Universal Credit Where Credit is Due?

First published in Huffington Post

On Monday 29 April the ‘revolution’ began. The government’s Universal Credit Scheme designed both to simplify the benefits system and disincentivise dependency on it began… in Ashton-under-Lyne. According to The Guardianthis historic shift would affect ‘a few dozen’ people on the Monday, increase at a rate of 300 people per month as the ‘pathfinder’ continues until October and then be rolled out across the country by 2017 (though even this is now in some doubt).

So this supposedly radical overhaul of the system – despite Iain Duncan Smith, the work and pensions secretary, describing it as a ‘fundamental cultural shift’ and the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) calling their jobcentre staff out against it – is nothing of the sort. The lather up into which both sides have worked themselves about these reforms (ahem, not a revolution) is something of a mystery. Despite, as Nick Pearce argues, doubts as to whether people will be any better off in work and the possibility even that more will be caught up in a permanent semi-dependent limbo of part-time work and benefits claiming; make it all the more surprising to discover that Universal Credit is still in fact little more than a ‘tidying up exercise’.

In his calmer moments Duncan Smith, whose rather poisonous Centre for Social Justice came up with the idea, admits as much. This is not Paris 1789 or the spectre-haunted Europe of 1848 anymore than it is a rising Dublin in 1916 or a revolutionary Russia in 1917. Sadly 2013 in Ashton-under-Lyne is only to be the beginning of a ‘perpetual process of rolling out and checking‘. Storm the barricades! Of course there is nothing wrong with this. As Matthew Oakley writes elsewhere for Huffington Post incremental change is perhaps more suited to this kind of thing. By doing things slowly and dealing with the inevitable difficulties that arise during implementation the problems can be addressed. There have already been the inevitable teething troubles albeit reported a little too gleefully.

For we are not witnessing, never mind partaking in, any such seismic changes but – with a little tinkering here and a little claimant bashing there – the piloting of a new and probably better way of administering the benefits system. For all that it is, as Oakley rightly says, a move in the right direction – even if that is as much backwards as forwards to the ‘contributory principle’ envisaged by Beveridge – the debate so far hasn’t gone much beyond the difficulties around implementing it. While I’ve little time for Duncan Smith and what he stands for, it is notable that even he feels the need to sound conciliatory rather than go on the offensive. He has made it known, for instance, that the application process for Universal Credit has been designed by claimants themselves. Not the sort of thing that I can imagine Norman ‘on yer bike’ Tebbit associating himself with. Perhaps the critics will cite this as evidence to support the fraudulent claim that far from making work pay ‘workfare’ expects them to work for nothing!

Universal Credit will replace a number of existing benefits and tax credits. It will also, by ‘tapering’ payments as people re-enter the workplace try to ease the transition into work and beat, like tax credits before them, the much maligned benefit trap. As well as the doubts raised by Pearce regarding these latter claims, one of the problems with Universal Credit is that it just isn’t universal enough. There are a number of other benefits and credits that will remain untouched by it and continue to deem the benefits system unnecessarily complicated. But it is the fact that claimants have to apply online and rely on a new government IT project not going disastrously wrong; and that they will be paid monthly salary-style into their accounts, that has caused as much criticism as any substantive changes contained in the reforms. It seems that the merest hint that claimants should be responsible for budgeting and at more than a fortnight’s duration; or that they, rather than their landlords in the case of housing benefit, should receive the payment direct; is enough to expose the paternalism in critics who envision more evictions as tenants spend their money in the bookies or on pay day loans rather than on paying the rent.

Even where they do find fault with the substance of the reforms as in the case of Nick Cohen at The Observer it, likewise, betrays the prejudices of a commentariat that has little regard for those they claim to defend. He seems to have convinced himself that by doing away with child tax credit, traditionally paid to the mother, Duncan Smith is engaged in a weird evangelical Christian conspiracy that will put women at the mercy of their misogynistic partners. But it is not right wing irrationalism or a fear of what men might do if they get their brutish hands on the Universal Credit that should worry progressive minds (if that is what Cohen is supposed to have). Rather it is the patronising knuckle-dragging cynicism of the anti-reform lobby that finds it as hard to imagine the workless finding their way around a computer keyboard, as it does to acknowledge that increasing conditionality or imposing more sanctions is at least more honest than hiding behind ‘the vulnerable’ at every evasive opportunity.

Bringing back working class values?

First published in Culture Wars and republished for the sp!ked review of books

Public services cannot be sustained at their current level. They are under unprecedented pressure from the global financial crisis, slow growth of the UK’s service-based economy and the demographic pressure of an ageing society. Consequently there need to be drastic reductions in what is currently very high but unproductive public spending. One in four of us work for the public sector – councils are often the biggest local employers and the NHS alone employs 1.7 million, making it the largest employer on the continent. Approaching half of GDP (around £700 billion) is spent on public services including welfare benefits which account for about £200 billion. In a bid to cut public expenditure by £80 billion by 2015 tens of thousands of workers have already been made redundant. But, says Tom Manion, ‘radical’ social landlord and author ofThe Reward Society, it is the deterioration of our ‘attitudes, values and behaviour’ that is most costly of all.

The authorities spend a ridiculous amount of resources on dealing with a minority of people who are just not behaving as they should. It would be far better, he says, to encourage good behaviour. ‘If bad behaviour improved, we as a society would have a lot more resources to spend’. Putting to one side the child-like simplicity of Manion’s argument, he is perceptive enough to identify a genuinely big problem – one of the defining ones of our age – and its many manifestations. We now accept as normal the ‘dishonesty, idleness and lack of thought for others’ that in the past wouldn’t have been tolerated, he says. There is an £8 billion a year burden of dysfunctional families who ‘run health, police and social services ragged’. A welfare safety net that has ‘become a spider’s web, trapping people in dependency and making poverty comfortable’. A crippling ‘contagion’ of absenteeism in the workplace: a ‘sickness sub-culture’ not confined to the public sector but nonetheless identifiable with it. Never mind the ‘yoof of today’ it is not unusual for groups of young adults to be making an intimidating nuisance of themselves. These ‘screeching, lurching lads and ladettes, peeing in the gutter and falling into fountains’ at the weekend are ‘back behind the building society counter’ come Monday morning. ‘Their parents would not have behaved like that’, says Manion, ‘so why do they?’ Why indeed?

He answers his own question. Old ‘decent’ working class values have been lost and we’re the poorer for it. He explains that as a ‘bad boy my behaviour completely violated the standards of the working-class culture where I grew up, and I knew that and took the consequences’ he recalls. While his complaint that rent arrears have gone through the metaphorical roof is made by Manion the landlord; he also remembers how his mother’s generation ‘took pride in paying their rent, or indeed any bill, on time’. He invites us to compare this with the points-based public housing allocation system that has created an ‘arms race of need’ in which ‘people’s problems become their most valuable assets’. In place of the independence and pride of an earlier generation is a bureaucratically endorsed culture of entitlement. It has ‘infantilised’ tenants and kept them ‘locked into the dependency frame of mind’ and unable or unwilling to do anything for themselves. ‘Downloading help and sympathy on to people in perceived need doesn’t improve their situation’ he explains. ‘They’ve got to stand up on their own two feet and find their own way of including themselves in society’.

This isn’t helped, argues Manion, by the army of people with ‘social’ in their title ‘engaged in keeping their clients in a state of dependency’. He may sound very Daily Mail but he surely has a point? It does seem to be the case that ‘a lot of people reach adulthood without ever getting the hang of personal responsibility’. There is indeed, if one cares to look, an increasing tendency to blame other people for one’s problems. Unless you believe that living off the state is good for one’s health, it is hard to argue with Manion’s view that the welfare state – whatever its one-time merits as a system of social insurance – is now ‘entrapping people in conditions which stunt their development as human beings’. Manion’s book is welcome in as far as it challenges this culture of dependency. Far from being a figment of fevered right-wing imaginations – as today’s thoroughly conservative left-liberals would have it – a personally debilitating relationship with the state is a very real consequence of the way that a therapeutic mindset has undermined people’s sense of themselves as capable of running their own lives.

His solutions don’t break out of this mindset so much as reconfigure it (which I’ll come to in a moment). But his orthodoxy-busting and common-sense approach is refreshing. Manion is no fan of public services which he says ‘just aren’t that good’. Whatever remains of a public service ethic on the part of public servants is allowed to ‘dribble away in bureaucracy and ineffectual pettiness’. Instead of a ‘dynamic and productive’ performance culture we have a ‘survival culture’ he says. ‘People cling on to procedures’ rather than make a decision they may be held accountable for. Which is all spot on as far as it goes. But Manion doesn’t seem to notice that all of this is happening in the so-called performance culture he wants to bring into being. It is the very obsession with processes that is having such a corrosive influence over public service provision and has done for decades now. It has occupied the vacuum where a traditional public service rationale once existed.

Manion’s account of public sector absurdities and his own successes in challenging them suggest that there is much room for improvement. When he first became a social landlord he was baffled by the costly, off-putting and entirely unnecessary practice of ‘sheeting-up’ empty properties when tenants left. Despite much resistance, he says, he brought an end to it and employed estate agents instead of housing officers with a brief to move tenants in and out on the same day. But for all his wise words on dependency and welfare, and his challenges to daft public sector practices, he badly lets himself down with his supposed solutions. This is because he thinks that treating people like idiots will make them more responsible. Apparently oblivious to the economic dislocation of inner cities since the 1970s or the deliberate residualisation and run-down of public housing by successive governments since the 1980s; he insists that the mere presence of tower blocks and the ‘graffiti, litter and needles’ on the walk to school are to blame for the decline of the communities concerned. And that if only the ‘wrong sorts of behaviour by the wrong sort of people’ are dealt with, that will make things better again.

His desire to ‘restore pride and [a] sense of justice’ to communities seems genuine enough but it is soured by his contempt for the ‘wrong sorts’ and a narrow determinism that can see no way out except through his own petty authoritarian interventions. For all his talk of taking on local bureaucrats and liberal opinion more generally, Manion is actually today’s idea of a model social landlord. He believes in building communities rather than houses, and that housing is – despite what you might think – about ‘more than the provision of roofs over people’s heads’. This is despite the sector failing to do just that. As Manion himself tells us, levels of investment in housing in the UK are roughly equivalent to that in the former Eastern bloc countries. We live in ‘poorer quality, more overcrowded accommodation’ than our north European neighbours, he says. But if this suggests rather strongly that the housing problem is a bricks and mortar one, why the obsession with tenants’ behaviour? And why go on peddling the ‘cycle of debt and despair’ that he, like every other patronising left-liberal commentator, claims the poorest in society are caught up in.

Manion is so intent on the naturalising of dependency-induced inadequacies that his behaviour-intervening approach isn’t a challenge to, but a massive accommodation to, the problem he sets out to solve. So, while I can’t help but agree with him that we shouldn’t be subsidising fat people, via their GPs, to go to the gym (his gym!), nor do I think people like him who are ‘exercising regularly, not smoking and eating healthily’ are any more deserving of state ‘support’. It is no business of the state to dictate to people how they live their lives or to reward them when they make the ‘right’ decision either. Manion is full of contradictions like this. He wants people to take more responsibility for their lives but his proposals would have the opposite effect. So while he is against the pampering of ‘undeserving’ dependents; he thinks the rest of us aren’t’ dependent enough and should be compelled to have an ‘annual health MOT with outcomes being linked to taxation levels’.

The same inconsistencies are true of his attempts to manage the behaviour, performance and motivation of his staff. While he seems to have achieved a remarkable turnaround in reducing rates of absenteeism his account of how he has done this is not convincing. His introduction of ‘heath awareness, anti-smoking policies, motivational programmes, annual medical checks, eye tests, fitness and relaxation packages’ seem to have less to do with it than an admirably no-nonsense approach to the sickie. If they pull one staff are booked in for an appointment with the resident GP. This would be enough in itself but Manion goes much further. The Diamond employment package, he tells us, includes all sorts of perks but if the doctor thinks ‘they’re too fat or they drink too much, he will tell them’. And if they choose not to take his advice and make a ‘commitment to maintaining their health’ they ‘lose entitlement to most of the benefits’. Such is the deal you enter into when your employer takes an interest in your ‘wellbeing’ or ‘mental and emotional health’.

Ever the understanding boss, he worries about how difficult it can be for employees to leave their private troubles ‘at the door when they come to work’? But work can be a refuge or a welcome distraction from private worries too. Giving this up for lunchtime ‘fitness, guitar, dance, singing, yoga and massage’ classes may, and for the counsellors, coaches, mentors and ‘chill-out zones’ might sound empowering but the rationale is both an intrusive and bottom-line one. ‘We pay their wages and in return we expect certain behaviour from them’ explains the touchy-feely Manion. Turning the working relationship into one of counselled dependency can store up many more problems than it solves. For both parties. The fact that public sector workers tend to be a ‘bit jaded and tired’ isn’t surprising but Manion’s approach isn’t going to fill the hole where a public sector ethos should be.

‘Yes, it’s bossy and interventionist’ he concedes, ‘but the benefits to society will be enormous’. Really? As with his counter-factual treatment of the housing problem, Manion ignores much of the evidence in favour of personal anecdotes and prejudices. He manages to find a ’£4.6 million super-size mortuary’ to back-up his flabby argument that ‘excessive Western lifestyles’ will become increasingly unaffordable. We’ll have to spend ‘huge sums’ dealing with the consequences of a society that is ‘eating itself to death’ he claims. In truth, ordinary (as opposed to the rarer cases of morbid) obesity isn’t necessarily a health problem as study after study has shown. Again, as he is forced to admit when he refers to the data, the UK ‘fares reasonably well’ health-wise. Life expectancy is around the EU average; ‘healthy life years’ – those spent without the ill-health or disability associated with advanced age – are higher than the EU average and ‘exceed those in many comparable countries’. This is not to say that all is well with the health service – the NHS does not deserve its protected status as an officially ‘cherished’ institution as the crisis of care in many hospitals and care homes has shown – but it does make a nonsense of the dubious justifications for the lifestyle interventions proposed (and practiced) by Manion.

His obsession with behaviour – whether it’s that of his tenants or his employees – as if it were some disembodied dependent variable to be manipulated by public managers like himself is as depressing as it is wrongheaded. But this is in keeping with the extension of the new public management developed in the 1980s/90s into society at large. As if the managerial colonisation of public services isn’t bad enough they are now intent on the behaviour management of individuals too. Not only in health and housing. The same goes for schooling too. For Manion ‘education remains paramount’ not because it is important for kids to get a good education, but ‘because a well-educated person is more likely to understand the importance of healthy diet, exercise and so on’ which will result in ‘savings for the state’!

Manion, for all his radical pretensions, is more orthodox than he imagines. His belief that public services should be redefined so that they ‘support and promote a safe, decent, healthy, responsible society’ is already in the mainstream of public service reform. The problems that he raises – both cultural and fiscal – are no less real and pressing for that, however, and he is to be commended for taking them seriously. Many of his contemporaries don’t. But his attempt to build public service provision around these problems, rather than to try to understand them and address them in their own terms, can only make matters worse. While it may seem like a good idea to Manion for public sector bodies to tell people how to behave when so many are seemingly misbehaving; this has nothing to do with what public services should be (and used to be) about. Indeed, it makes it all the harder to build public services that meet society’s needs without nurturing more dependency, or taking responsibility out of people’s hands – ironically the very thing that he thinks he is challenging.

Payday Loans and Gambling: Protecting the Poor from Themselves

First published in Huffington Post

Maybe I’ve just become too horribly middle class to care or too suburban to notice, but it seems that the Dickensian poor are still with us. Fortunately there are charitable souls out there, at least in the thoroughly proletarian Labour Party and left-liberal commentariat, who have found time in their busy lives to pity them. Whether it’s calling for kindly interventions from the coalition government to put an end to the way these helpless saps are tricked by evil types into entering their betting shops; or calling for kindly interventions from one of its Quangos to put an end to those other evil types who shamelessly (sic) offer them loans they couldn’t hope to pay back. Or maybe, being a rather sensitive soul, I just read The Guardian a little too much?

According to research conducted for The Guardian the poor are so dazzled by ‘high speed, high stakes gambling machines’ that something must be done to rescue them and quick. In places where most people have jobs they spend £1.4bn on these these fixed odds betting terminals (FOBT). Compare this with the areas where they are so poor and workless that they are helplessly in thrall to these horrendous contraptions and shoving £5.6bn into them! The great and the good from Mary ‘retail guru’ Portas to the kindly and not at all aristocratic Hilary Benn are appalled by them, as are right-thinking comrades of the workless at the calculatedly nasty John Redwood MP. They are rightly outraged at his suggestion that the poor ‘have time on their hands’ and are stupid enough to believe that they can get rich quick with a bit of gamblers’ luck. How patronising!

More seriously … I hope you noted the touch of sarcasm so far … there has been much up-in-armsness about Payday loans. Citizens Advice (whatever happened to the Bureaux?) has urged the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) to suspend the licences of four major lenders who, it says, ‘are behaving as a law unto themselves’ with their fees, charges and harassment of customers. No joking matter, of course. According to National Debtline they received double the number of calls – 20,000 of them – in 2012 as they did the year previous on matters relating to these loans. Like Citizens Advice the Money Advice Trust that runs the Debtline has called for the OFT to intervene where these companies are not sticking to ‘responsible lending’ practices. This month the government, under pressure to ‘do something’, has announced it will work with that other Quango the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) and the OFT’s ‘tougher’ successor Quango with regards Payday loans the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), to clamp down on lenders that ‘lure’ customers into levels of indebtedness that are beyond their modest means.

And fair enough you might say. Even if you accept that gamblers only have themselves to blame for their debts, this is a miserable state of affairs for anybody just trying to make ends meet. But perhaps we should refer back to Redwood on this one too. However revolting his view might be about the propensity of the poor for gambling, he at least allows that they might have the potential to become rich (or at least less poor) if they didn’t waste their time in this way. Those supposedly defending the poor are far more patronising and illiberal in their insistence that the machines and the betting shops be made less numerous and less accessible to them. The assumption being that they really are lazy and feckless and at the mercy of big all-powerful corporations; and that each of those jumped-up one arm bandits ‘sucks money from the poorest communities’ as Diane Abbott puts it. The same goes for Payday loans. A more sober view might first consider whether a frequenting of betting shops and a resorting to ‘short term, high cost’ loans might have something to do with the economic crisis we’re in. National Debtline recorded an increase in calls about these loans of more than 4000% – coincidentally the rate at which some unscrupulous lenders are reportedly lending – since the recession began in 2007.

But even that isn’t the nub of it. Beyond the desperation that might drive people to take on debts they can ill afford, or place bets they might not otherwise place, it is also worth asking who is really responsible for those decisions? The betting shop or the firm that owns the machine? The ‘irresponsible’ lender looking to maximise their return? No. To blame these no doubt socially-irresponsible and super-profit making outfits for the actions of their customers is to rob people of their dignity as autonomous individuals capable of running their own lives. Which is, in my view, a good deal worse than what they might lose as a result of their own foolishness having an extravagant flutter too many or even borrowing money at an extortionate rate. By seeking to deny people even the opportunity to make up their own minds or to be responsible for their own actions, and instead portraying them as victims of forces beyond their control, these commentators and policy-makers are degrading us all. Most of us would rather be faced with the world according to John Redwood, however contemptuously framed, than be told no less contemptuously that we need protecting from our own worst instincts. In fact, I’d put money on it.

Shh! About Saving Libraries

First published in Huffington Post

Everybody loves libraries don’t they? Earlier this month was National Libraries Day and the good people @IlikeLibraries are doing all they can “to help save libraries any way possible, and to promote them to the point where they are all safe from council cuts”. Ahh .. the cuts! Like the ‘cherished’ NHS and the wonderful welfare state of which we are all so apparently fond, libraries must be saved from the evil cutters.

You may have guessed that I’m bored by the anti’s protests about cuts, cuts, cuts and .. whisper it .. I’m none too keen on libraries either. This wasn’t always the case. As a young student bunking off college in search of some real intellectual sustenance I would find myself at Birmingham’s Central Library. It was quite the refuge for the curious-minded. And it seems I was in good company. Terry Pratchett has spoken of how his local library taught him more than his school ever could: “I wanted to read everything” he recalls “I wanted to know everything”. Today, I rarely set foot in one. If I want a bit of peace and quiet, and somewhere to read and reflect the last place I’m likely to visit is a library.

I don’t think I’m on my own here either. Recent figures show that the numbers of people visiting libraries fell last year as did the numbers of books issued. These rebranded community ‘hubs’ are teeming with activity that is hardly conducive to book-related endeavours at all. Between the parents with their gaggles of noisy kids, support groups and ‘stalls’ of all things, not to mention the so-called students getting on my bloody nerves chatting on their mobiles – God I sound old – libraries just aren’t libraries any more. According to Tiffany Jenkins one Scottish library has even resorted to pole dancing so estranged is it from its own mission. This desperation may be an attempt to see off the cuts by demonstrating that they aren’t at all stuffy but in fact, as Jenkins says, they are “inadvertently cutting their own throat”.

Librarians aren’t librarians any more either. They are glorified signposters and they look all the more miserable for it. That there are more volunteers in libraries than there are paid staff makes a sort of sense when their function has become so degraded. Library services are always the first to be threatened when local authorities are looking to make savings. They aren’t essential services in the way that, say, social services or schools are. So there is an inevitability in the talk of yet more closures. Last year there were reportedly 200 library closures and things are widely expected to get worse this year. And yet I for one find it hard to muster much support for defending libraries or librarians. I say this not because I am mean or a philistine but because having listened to the pleading of campaigners I no longer see the point in defending them. They aren’t what they were.

Why now, of all times, is there such a concerted campaign to save these once hallowed and now hollowed-out institutions? You wouldn’t think so if you listened to the stirring words of Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP) president Phil Bradley: “An attack on a library service is nothing less than an attack on the community that it serves” he has said “and a closed library reduces the ability of people to empower and improve their lot.” If only. In truth what were once institutional embodiments of that Enlightenment spirit of learning and knowledge, of the need to collect under one roof the great works of our shared literary culture for the greater good, are no more. In defence of their library service Westminster librarians wrote an open lettertelling councillors about how they ‘promote health, community and citizenship’ all for less than 1% of the council budget.

If we need community hubs then let communities run them themselves. That’s what is happening in‘no frills’ Barnet where Occupy-style squatters did what they do best (which isn’t saying much) and took over a library closed by the council. Not that this should be confused with a proper defence of libraries either. That, on being Occupied, the “library became a community hub with events for children, [and] yoga classes” according to The Guardian, only confirms that the depressing consensus against real libraries extends to supposed radicals. They did, however, we learn and to their credit restock the library with 10,000 donated books. Thankfully they also had the good sense to court the support of the local community and have now handed it over, with the belated and no less begrudging blessing of Brent Council, to residents to run for themselves. Even in the absence of Occupy protesters climbing through cuts-threatened library windows why not hand over what are actually community centres anyway to the community? They’d do a much better job and they might even decide they want to not only take over the building but set up a real library dedicated to making the best that’s ever been written available for people to read.

Going Soft on Rough Sleepers?

First published in Huffington Post

This is the time of year when homelessness – or, at least, sleeping rough – comes to public attention. Those charities concerned with getting people fed and sheltered who would otherwise be sat in doorways as the rest of us spend money we don’t really have on seasonal goodies, do their best to tug at our heart strings. But perhaps they could engage with our intellects too?

The problem of sleeping rough is often presented – not altogether unreasonably – as distinct from the housing crisis. It is well documented that those propped up under a cash machine or outside a tube station tend to have a whole lot of non-housing problems. Whether its alcohol abuse, a history of offending, family breakdown, losing a job, mental illness or a childhood in the care system, there is often more to their predicament than can be attributed to a lack of housing. But despite the many problems experienced by the street homeless, campaigns like the government sponsored StreetLink and the mayor-backed No Second Night Out are, for all their good intentions, often based on degrading assumptions. That they go beyond simply providing people with the warmth and shelter they need for a night or two is no bad thing. If somebody does have a serious drink problem or isn’t taking the medication they need then a well-judged professional intervention may be just what they need.

But the approach more often than not is more cynical than that. According to Rick Henderson, chief executive of Homeless Link, the role of charities like his is to put to a stop to “that cycle of drinking, drugs and antisocial behaviour” that puts people on the streets in the first place. Except it doesn’t. This stock diagnosis in which the homeless are mere victims of ‘cycles’ beyond their control robs people of any capacity to change their lives for the better. It also justifies interventions that can only further undermine their prospects of getting off the street. That many have big problems is undeniable but their potential with a little help to deal with those problems is not as diminished as Henderson and others would presumably have it.

There is also a difficulty with focusing on the various problems that some – not all – homeless people tend to experience. While the problem cannot be understood only in relation to the wider housing problem, it cannot be separated from it either. Rough sleeping figures are notoriously questionable but reportedly last year the numbers went up by nearly a quarter and in London there are apparently 43% more people living on the streets than there were a year ago. This is particularly embarrasing for the mayor of London who in 2009 pledged to end street homelessness by 2012. As Dave Hill writes in the Guardian, if he really wanted to solve the homeless problem then he, and the rest of the political class, should have set out to solve the housing problem too.

They could do something to address the housing crisis if only they had the will to do so. Hill describes the scale of the problem, from “unattainable mortgages and bloated rents to the squatting, ‘sofa-surfing’ and surge in households placed in temporary accommodation now so apparent amid a shortage of affordable homes worthy of the name”. Despite the 120,000 new homes promised in the chancellor’s Autumn Statement, I fear we’ve heard it all before. As Mary Riddell points out in the Telegraph, for all the pro-building rhetoric deployed by successive Labour and now LibCon governments, it remains a fact that between 2001 and 2011 there was a 4%fall in house building. And this was from levels that were already hopelessly inadequate.

Instead of focusing its efforts on the ‘vulnerable’ margins none too effectively, the mayor and the government need to build – or else create the conditions whereby others build – more houses to meet the historically massive shortfall. This would not only meet basic needs and begin to match people’s aspirations to own their own homes. It would also provide a much needed boost to the economy. And yet, somewhere between the paralysing cultures of sustainability and apolitical managerialism, the clarity of vision and unity of purpose needed to build enough houses for people to live in has failed to show itself. So yes, lets give our support to initiatives that respectfully give the street homeless all the help they need to get off the streets without undermining their ability to turn their own lives around by privileging their vulnerability. But lets also hope that in 2013 the political class take the longer and wider view on housing, and that they take a wrecking ball to the obstacles they themselves have erected to a rational solution to the housing problem.

Good Will Hunting After Savile Affair

First published in Huffington Post

Tis the season of good will. Or twas. I couldn’t help feeling that the sleigh bells rang a little hollower this time around. Not because Santas were getting the sack (ho! ho!) for not being CRB-checked. No, it was that confirmed child abuse paranoia would reach beyond Santa’s grotto.

When I objected in my previous two Huffington Postblogs to the damaging and misleading inflation of child abuse figures, I was told I was mistaken. Still, I maintain the figures routinely collected by children’s social services departments show that the apparent prevalence of abuse is a concoction of the over-active and rather twisted imaginations of lobbyists. My critics, apparently gobsmacked that nothing like 1 in 4 children are even at risk of being ‘abused’, cited a report by the House of Commons Education Committee coincidentally published the same day as my latest piece.

To be fair, they were only citing the report of a committee of our elected representatives who are presumably best placed to give the facts their full and dispassionate consideration. Except it chose to ignore the evidence from those social services departments and instead pursued its own account of ‘abuse’ as something that also includes ‘forced marriage, ritual abuse, female genital mutilation, so-called honour crimes and trafficking’. In a similar vein the Office of the Children’s Commissioner for England (OCCE) recently published their interim report . This no less dubious report into child sexual exploitation was at least greeted with criticism from the government to which it reports. Described as ‘hysterical and half-baked’ by an anonymous senior minister, that the government has hardly sought to calm down the hysteria or challenge the half-baked claims of the child abuse lobby to date is a moot point.

The claim that 16,500 children were at risk of sexual exploitation (and 2,409 actually ‘exploited’) – notice the shift away from the comparatively precise term ‘abuse’ – over a period of 14 months was always ludicrous. Especially when they too chose to ignore the already well established and far more reliable figures produced by local authorities e.g. that just 2,370 children were thought to be even at risk of sexual abuse in 2011. Like the Education Committee they too sought to include every bad thing a young person might experience ‘including running away, drug or alcohol misuse and criminality’ as an indicator of sexual exploitation. Indeed if any one child ran away, took drugs and got arrested, they would automatically be deemed to be at high risk of sexual exploitation!

But this is more than an abuse of statistics or a ‘methodological’ problem borne of the incompetence of the researchers at the OCCE. Those MPs didn’t make it up so much as draw on the assumptions of a culture that says all young people are ‘vulnerable’ in one way or another; that every experience no matter how normal – be it bullying or emigrating – is indicative of abuse; and that every relationship they enter into, with each other or with an adult, must necessarily be understood through the prism of abuse. Lobbyists and policy-makers just don’t seem to know where to draw the line any more either in terms of what is and isn’t abuse or in distinguishing what is normal from what is deviant from the norm. The Savile effect has only heightened this tendency.

It has, for instance, led to a 30% increase in calls to the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre. The Metropolitan Police – with a little help from its £2 million post-Savile Operation Yewtree, staffed by 30 officers – has reported a fourfold increase in allegations. The NSPCC is an organisation whose purpose seems to be to convince us – despite all the evidence to the contrary – that society is riddled with child abuse. So nor is it a surprise to here that it too reported a 200% increase in calls to its helpline following the Savile affair. It too, after all, is living all too enthusiastically off the corpses of dead MPs and entertainers to further its none-too-noble cause. Its new advert, calculated to capitalise on recent historical allegations, will ‘remind people that child abuse remains a widespread problem and children are still abused today’ says the charity.

Certainly it is this obsession with abuse today from the grotesque to the everyday – projected far enough backwards to be frankly pointless – that trivialises the experience of serious abuse. I shouldn’t need to qualify it of course. All abuse is serious isn’t it? Abuse is abuse as paedophile obsessives never tire of telling me. But what is abuse when it is so all encompassing? What good does exaggerating its prevalence do for those who really are being abused? Ironically it is those who abuse the notion of abuse that have a case to answer here. It is the irresponsibly hysterical commentators, lobbyists and policy-makers who see abuse everywhere that are really doing the real victims of abuse the most harm.