckier, he respects its conditions. You heal well enough to go home. Despite not having much money, you are, thanks to changes over which you have no control, now responsible for paying at least some of your Council Tax. Fortunately, your council will still help though, surely, via a Council Tax Reduction? It’s at this point that some women discovered that no, their council would not offer them any help. It’s at this point they discovered that there was a financial penalty for having had the courage to leave. It’s at this point they discovered a new Poor Law.

Poor Laws were marked by their imposition of a residency test: if people were not ‘of the parish’ then they were not eligible for support, no matter how destitute. Sandwell Council introduced a residency condition in its Council Tax Support (CTS)scheme: people who hadn’t been resident in the area for two years would not be eligible. The under-provision of places in refuges is a discussion for another day, but it effects in this case mean that women who had to be sent out of area, either for their own safety or because a place wasn’t available in Sandwell, who then returned would find themselves ineligible for CTS. Equally, women who ended up in Sandwell having left another area due to domestic violence, wouldn’t be eligible either. Given the strong correlation between leaving a violent man and subsequent poverty, the consequence would be to make impoverished survivors of DV even poorer.

Enter, thankfully, the courts, who did not so much strike down Sandwell’s policy as shred it (details of the judgment here: http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Admin/2014/2617.html). To reduce the careful language of the judge to the demotic, Sandwell were told that their policy was a Big Fat Fail.

And that, one would think, would be that, surely? Well, no. For example, Basildon Council (who I suspect will not be alone) either can’t read, or haven’t noticed the Sandwell ruling - and their residency condition is seven years. Seven. Years: http://www.basildon.gov.uk/lcts To borrow the words of one well-respected legal blog: it is bonkers.

In these councils’ policies are revealed the way poor and vulnerable people are sent from pillar to post by the push me-pull you between local and central government policies. This government has encouraged the idea that people should be prepared to move house to find work, introduced a cap which means many benefit claimants will be forced to move because their housing benefit will no longer cover their rent, and introduced a bedroom tax (sorry, ceased to pay a spare room subsidy) which has the same effect whilst ALSO allowing councils to introduce residency conditions for CTS. Oh and cutting the grants made to councils,of course: one effect of which has been to reduce the provision of women’s refuges.

I haven’t been able to find a response by Eric Pickles,(Secretary of State for DCLG) to the Sandwell ruling: but being a sunny little optimist, I hope he would condemn what Sandwell did, and what Basildon is still doing. (Rather embarrassingly for Pickles, Basildon is a mere nine miles from his constituency - apparently his enthusiasm for localism doesn’t extend to noticing what’s going on in his own backyard, even when it pertains to his own department’s policies). However, whether he does or not, he cannot escape culpability. The policy decisions these two councils have made did not take place in a vacuum, but against a constant din of rhetoric from inter alia, the SoS and his media supporters about ending the ‘something for nothing’ culture, protecting hard-working families from being ripped off, and the need to ‘put our own people first’. That some councils have absorbed these messages and acted on them in ways which cause harm to the poorest and most vulnerable should come as no surprise. That it only took Sandwell thirty-nine minutes to agree to its new Poor Law is merely the rancid cherry on top.

(I was alerted to this mess, by the excellent Nearly Legal blogpost here: http://nearlylegal.co.uk/blog/2014/08/just-bonkers-absolutely-bonkers/ - anyone interested in housing law should add the blog to their RSS as a matter of urgency).

(Thirty seconds after publishing, I was told that Tendring DC also have residency test. I am beginning to suspect there will be a fair few of these cases…)

The Way We Live Now. Again.

Having been thinking over the last few days about Putin, and Mark Harper’s (unconnected) re-emergence at the top of the political septic tank, led to my wondering what the nineteenth century term for ‘spiv’ was.  Naturally this sent me to Trollope’s ‘The Way We Live Now’, and this quote from him on the reasons for its writing:

Nevertheless a certain class of dishonesty, dishonesty magnificent in its proportions, and climbing into high places, has become at the same time so rampant and so splendid that there seems to be reason for fearing that men and women will be taught to feel that dishonesty, if it can become splendid, will cease to be abominable. If dishonesty can live in a gorgeous palace with pictures on all its walls, and gems in all its cupboards, with marble and ivory in all its corners, and can give Apician dinners, and get into Parliament, and deal in millions, then dishonesty is not disgraceful, and the man dishonest after such a fashion is not a low scoundrel.

It happened in the 19th century, the 20th century, it is happening again. We learn nothing it seems. Nothing at all.

Confused by the French language? This graph should help you



If your French A-Levels or GCSE mostly left you confused at when you were supposed to way “tu” or “vous”, this should make things a bit clearer:



A simple guide to tutoying vs vousvoying. 

A Fragile Empire and the Country Next Door

From Ben Judah’s excellent book on Putin’s Russia ‘Fragile Empire’:

"Russia has and will always be a great power".: these are the words with which Putin began his Presidency. But what kind of ‘great power’ cannot get what it wants - in Ukraine? This country (Ukraine), for Russians, is not really a country. Going there is not really abroad; being from there is not really being foreign. Russians are as intermarried with Ukrainians as the English are with the Scots; they feel like the Germans would towards a sovereign Bavaria - that it is something abhorrent, and surely temporary. There are as many born Ukrainians in the Kremlin as there are Scots in Westminster. Here in Kiev, in the beginning, was the baptism of the Rus - the common forefathers of both Russians and Ukrainians.

A hundred pages in, and I’m finding ‘Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell In and Out of Love with Vladimir Putin’ is a truly valuable, beautifully written book - Russia’s recent history is very much Not My Field, and this is an excellent introductory overview. Even if you just dip into it, the section on Ukraine’s ‘Orange Revolution’ provides a great contextual background against which to set recent events…

Poem: When Considering the Long, Long Journey of 28,000 Rubber Ducks

'To them who scorned the limits of bathtubs' … Kei Miller.

To them who knew to break free from dark hold of ships

who trusted their unsqueezed bodies instead to the Atlantic;

to them who scorned the limits of bathtubs,

refused to join a chorus of rub-a-dub;

to them who’ve always known their own high tunes,

hitched rides on the manacled backs of blues,

who’ve been sailing now since 1992; to them

that pass in squeakless silence over the Titanic,

float in and out of salty vortexes; to them

who grace the shores of hot and frozen continents,

who instruct us yearly on the movement of currents;

to those bright yellow dots that crest the waves

like spots of praise: hail.

Allies, damned allies, and statistics.

Statistics are a microscope through which we can look at the world in cold detail: but whilst their utility is undeniable, they can obscure as well as illuminate. Rather like a coloured lens affecting what we see, an ideological slant can lead to interpretative bias, however good our stated intentions.

Recent examples of this are Ally Fogg’s recent post #ViolenceisViolence on the violence suffered by men (here) and his post on HuffPo here. Both posts are in response to this video showing differing reactions to violence dependent on the gender of the perpetrator:

Before diving headlong into some data, let us clearly define our terms. In the ONS definition, domestic violence has a narrower definition than domestic abuse. This graph provides a handy visual representation:Figure 4.6:  Type of partner abuse experienced by partner abuse victims in the last year, by sex, 2012/13 CSEW(1,2) The two terms are not interchangeable - domestic abuse covers the entire x- axis: domestic violence excludes non-physical abuse. As the title suggests, Mankind’s video focuses on the physical, but over and over, the statistics Ally cites refer to all abuse. The effect is to muddle the eye of the reader.

So, to the data: there are several sources for this, which rather unhelpfully from our viewpoint have different methodologies. This notwithstanding, the ONS is pellucidly clear in its Summary and throughout: “Women were more likely than men to have experienced intimate violence across all headline types of abuse asked about.” Note: they do not say the likelihoods are of a comparable magnitude.

Yet this is the argument, that over and over again, Ally, in his defence of Mankind Initiative’s video, tries with more or less subtlety, to push.

Ally says: “If you go to the Women’s Aid page of statistics, the very first fact stated there is that one in four women will be a victim of domestic violence in her lifetime. This statistic comes from the exact same ONS data set from where we get 40% of victims being male.” (Ally’s blog)

But, seeing as 40% of domestic violence victims in the UK are men…”(HuffPo)

Not only is that NOT the first fact stated on the Women’s Aid page (it’s “One incident of domestic violence is reported to the police every minute.”) but he has compared a statistic about domestic violence to one about domestic abuse, in order, it seems, to minimise the violence women suffer and exaggerate that suffered by men.

The time frames are also different: Ally cites Women’s Aid ‘in her lifetime’ - but the ONS data refers to reported incidents in the last year; the sample sizes are not the same: Women’s Aid’s statistic refers ALL women in the adult female population not the percentage of victims referred to by the ONS.

Ally and Mankind also leave unaddressed that men will be perpetrators of violence against men in relationships, as well as being victims (it’s worth noting that of all incidents of all kinds of violence in society, the majority are committed by men); domestic violence and abuse against men will not take place solely in heterosexual relationships (the same caveat, of course, applies to women).

His attempt to redefine domestic violence by volume of incidents a victim suffers is puzzling at best: to quote Mankind’s own slogan ‘ViolenceisViolence’ whether it’s once or a thousand times.

No serious advance made by feminism has been without a push-back from men unable to accept what is staring them in the face. In order to end male violence in society against women, we need to understand and name the problem. Male violence is still far too prevalent, it is still under-reported, it is still not regarded as the epidemic it is. Ally Fogg calls himself an ally to feminists. On the basis of his writing on this topic, I fear feminists should regard the proffered solidarity as provisional, at best.

Never mind the welfare reform anecdotes, feel the MPA report.

One of the recurring themes of the government’s approach to welfare reform is that of the desirability of people ‘taking responsibility’ for their own lives, especially those in receipt of government funds (except pensioners - they’re off the hook).  A major selling-point of its flagship, Universal Credit is that it ‘smooths’ the transition to work by replicating more closely the payment behaviours of salaried employment (monthly payments, claimants pay landlords directly unless they opt-out and so on).

However, responsibility cuts both ways: just as an employee needs to make sure they turn up on time and does the work expected of them, the employer needs to make sure that the workplace is safe, and that staff are paid the right amount for the work they do. Contracts have two parties, not just one.

Unfortunately, both in its contract with individual claimants and with the wider public (both claimants and not), the DWP (and the government) is significantly failing to honour its obligations, in ways that have major, negative implications for those at the sharp end of welfare reform: those paid so little that their wages and/or rent have to be topped up by welfare payments. The latest iteration of this is arguably the greatest so far.

Commendably, the government set up the Major Projects Authority (MPA) in 2010, to act as a ‘super-auditor’ of large government initiatives whilst they were still being developed (remit here: https://engage.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/major-projects-authority/chapter-2-the-major-projects-authority-remit/). Its assessments are delivered as a traffic light system (RAG): red indicates a project is functionally unachievable unless major remedial action takes place, green is full steam-ahead. Projects can and do move across the spectrum as they develop.

The previous assessment of Universal Credit was ‘amber-red’: the most recent, however has seen it removed from the RAG spectrum altogether and given the designation of ‘reset’, a fact revealed via a terse footnote (p.12, here:  https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/315601/MPA_Annual_Report_2013-14_final.pdf_ ) Which would be less worrying if we knew the criteria used to apply the ‘reset’ - the Institute for Government is puzzled, and the Cabinet Office isn’t telling. As things stand, given that the ‘whole life’ costs of Universal Credit have also been reset, we no longer know its projected budget - and a major benefit was meant to be Universal Credit’s capacity to reduce costs. To return to the analogy of the employer/employee relationship it’s akin to an employee shrugging when asked when an overdue project will be ready: or an employer replying ‘Not my problem’ at an unpaid wage.

The shrug is the government’s response to the delivery issues with Universal Credit. The indifference to non-payment has emerged via landlords involved in the Universal Credit roll out, in the most literal sense possible: a housing association has had to employ two full-time staff to chase arrears caused by problems with the payment software. Outsourcing for efficiency is one way to describe it. Those directly affected have used more demotic language, I imagine.

However, it gets worse. At present, tax credits are under HMRC’s control, but under Universal Credit, tax credits will be rolled into the single payment. Tax credits have always been problematic, as they rely on people telling HMRC about changes in their income (which disproportionately affects those on variable hours, for obvious reasons), but even allowing for this HMRC haven’t always been a model of good service delivery. One consequence of this has been over-payments to claimants.

Enter, outrageously, debt collectors. Quite why HMRC thinks it necessary to employ them when it could simply claw back any over-payment from future tax credit awards is beyond me. One theory is that it is part of a drive to minimise the tax credit bill, at a time of the more-or-less stagnant real wages tax credits effectively subsidise. But whatever the reasons, sending in debt collectors over an over-payment for which the debtor in many cases will not even be responsible, presents a very worrying precedent.

We know that IDS is desperate to introduce Universal Credit, come what may; it’s arguably the reason for his continuing presence in Cabinet. We know that the Universal Credit roll out is revealing problems with the software, and we know it’s having knock-on effects with rental payments to landlords, and that people’s tenancies have been jeopardised as a result. We know that self-reporting of changes to wages can cause problems with tax credits and now we know that HMRC will send in debt collectors, even if the claimants are not at fault.

Which generates the following scenario: Universal Credit software fails, generating an overpayment, and/or an incorrect rental payment.  At the very least, this will lead to an increase is stress, and an increased risk of poverty for families already on low incomes. It is not unthinkable that this chain of events, given what we’ve seen already, will result in the loss of their home and/or possessions, even if it’s only in the most ‘extreme’ cases. As a sidebar, what this will do to any household participating in the Troubled Families programme, in which DWP is also involved is anyone’s guess. My guess is will certainly not help, and will probably hinder.

I have said repeatedly that I support the idea of Universal Credit in theory; the existing multiple taper rates make calculating one’s entitlement/ contribution a labyrinthine task. But a reform of this nature has got to be better, simpler, more responsive and accurate if it is going to succeed in its stated objectives and right now it fails on all counts: never mind the anecdotes, feel the MPA report.

It is simply unacceptable that the government is even considering effectively punishing the most financially vulnerable for mistakes not their own - and yet, pulling the strands together, it seems all-too plausible that it will. If the government wants people to take responsibility for their own lives, it should start by looking in the mirror held up by the MPA, the Work and Pensions and Public Accounts Committees and the problems identified by those taking part in any Universal Credit trials - and act on what it sees there.

On Poverty


Disclaimer: I have been trying to write this for almost a year and I’m tremendously dissatisfied with the result. It is three and a half thousand words long and has been drafted and revised so many times that I give up and release it from this endless, painful gestation.

I have never owned a table.

Sure, the place I live in has a table. It’s a glass table and it’s considerably better than the slightly wobbly wooden table in the previous place I lived in but, being glass, I’m perpetually terrified it will break and then I’ll have to pay for it. Then I’ll have paid for a table and still never have actually owned one.

I couldn’t tell you how much a table costs, but I did buy the cheapest and most basic desk for £50 once. I have a feeling I’d be charged a lot more than that if this table broke.

That philosophy extends to everything around me where I live, where I have lived: I don’t own it, but I will be paying for it if something goes wrong. There is a special sort of added excitement to this, since most of the places I’ve lived in have had all sorts of things wrong with them already, things from faulty electrics to ill-fitting windows to no doors that will close properly anywhere, that are never addressed. I’ve feared these things as well because I’ve wondered if I’m going to be the tenant who is deemed to be responsible for them, particularly because landladies and landlords seem to be curiously divorced from the properties they own. They always live far away, or they’re out of town or they’re overseas again. One landlady looked around a flat I was renting from her with surprise and awe and bafflement, failing to recognise many of its features.

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this is so good - makes me nauseous to think that some politicians think forcing people to live this precariously is a positive behavioural ‘nudge’.