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: 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: ) 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.

Read More

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

Big Society and the benefits cap.

Watching ‘Don’t Cap my Benefits’ (yes, I know) last night, having just got to  grips with Cameron attributing the Big Society idea to Jesus, I was struck again by just how not-joined-up this government’s policies are.

One of the cases featured was a single mother, affected by the cap. She wanted to go to college, and volunteered regularly. Her story ended with her and her three children placed in a single room in a hostel, which she  worried would affect her ability to complete her college course. The Prime Minister has said repeatedly that ‘We back people who work hard and do the right thing’ ? Colour me underwhelmed by what those words translate to in practice.

The benefits cap itself is a nonsense, of course: pandering to a tabloid headline view of the world, and therefore based on a false equivalence between those ‘claiming welfare’ and those not (the two groups overlap); ignoring the true beneficiaries of housing benefit and tax credits (landlords and employers respectively), it completely ignores the social costs.

The government in its Big Society iteration says that volunteering is a good thing: it contributes to society, it can improve people’s employability and so on. I agree. Volunteers are a benefit to society.

So why aren’t regular volunteers exempt from the benefits cap?

Obvious arguments against are: by making volunteering a condition of exemption, it would arguably be coercive - akin to workfare, not voluntary work (I note in passing that some charities do use workfare, a decision with which I profoundly disagree). There could be problems around skills mismatches. There would have to be an agreed level of commitment, potentially causing friction between volunteers and charities. And of course, if volunteering were linked to benefit claims, there would inevitably be paperwork - an administrative burden which smaller charities in particular might find irksome, possibly to the point of their avoiding taking volunteers on.

These are constructive criticisms which would have to be addressed. But all of them apply equally to workfare, which the government defends perfectly happily. The difference between volunteering and workfare, of course, is that that former starts with an individual’s desire to do good, whereas the other is driven by the priorities of the state. Rather odd then, than the same people calling for smaller state often support workfare, rather than incentivising voluntary work. Some might call it revealing.

Chris Hani, an Alexander for the townships

Today marks the twenty-first anniversary of the assassination of Chris Hani, the classics-loving head of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the ANC’s armed wing (translation: Spear of the Nation). It’s not for me to tell you how revered a figure he was amongst black South Africans or why - one of the victories Hani fought for and won was black South Africans’ right to tell their own story; but I thought it might be worthwhile to recall what his life and death still symbolises for all South Africans; the conscious, collective decision to step back from the brink.

The Hani white South Africans knew was a surprise; a surprise because of his love of classics (apartheid propagandists had painted the ANC as a mix of bloodthirsty illiterates and silver-tongued Machiavellian schemers), and a surprise because having won his victory, not only did he want to forgive them - he wanted them to forgive themselves.

It was therefore the most bloody of ironies when Hani (who had chosen to live in a very boring formerly all-white suburb) was gunned down in cold blood by a white supremacist. That Hani, who had been arguing against all comers for the idea that peace was the only path worth taking had been murdered, by a white man, could have been the injury that sent the entire country over the edge. But, in one of those implausible miracles of which humanity is all-too-rarely capable, South Africa saved itself from the sum of its own worst fears.

Nelson Mandela’s broadcast that night (full text here: on the state-owned SABC, is not one of his most well-known speeches, but it should be - it distilled the scale of what was at stake to a few tautly-argued, anguished paragraphs. Mandela called for calm, not a calm born of capitulation and fear, but of a fierce dignity and pride in what South Africans had accomplished, and of hope for what they could go on to accomplish together.

It was the strongest signal white South Africa had yet had that apartheid was over, but their worst fears - of executions in the streets, compulsory confiscation of all white-owned assets, a reckoning of blood and fire - were not to be realised. He asked, begged, the townships to channel their righteous and rightful anger at the loss of their icon into making the dream in whose service Hani had spent his life a reality, rather than risk it all in an outpouring of anger. As it happened, I was in Cape Town that night, and I remember sensing the hushed pulse of an entire country holding its breath and its nerve.

Incredibly, marvellously, the calm held. South Africa went on to hold its first democratic elections in 1994, and the beloved country could began the long process of healing and rebuilding. It’s not been all wine-and-roses (those fine Cape exports) ever since- South Africa remains a very divided society on every measure, with crimes including murder rampant - but outright civil war had been consciously rejected, in the face of decades of provocation. Once negotiations were under way, Hani had one of the earliest & most passionate advocates of that rejection.

Hani’s killers were tried, convicted and initially sentenced to death. However, in the kind of progress Hani had dedicated his life to achieving, following the establishment of the new Constitutional Court in 1995, their sentences were commuted to life imprisonment. This was the nature of Hani’s life, his struggle and his legacy: From death into life; from blood to words.

Chris Hani: 28th June 1942 - 10th April 1993.

Once more, with feeling: There are serious problems with Universal Credit.

Select Committee reports come in many flavours, most of them containing a musty hint of a maiden aunt’s muted disapproval. There’s the ‘Go on, then, if you must’, the ‘I really do hope we’ll see some improvement soon, hmm?’ and of course, the school report special : ‘You’ve let us down, you’ve let the class down but most of all, you’ve let yourself down.’ Rarely do trumpets sound to announce either triumph or assault.

Rarely, but not never. The Work and Pensions SC released their fifth report into Universal Credit last night ( and the members are clearly furious. Reading the report in isolation, (never mind in combination with reports from the PAC), it is easy to see why.

The problems revolve around two points, both equally damning. There are serious, ongoing problems with the delivery framework for the various ‘widgets’ necessary to deliver (notably IT and the Local Support Services Framework) and there are also problems with the DWP’s attitude to scrutiny.

The report begins by rehearsing the sorry history so far: the re-timetabling, the late delivery of evidence to the committee, the NAO report published last year into the accounts & the concerns about vulnerable claimants. It is notable that the committee emphasises itssupport for the policy objectives of Universal Credit - their worries are about the implementation.

There have been three changes to the delivery timetable last year (2013) alone - these following the (more-or-less forced) establishment of ‘Pathfinder’ initiatives which have very limited scope. (So limited in fact that the Committee was moved to point out that “…Although we agree with an incremental approach, there is a difference between sensible caution and a snail’s pace.” These changes followed concerns from the Major Projects Authority about UC. An alarming feature of Universal Credit thus far is that every scrutinising body with which it comes into contact ends up worried.

A consequence of these delays is that Local Authorities are still carrying the administrative can for Housing Benefit, with no end to this duty in sight. Coupled together with the conspicuous hole where the Local Support Services Framework (LSSF) should be (of which more later), and local government has every reason to be worried.

But, first to the IT aspect of the report. It is crucial to understand that without the IT working, Universal Credit cannot deliver. And on the evidence thus far, the problems, arguably self-induced, are significant. Rather than admit to a failure the DWP have adopted a ‘twin track’ approach - the existing, sub-optimal IT will continue to be rolled out in order to allow the Pathfinders to progress, whilst simultaneously an ‘end state’ solution is being developed with outside experts. (The Government Digital Service is another body who has been jettisoned en route to the sunlit uplands). This against a backdrop of the NAO asking: “…how it will work; when it will be ready; how much it will cost; and who will do the work to develop and build it.”

Support for vulnerable claimants has been a long-standing niggle with UC (declaration of interest: I volunteer with an charity working with people who fall into this group). The issues here are: support with using the IT, and the delivery of the housing costs switch from LA administration to UC. The policy ‘widget’ that is meant to address this is the LSSF by delivering support ‘on the ground’. Lord Freud himself has described it as being “almost as important as Universal Credit itself”. But as yet, there is no detailed plan, and astoundingly, “…no indication has yet been provided of the level of funding that the Government envisages…”. This is promised for autumn 2014. Here’s hoping.

Now, I have a theory about why the delay with the LSSF has taken place - I have no evidence, but on the face of it it makes a certain sense.  Whilst this isn’t the place to go into the intricacies of the European Social Fund awards process, many of the voluntary organisations (including mine) working with vulnerable claimants have been in receipt of ESF funding.The new round for 2014-2020 closed earlier this week. It does not seem beyond reason that the DWP is waiting to see the levels of awards, or indeed what funding it gets itself,  before deciding its budget for LSSF support. I’d be most interested to hear what people think.

If I am right, then it would have been polite if nothing else, for the DWP to tell its own SC what was going on. Which neatly brings us to the part where someone writing this report lit the touchpaper and stood well back; the issue of the DWP’s attitude to scrutiny. The word ‘attitude’ here should be taken to mean both ‘stance’, and imply a certain ‘Am I bovvered?’-ness at committee appearances.

I recommend reading the actual report on this, but distilled: the DWP has, in the Committee’s view, consistently delivered information crucial to the Committee’s work and the public’s understanding late, partially, not at all, and/or inaccurately. The members are extremely cross, and rightly so.

Like the Committee I support the idea of Universal Credit - my experience at volunteering has shown me the impact the present tortuous system has on the most vulnerable. But it has to be built and delivered robustly, or its internal stresses will cause it to fail and as in any system stress is visited on those least able to resist it. I am therefore pleased to see the Work and Pensions Committee take such an uncompromising line with the DWP. I hope that the dept in turn appreciated the reasons for their line, and responds constructively - but on the current evidence, I’m not holding my breath.