Tag Archives: UK

George, for goodness sake, let them raise my council tax

For the last couple of years one of the main sources of pride for local councils was the ability not to raise council tax or even to reduce it. Government proudly presented charts showing how many councils managed to do that and publicly shamed the ones which did not. It seems that the councils also took it upon themselves to partake in the PR game. My own local authority has quite recenly sent me a leaflet boasting that the council tax has been frozen for 8 years.

I must say that I find that almost as impressive as shocking. Undeniably budgets of local authorities have been significantly affected since the conservative government came to power. David Cameron often emphasises that he wants councils to become more efficient and make ‘back office’ savings. However, there are only so many senior managers who can be made redundant, so many optimalisations one can make. At certain point local authirities will inevitably find themselves with their backs against the wall… and we may already be past that point! It became brutally aparent when Mr Cameron himself tried to intervene against some of the cuts in his consituency (more on that – here). Loss of over 40% of funding (as it was the case in Oxfordshire) will mean that not only those evil ‘back offices’ will be affected, but also some (lots of?) crucial frontline services – a children centre, womens’ refuge, day centre for people with dementia, anything which does not need to be legally provided by the council is under risk of being shut down.

The ability to protect the services, more – to deliver a high quality services to its inhabitants should be a source of pride to the council; that and nothing else. I very much welcomed the indication that Geoge Osborne may allow councils to raise their local tax by 2% to gather extra funds for social care. However, I think that everyone needs to accept that more may be needed and that we should be all prepared to contribute more to keep the services we and those who live around us need.

That said, we now come across another problem. Many families are already struggling financially. An increas of even few pounds will create additional strain on their budgets. Especially that for the last few years even individuals or families on welfare benefits need to contribute to their council tax.  Therefore there is no way to increase the council tax in a way which only affects those who can actually afford that.

The way in which properties are allocated into diffent bands (which in turn tells you how much to pay) perfectly symbolises just how backward this tax it. Band allocations actually use property valuations from 1991! So if your property in 1991 was valued at under £40 000 you’d be in band A, between £40 000 and £52 000 B, and then it goes up to H which is over £320 000. I’m not quite sure how this is calculated for properties which were not around 24 years ago. Well, it is not like a lot is being built in London anyway, so at least that is not a problem.

Especially in London linking amount of tax you must pay with value of your property seems highly unfair. Prices of many properties sky rocketed in the last decade or so. Some of them surely are inhabited by low earners who would struggle if council tax was increased. There is also a lot of people who would be able to contribute more, but currently live in properties of a lower value.

A great start to differentiating prices of the council tax for high and low earners would be an introduction of voluntary top up. An addition to the council tax which one could subscribe to and which would go only and directly to front line services.

The spending review tomorrow will surely bring more cuts and thefore more hardship. Maybe, just maybe, through allowing councils to raise the tax it will also open up discussion about the need, cost and value of the local services and the ways to save them.

 

Individual vs Society – What are the makings of long-term unemployed?

Many read biographies of rich and successful to find out what are the makings of the great. What do I need? What do I lack to become one of them? We are all in never-ending pursue of success and money searching for any tips, routines, things that we should or should not do to get any closer. But does anyone ever think what are the makings of long-term unemployed?

 

It seems to me that often the common understanding is that the unemployed is someone who does not want to find work. A person too lazy to grab multiple opportunities laid in from of him/her by employers and entrepreneurs. As a society we ‘help’ people into work by forcing them to volunteer and cutting or freezing their allowances. David Cameron wants to eliminate youth unemployment not by creating more jobs, but by scrapping benefits altogether for people under certain age. In the end, all that those lay-abouts need is a push in the right direction; an incentive to get up from the couch and get on with their lives, isn’t that right? No, it’s not!

 

It is neither nudge nor incentive they need. Unemployment is nothing like long holidays. It is dreadful, often depressing, embarrassing and demeaning, it is nearly a medical condition – chronic unemployment.. There is no magic switch that makes a person with a history of years or even generations of unemployment go back to work; just like it takes your body time and right kind of treatment to recover from a disease it takes time and a hell lot of work for a long-term unemployed to successfully join the labour market.  In my own opinion it all boils down to a situation into which a person is born. One may say that countries like US, UK or any other EU member are a land of opportunity. We should not fool ourselves. A person born in a household with issues ranging from long-term unemployment to substance misuse will have by far higher risk of becoming long-term unemployed themselves than a descendant of middle class parents. Even when the education is free and available a child needs encouragement, support and parents’ supervision to get through it. How many are there not getting any of it? And then there is social housing – a scheme meant to help, I suppose. but sometimes strikingly resembling ghetto’s for people we would rather not see on day-to-day basis. Estates or even whole districts often become a land without opportunity, producing more and more people damned to join the ranks of long-term unemployed. And then in the end, after all the denying of opportunities, marginalising and belittling all we have to say to those is – This is your fault! How is that fair?

 

For those looking for anthropological take on how we force people into black market economy I strongly recommend ‘In search of respect: selling crack in El Barrio’ by Philippe Bourgois

Migratory Triptych

The right wing nationalist wave is still spreading across Europe. Economic crisis and austerity yet again proves to be breeding ground for ideas stretching further and further into the far right. In those, just slightly more difficult, times many countries seem to be tempted by the idea of detaching themselves from the rest of the world. Many people tend to seek a reason for shrinking economy and socio-political decline. That reasons often get face of the ‘other’ – immigrants who come to steal our jobs and abuse our welfare system (most probably in the same time).

 

In the UK, after extremely successful European Elections, UKIP won its first and soon after second seat in the parliament. In the run up to the Rochester by-elections UKIP’s candidate Mark Reckless (who in September was still a member of the conservative party) managed to position himself on the right of his own far-right party suggesting that migrants from other EU countries, who have legal right to live and work in UK, should be asked to leave. It’s needless to say that he went on to win the by-election.

 

Immigration is often used as a scarecrow – something to blame for countries internal issues, something that is supposed to sell the papers and attract voters. This is well reflected in a research recently published in Poland – another country that, for obvious reasons, I find particularly important. The study focused on Poles’ awareness of socio-political issues in their country and discovered that on average Poles believe that 1 in 7 residents of this country is an immigrant. In reality 1.75% of population was born abroad… that’s 1 in 57. One may say that this is just an innocent mistake, I see more than that. Completely wrong idea about the number of migrants is a reflection of certain anxiety, fear that there is already too many of ‘them’.

 

Both of these events happened in one week – the same week Barack Obama decided to put new legislation in place allowing 5 million illegal immigrants across USA to come out of shadows and get 3 year work permits without the risk of being deported. It is clear that this far from a perfect solution – they will not have access to free or subsidised healthcare, there are at least further 6 million immigrants that still have to lead their lives fearing deportation and finally it is not clear what is going to happen with all those people after their 3 year work permit expire. This is, however, an approach so strikingly different than current European path. One that in my opinion, is also by far more moral, effective and simply beneficial both to immigrants and to the nation they arrive in.

 

Why can’t Europe develop a healthy approach to migration and instead constantly feels threatened by them? Is it because economically Europe and the US are in completely different places? With US economy powering full steam ahead and European still struggling to recover from the crisis? Are we only prepared to accept immigrants when we the economy is performing well and we feel financially secure? Or is it because Americans because thanks to the history of their nation are more aware of the benefits of accepting migrant?

Burning Money

Last four years and, most probably, four years to come are for UK’s councils a time of cuts and austerity; how is it that huge displays of fireworks still make it to the list of priorities?070811_1913~01

Local authorities have lately been squeezed from every direction possible. The government expects them to spend significantly less; the public pressurises to freezer or even decrease the council tax. So far the impact of the squeeze may not be great, but if anyone suffers that would be those who already are the most disadvantaged. With their benefits frozen they also have to face cuts to some of the services or programmes they so far relied on.

Nonetheless, during the week just before and after the 5th of November sky over London west to east and north to south was lit by more or less impressive displays of fireworks. They don’t seem to bring any profits to the organisers – people just come and go; sometimes there are even no street vendors, who could have extra profit. They do not really create sense of community or bid people closer together; if someone would like to promote particular borough or area, also, there are many better options. I do not find it shocking or infuriating, it is not something that should be investigated, I just find our priority list interesting… Or perhaps I just do not understand?

Capping welfare or capping wellbeing?

Itbenefitcap.png large‘s the election time. As it’s customary for the species in that time, politicians of all options and parties try to prove how much they and how little their opponents do for the benefit of the country. Even I, hidden nicely in the impenetrable wilderness of Kent, have recently been disturbed by the Conservative propaganda election pamphlet. One could think it ended up on my doorstep by accident if not for my name and address clearly visible on the front page; I must admit I am quite curious which of the suspicious ways they used to obtain it. Tempted by the promise that they WILL secure Britain’s future should I only decide to cast my vote in their favour, I opened the leaflet.

There are a few interesting points to make (e.g. did you know that you are going to get an in or out referendum on EU if you choose Tories for your next government?! Haven’t heard about that one…), but today I want to focus on something that I found in their ‘what we’ve done’ section:

‘Cap Welfare: So we’ve capped welfare – no out-of-work household can now claim more than the average family earns in work’.

Due to my innate kindness I will skip an ironic comment about their syntax and move on to more important issues. Do you see what they did there? Somehow people who are out of work did not make it to the category of family and became a dehumanised ‘household’. This becomes even more shocking (for the readers of the Sun) or imprecise (for everyone else) when I tell you who is actually affected by the welfare cap. It’s the CHILDREN – now that I have your attention I can move on to explain why they and only they are affected. The benefit cap is set at the following level – £500 for couples with or without children and for single adults with children, and £350 for single adults. For the sake of integrity I should also say that if any member of the household receives DLA or PIP (or a number of other less popular benefits; for the full list see https://www.gov.uk/benefit-cap ) the entire household is exempt from the cap.

Now the fun part – calculations. Let’s assume we have the stereotypical representation of the out-of-work household – a single person on jobseekers allowance claiming the housing benefit. JSA for long term unemployed comes to 72.4 a week. That leaves about 280 per week for the housing benefit. That should be enough to rent one bedroom flat in private rented sector everywhere apart from some areas of London. Things change when consider a family and a family with many children in particular. If both parents are out of work and claim jobseeker allowance that gets them 113.70 a week; if they receive employment and support allowance it may go up to about 240 per week. Then there is the child benefit – if we assume they have 3 children qualifying for the benefit they are going to get additional £47/week. And there is the child tax credit which can vary – up to £52 per child per week. Let’s assume they get an average of £25 per child – that gives them another £75. What we have now is a total of £235.7. So if the benefit cap is set at £500 and the benefits for living costs take £235.7 out of it then there is only 264.3 per week left for the family with three children to rent a property. Yes, I believe that’s quite enough for a three bedroom flat in most regions of the country, but it’s almost impossible in London. And then there are families with even more children than three, and they still have to manage with £500 per week. Again, for the sake of integrity, I should add that there is also social housing – with rents set at about 40% of the market price, and it is accessible to people who receive benefits. The problem is that there are simply not enough of these properties. Boroughs such as Lambeth or Southwark have as many as 20 000 people on their waiting lists. The bigger property you’re looking for the longer you’ll have to wait, and it’s possible you will not get it at all.

What I wanted to show is that the benefit cap looks very nice on the paper – it should prevent people out of work from claiming more than the average person can earn. However, it’s calculated in a way which affects almost solely families with many children, which leads me to quite an obvious conclusion that it affects almost solely children. For some families it means having to move away – families in London affected by the benefit cap are advised to move outside of the city to somewhere where the prices of properties are significantly lower. For those who decide to stay, it means living in poverty.

Capping welfare does not really mean we live in more just society; it penalises solely bigger families. It pushes more children into precarious living conditions. Is that really something to be proud of?

(In)Dependence Day – what if Scotland says yes.

‘Scotland’s Future’ – SNP’s blueprint for independence was only published few days ago and the media are already filled with different interpretations, summaries and comments on. Most of the experts’ opinions I read so far seem to agree that the document is very speculative – e.g there’s no certainty that the EU will instantly allow Scotland to join its rank, not to mention agreeing to let Scotland continue to benefit from UK’s rebate. Likewise, it’s possible that the EU will insist that the independent Scotland accepts the Euro or that UK (in the person of George Osborne) won’t agree to sustain monetary union. However, as analyses of these issues have already been made, I wanted to take a different view on Scottish plans. One of the most important and recurring arguments for the independence is that Scottish nation will finally be able to speak for itself, will be officially and directly represented internationally, and will benefit from policies tailored to its needs and problems.

However, no one has presented a real and practical outline of HOW exactly it is supposed to happen .The document presents Scotland’s future in dichotomous and simplified (if not openly naïve) terms – as if the UK was only possible reason for dependence. It seems that being part of the UK generates a number of costs and problems for Scotland and brings no profits. It is somehow forgotten that no country exists in a vacuum. To make every single political decision Scotland, as every other state, will have to take into account such forces as global economy, EU policies, and pressures from big international companies. By becoming independent, Scotland will give up its place (as part of the UK) amongst the key players and decision makers in international affairs. It will no longer have access to the G8 or UN Security Council, and while its GPD per capita will be in world’s top 8, the economy as a whole will be around 40th place. I am afraid Scotland will soon find out what is the difference between being the 3rd (current position of the UK) and 16th economy of the EU. While the voice of the UK cannot be ignored and even special demands, e.g. rebates, are fulfilled, Scotland will have to accept its spot as one amongst many others. I think the words of Spanish PM Mr Rajoy portray best how difficult it will be for Scotland to establish a beneficial relationship with the rest of the EU: “The only thing that I would like is that Scots are realistic about the consequences of secession. It is clear to me that a region which asks for independence from a state within the European Union, will be left outside the EU. It is good thing that the citizens, the Scottish people know this, along with other Europeans”. (The Telegraph http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/10479461/Spanish-PM-Independent-Scotland-would-be-out-of-the-EU.html)”.

The strangest of all is the decision to sustain monetary union with the rest of the UK. The results of economies of different strengths and sizes having the same currency can be very well observed in Greece or Spain. By retaining sterling Scotland will deprive itself of the natural defence mechanism against economic downturn. Since UK economy will be around 5 times bigger than Scottish, the price of its currency will mostly be dependent on the decisions made in London. Unlike most other countries, in times of economic downturn Scotland will not be able to count on prices of its currency to go down what would boost export and lower the entry costs for international investors.

Finally, the authors of ‘Scotland’s Future’ often repeat that Scottish finances will be as strong as UK’s even without offshore tax receipts. However, as you can see in the Estimates of Scotland financial position for 2016/17, the entire revenue generated by the oil industry will be spent the same year. Moreover, offshore tax receipts will constitute between 10.5 and 12% of Scotland’s budget, resulting in a huge dependency on oil prices.

My aim here is not to depreciate Scotland’s efforts. But the country’s best interest will depend on the ability of its citizens to make a fully informed and conscious decision regarding the independence. I am afraid the SNP chose to present solely the advantages of being a separate country, leaving any downsides or doubts out of the ‘Scotland’s Future’ manifest. The part of the blueprint regarding international policy is devoted to Britain’s and Scotland’s relationship to the EU – Scotland, just as the rest of the UK, is said to recognise the flaws of the EU but believes it is in its best interest to work on changing the union instead of leaving it altogether. I really wish the same approach could be applied to its relationship with the UK.