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’.

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: http://www.news24.com/NelsonMandela/Speeches/FULL-TEXT-On-Chris-Hani-20110124) 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 (http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201314/cmselect/cmworpen/1209/120902.htm) 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.


Piotr Stachiewicz (Polish, 1858-1938)

12 months - full set from “Boży rok”, where each illustration was based on proverbs and saints associated with the month.

(Source: parashutov.livejournal.com, via bookeofhowrs)

Intentional Tremor - Our year of bedroom tax


I’ll be honest, I wasn’t really prepared for it.

Although there had been general information in our tenancy newsletters, I’d been complacent and assumed that like other welfare reforms, the bedroom tax wouldn’t apply to us.

My wife has secondary progressive Multiple Sclerosis, and while I’m not…

Someone, a perfectly ordinary person, who gave up a well-paid job to care for his wife (and who in so doing saved the state money), threatened with eviction because of an ineptly-administered change in policy. And this government thinks its handiwork is something of which it can be proud?

Only Connect

“Men say,” Liz reaches for her scissors, “‘I can’t endure it when women cry’—just as people say, ‘I can’t endure this wet weather.’ As if it were nothing to do with the men at all, the crying. Just one of those things that happen.”
Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall

Having been reading the DWP’s Child Poverty Strategy Consultation today, this quote sprung to mind for some reason…

Poem: On Prayer by Cselaw Milosz

This poem (together with Herbert’s ‘The Collar’) perfectly describes an agnostic’s possible attitude to God, and to prayer, (in my experience at least)…

On Prayer

by Czeslaw Milosz

English version by Robert Hass
Original Language Polish

You ask me how to pray to someone who is not.
All I know is that prayer constructs a velvet bridge
And walking it we are aloft, as on a springboard,
Above landscapes the color of ripe gold
Transformed by a magic stopping of the sun.
That bridge leads to the shore of Reversal
Where everything is just the opposite and the word ‘is’
Unveils a meaning we hardly envisioned.
Notice: I say we; there, every one, separately,
Feels compassion for others entangled in the flesh
And knows that if there is no other shore
We will walk that aerial bridge all the same.

Poem: On Angels by Czeslaw Milosz

On Angels

by Czeslaw Milosz

Original Language Polish

All was taken away from you: white dresses,
wings, even existence.
Yet I believe in you,

There, where the world is turned inside out,
a heavy fabric embroidered with stars and beasts,
you stroll, inspecting the trustworthy seams.

Short is your stay here:
now and then at a matinal hour, if the sky is clear,
in a melody repeated by a bird,
or in the smell of apples at close of day
when the light makes the orchards magic.

They say somebody has invented you
but to me this does not sound convincing
for the humans invented themselves as well.

The voice — no doubt it is a valid proof,
as it can belong only to radiant creatures,
weightless and winged (after all, why not?),
girdled with the lightening.

I have heard that voice many a time when asleep
and, what is strange, I understood more or less
an order or an appeal in an unearthly tongue:

day draw near
another one
do what you can.

Wuthering Heights

Because obviously what I need to be reading after a emotionally tough few days is a psychologically convoluted proto-Gothic novel, I’ve been re-reading ‘Wuthering Heights’.

I’d forgotten how brutal a book it is - I’d mistily remembered it as hysterical, perhaps, but the cruelty - emotional, psychological, even physical - is incredible: Rossetti described Wuthering Heights as ‘a fiend of a book’: he was right.

However, the final paragraph remains exactly as I recall it, balm on a wound:

“I lingered round them, under that benign sky; watched the moths fluttering among the heath and hare-bells; listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass; and wondered how anyone could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth.”

Calm after the tempest - maybe Wuthering Heights was the right book to read, after all….