Sunday 24 February 2013

Of the Bedroom Tax: Tories, Hypocrites and Numpties

This is a blog about how angry I am with all four of our major Parties.

Let's start with the Coalition Parties. The Bedroom tax, at the sharp end, is an outrageously callous piece of legislation. I don't have any difficulty with supporting the idea that no-one should be subsidised to live in a house larger than they need but only a very small number of people affected actually fall into that category. The key is in the word need.

Surely the absent parent with residential contact to their children "needs" a bedroom for them to sleep in? Or many disabled households "need" to have separate bedrooms so that the able bodied partner (and carer) can get a decent night's sleep? Or even that those with accepted over-occupancy "need" to be able to pay their rent if there is nowhere smaller available for them to stay? Yet all of these people are swept up in a blanket policy; indeed, since they constitute the majority of those affected, it must surely be assumed that they are consciously targeted by it.

Let's not forget that the reason historically that public sector housing benefit has had different rules from private sector benefit is that the whole basis for the entitlement to and allocation of public sector housing has been "need". The bedroom tax doesn't make that need go away.

So for starters I am angry with the Tories and their Lib Dem allies.

But then let's move on to the SNP. Last weekend Nicola gave an interview promising that "after independence" the bedroom tax would be abolished. This was cynical politics of the worst sort. What exactly was the message here? If you are affected by the tax then if you can only find some way of paying your rent for THREE YEARS and, invest your faith in a Yes vote a year in  October. then everything will be hunky-dory thereafter. This is a worthless promise because, of course, in three years time, the Bedroom Tax will have had its effect. People will,at best, have moved to smaller accomodation and, at worst, have been evicted and living in God knows what circumstance. For once you don't need to ask the Nationalists to cost their promise because this is a promise with no cost. But there is something much worse in Nicola's crocodile tears, it is the premise that nothing can be done without Independence. Because that is a completely false premise.

And that leads me on to the final Party with whom I am angry; the Official opposition, my own Party.

This Leadership are of course the progenitors of the infamous "Now that the Tories are back" 2011 Manifesto.Unlike the Tories, who are indifferent to the misery their policy will cause, or the SNP who seek to do no more than exploit that misery for their supposed wider advantage, we are meant to be the ones who would, given the chance, be looking to do something to prevent it. Or as the Official opposition at least exposing the hypocrisy of the Nationalist Government in failing to do that.

There are of course one or two well intentioned private initiatives on our side. Govan Law Centre have suggested that it be made illegal to evict for rent arrears those whose failure to pay is only as a consequence of the Bedroom Tax. Another suggestion is to classify the "third" room in some public sector housing as something other than a bedroom. The problem with both of these suggestions is that at best they take £50 Million per annum (the impact of the Bedroom Tax in Scotland) out of the revenues of public sector landlords. That comes at a cost borne by equally innocent victims, the tenants who will suffer in the form of improvements and repairs not undertaken, or indeed the employment of those who might be carrying out these repairs and improvements.

Short term at least the Govan proposal has my support but it is not a long term solution. The long term solution has to be based on replacing that revenue.

And that's not impossible. Housing Benefit is of course reserved to Westminster but Public sector Housing; Local Government and Local Government Finance are all devolved. So what might be done?

Well, first of all, there are Discretionary Housing Payments. These already exist and involve the Local Authority paying the shortfall that might, under the current system, exist between the rent and the ability of the tenant to pay even after Housing Benefit. Even the Tories recognise that the Bedroom Tax will throw up some indefensible cases so they have provided direct funding to Local Authorities to increase their ability to make Discretionary Housing Payments. I have tried to find the figure specifically allocated to Scotland for this but without success. The UK figure is however for general and bedroom tax provision is £50 Million so it's reasonable to assume the Scottish Figure to be around £5 Million.

But that's not the end of it. The Discretionary Housing Payments (Grants) Order 2001 allows that to be topped up by an individual Local Authority to the extent of 250%. So, if they had the money, Local Authorities could immediately find an additional £7.5 Million to set against the £50 Million cost of the Bedroom Tax. Except that they clearly do not have that money. But the Scottish Government could give it to them. (I'll come back to this).

But is that all? Well, look at this!

Those immersed in this area will know that the powers of the Scottish Parliament extend to all matters which are not specifically reserved to Westminster. And that these reservations are contained in Schedule 5 of the Scotland Act 1998. And of course Social Security Benefits (including Housing Benefits) are reserved, aren't they?

Now I appreciate that it might be asking a bit much of MSPs who spent the first week of the horsemeat scandal blissfully unaware that food safety was a devolved issue to be particularly familiar with Schedule 5 of the Scotland Act 1998 but I might expect somebody to have read it.

Anyway, here's what it says at the relevant part as to what is reserved.

Head F – Social Security
F1. Social security schemes
Section F1.
Schemes supported from central or local funds which provide assistance for social security purposes to or in respect of individuals by way of benefits.
Requiring persons to—
establish and administer schemes providing assistance for social security purposes to or in respect of individuals, or
make payments to or in respect of such schemes,
and to keep records and supply information in connection with such schemes.
·         The circumstances in which a person is liable to maintain himself or another for the purposes of the enactments relating to social security and the Child Support Acts 1991 and 1995.
·         The subject-matter of the Vaccine Damage Payment Scheme.
National Insurance; Social Fund; administration and funding of housing benefit and council tax benefit; recovery of benefits for accident, injury or disease from persons paying damages; deductions from benefits for the purpose of meeting an individual’s debts; sharing information between government departments for the purposes of the enactments relating to social security; making decisions for the purposes of schemes mentioned in the reservation and appeals against such decisions.
The subject-matter of Part II of the Social Work (Scotland) Act 1968 (social welfare services), section 2 of the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970 (provision of welfare services), section 50 of the Children Act 1975 (payments towards maintenance of children), section 15 of the Enterprise and New Towns (Scotland) Act 1990 (industrial injuries benefit), and sections 22 (promotion of welfare of children in need), 29 and 30 (advice and assistance for young persons formerly looked after by local authorities) of the Children (Scotland) Act 1995.
·         Benefits” includes pensions, allowances, grants, loans and any other form of financial assistance.
·         Providing assistance for social security purposes to or in respect of individuals includes (among other things) providing assistance to or in respect of individuals—
who qualify by reason of old age, survivorship, disability, sickness, incapacity, injury, unemployment, maternity or the care of children or others needing care,
who qualify by reason of low income, or
in relation to their housing costs or liabilities for local taxes.

(The highlighted section is my emphasis)

So, I hear you ask what is this odd exception in relation to Part II of the Social Work (Scotland) Act 1968? Well the Title of Part II is "Promotion of Social Welfare by Local Authorities" and here is a link to its entire text which is too substantial just to cut and paste in here.

And in considering that text, notice this. Assuming that it falls within the general heading of "Promotion of Social Welfare by Local Authorities" the Scottish Parliament can amend the provisions of Part II. Indeed, pedants will note that the entire "Free Personal Care" regime has been introduced by just such amendment. Pedants will also note s 12B which, by amendment, allows direct payments for personal care without anyone suggesting that this is not competent despite 

·        " Providing assistance for social security purposes to or in respect of individuals includes (among other things) providing assistance to or in respect of individuals—
who qualify by reason of old age, survivorship, disability, sickness, incapacity, injury, unemployment, maternity or the care of children or others needing care,"

being reserved to Westminster by virtue of Head F1 of Schedule 5 referred to above. 

So, assuming that preventing large numbers of people being rendered homeless and potentially destitute can reasonably be regarded as something which would run contrary to the "promotion of Social Welfare by Local Authorities" there is no reason that the Scottish Parliament could not amend Part II of the 1968 Act to enable local authorities to financially assist those facing that prospect.

But is that even necessary?  For let's consider the existing ss 12(1) and 12(2) of that legislation Here's that link again

And here's the punchline. It it is difficult to assess the cost to a Local Authority of an eviction but given the imperative in terms of the Housing (Scotland) Act  1987 to rehouse the victims, together with the costs to Education Departments of reaccommodating, never mind counselling, affected children and the cost to Social Work Departments of ensuring the welfare of everyone involved, it would not be difficult to argue that any potential "Bedroom Tax" eviction would justify a s.12 payment to prevent it as falling within a category

"where the giving of assistance in either form would avoid the local authority being caused greater expense in the giving of assistance in another form,"

Except again, that would come at a cost.

So what would be that cost?

Now, let's accept that some part of the Bedroom Tax has the effect the Tories desire, by forcing people with the option to downsize to actually do so. The total cost of preventing its worst effects would then probably be not £50 Million but rather somewhere  between £30 Million and £40 Million. Let's split the difference and call it £35 Million.

Having met £7.5 Million of that by funding Discretionary Housing Benefit, it would cost another £27.5 Million for the Scottish Government to completely neutralise the Bedroom Tax by funding s.12 payments to cover the remaining shortfall. All, for the avoidance of any doubt, within their current powers.

Of course, £35 Million is a lot of money, certainly a lot more than the Scottish Government has lying spare. So it would need to be found. Where, you ask?

Well, firstly, the cost of providing free prescriptions to the richest 15% of the Scottish population (85% of prescription throughout the UK are free) amounts to £60 Million, Introduce a £4 prescription charge (still less than England) and there's the money found immediately. Or if that wasn't attractive, a 2% increase in Council Tax would produce the £35 Million with something to spare. That wouldn't cost the very poor a penny as they would continue to get 100% Council Tax Benefit. Indeed, ironically, it would force a degree of subsidy from Westminster as they'd retain the obligation to pay that Council Tax benefit. 

Now, there is absolutely no prospect of the SNP Government doing any of this, since it would involve taxing or removing perks from the rich to help the poor, and that's not their thing. And it would also cut across their "Up the misery, Independence is the only answer" strategy exhibited, once again,  in yesterday's YesScotland press advertisements.

But let's not let them get away with saying nothing can be done because that's not true.

So, in summary, I'm angry with the Tories for their malice; the Lib-Dems for their complicity; the SNP for their cynicism and the Labour Party for its ineptitude as an opposition.

Maybe I should become a Green. 

Saturday 9 February 2013

Here's to your Health

On Monday last we got an update on the medical condition of Malala Yousufzai, who was shot in the head by the Taliban for the crime of encouraging female education. What a truly remarkable young woman.

But, much as we admired her bravery there was also something else to admire; the care she had received in a British NHS Hospital. As her doctors talked of the treatment they had given we marvelled at their skill, and we all also at least silently smiled as Malala herself talked about how those who had initially saved her life and then looked after her through her remarkable recovery had also become her friends.

And at that point we also all felt a sense of pride. This was our NHS, albeit on this occasion treating an exceptionally deserving foreigner*. As good as anything available anywhere in the world and available to any one of us free of charge should we, God forbid, suffer a similar trauma.

And that of course is how we like to see the NHS; involving state of the art, life saving, treatment delivered by universally brilliant and brilliantly dedicated staff. Only it is not the reality.

I am 54. I am far from a particularly "healthy lifestyle" person but in my entire life I have spent four nights in hospital. One night when I had my tonsils out when I was a very wee boy (although I still remember the free ice lolly) and three as an adult before and after the removal of my appendix (ice lolly not provided).

That, I suspect, is pretty typical of people of my age.

I go every so often with minor (to them if not to me) complaints to my family doctor and I am never less than satisfied with my "treatment", even if it consists of nothing more than reassuring me that I am in less danger of imminent expiry than I am maintaining myself to be.

My own personal experience is typical. Unless you are unlucky, you don't have much to do with hospital treatment during your working life.

That awaits retirement. For the average age of an NHS hospital in-patient is over seventy.

Now, albeit that I like to think that I have avoided a mid-life crisis  when you get to your mid fifties you do start to think how you would like to go.

For me, I imagine it would be on my eightieth birthday (I'm not (that) greedy). Just as, on 10th September, the Summer was coming to an end. I'd be living in my retirement house overlooking the sea somewhere between Bari and Brindisi and have enjoyed a long lunch in the open air in the company of all my favourite nephews and nieces; their children and ideally the first of their grandchildren. After lunch we'd have slept, then gone for a swim, and they'd have then announced they were going out for the night but I'd have protested I wasn't getting any younger.

So, I'd be sitting overlooking the Adriatic, as the sun set in the hills behind me, listening to the last act of the Marriage of Figaro, and enjoying a coffee and an Averna (or perhaps more than one on this occasion). And I'd be thinking that I must make more coffee before the others came home but that first I might have another little snooze......................

Only it never ends like that.

Most often, it ends in pain and incontinence and mental confusion. Among strangers and, most often, in midwinter. That's the real world.

And that is, on any view, where the NHS is failing.

I was prompted to write on this subject by an exchange on twitter mid week about the publication of the latest stage of the Francis report into the failures of  Stafford Hospital. Inevitably, almost immediately, some mad cybernat appeared to assert that this was just an English problem but I was struck by how quickly that was disputed by those of all political persuasions who joined the discussion. Nor, for the avoidance of any doubt is/was it a problem of the Tories making, or a problem created by inadequate resources. All of these events happened while Labour was in power and while NHS spending was at record levels.

Unfortunately, the problems go much more deep than that and had no single cause.

One of the causes however is that undoubtedly the balance in the health service has been and continues to be got wrong between the interests of the staff and the interests of the patients. The reason that professional medical staff, doctors and nurses and the rest, have historically enjoyed such deference is the belief that they undertake not a job but a vocation. But it is they themselves, when it has come to their terms and conditions, who have insisted that, when it suits them (early retirement, the right to public holidays, regular working hours timed to the minute) they be treated just like any other in-demand skilled "worker". And if that affects the care of patients too bad. I say when it suits them because there is of course one huge exception to their wish to be treated like other workers and that's when it comes to being hired or fired. No matter what failures of management took place at Mid-Staffs it was not the administrators who directly neglected the patients and yet even those calling for heads to roll are inclined to focus their demands on the management alone. I have to say I cannot see why the buck should rest exclusively there.

Then again, it hasn't of course rested even there. Despite the well documented tales of treatment worthy of Dante's inferno; despite the (at least) hundreds of unnecessary deaths; despite the four year public inquiry at, no doubt, very considerable public expense in itself; despite the fact that the hospital's A&E Department has had to be closed because no-one wants the stigma of having worked there on their CV and that rumours abound that the entire hospital may soon suffer the same  fate. Despite all of that,  NOT ONE SINGLE PERSON HAS LOST THEIR JOB. That's right, not one.

I won't even start on the fact that many of those involved have actually been promoted.

And, of course, in Scotland, we don't even have the option of dealing with under-performance through selection for redundancy. For the no compulsory redundancies policy leaves us bizarrely offering enhanced settlements to bribe to depart those who will easily secure a position elsewhere while those otherwise unemployable are entitled to sit tight. Where is the interest of the public in that arrangement? Indeed where is the interest of the public in so much that passes for personnel management across the Health Service?

And that brings me to the politicians. They, all of them, seem to feel an obligation to take the responsibility for failure upon themselves and whoever is in Government seems to feel the obligation to deny, in public at least, that they are aware of any problems unless they are completely unignorable.

Cameron was right to promise last week to do everything possible to prevent a future Mid Staffs but he also felt it incumbent on himself to apologise. Why? He wasn't even in power at the time and, even in respect of those who were, no-one suggested that what happened was anything (lack of funds or lack of proper management structures) that might reasonably be laid at the door of the politicians.

We had a similar if less serious example here in Scotland last year. When Jackie Baillie challenged Eck about the lack of blankets at Paisley's RAH, his immediate reaction was to deny it. Why, again I ask? He knew, presumably, that Nicola hadn't raided the blanket budget to spend on a free Saltire for every patient, so if there was an allegation of a shortage of blankets (as it transpired there was) why couldn't he just say he'd look into it? If true, no matter who's fault that was, it wasn't going to be that of him or his administration. But he (and a Labour FM would, I suspect, have reacted similarly) started from the assumption that, in respect of any supposed criticism of the NHS, they needed to defend, or at least deny, the indefensible.

We need a political class more prepared to put some degree of objectivity into their strategic direction of the NHS. I repeat myself;  if they provide the funds and the structure, then individual front line failures are no more their responsibility than it is their responsibility to carry out tonsillectomies. Crucially, once they realise that it frees them to be more critical of these front line failures rather than acting as uncritical cheerleaders for the Service as a whole.

It is inconceivable that the local MPs were unaware of the problems at Mid-Staffs but it simply is not the done thing for a local MP to criticise a local hospital. Again, the question is why?

But there is also one other, final, thing that needs to be said about Mid-Staffs. Maybe it was indicative of the fact that in the care of the very elderly with advanced dementia we are trying to do the impossible.

Modern medical science has become very good at keeping people alive but we haven't really come to terms with the consequences of that. And I really do wonder if we have got the balance correct in that process between "treatment" and care.

This is astonishingly difficult territory but I do wonder if the priority between the preservation of life at all cost and the assurance, in so far as possible, of comfort and familiarity at the end needs to be revisited. None of that remotely excuses the horrific events of Mid Staffs (and if you read the earlier, factual, report, some, no much, of what happened is truly horrific) but it cannot be denied that it was the context in which much of it occurred. And it was the context of the experience of many of my twitter correspondents.

There are reasons that many terminally ill but mentally competent patients choose to die in their own homes in the knowledge that it might mean the very end would arrive somewhat sooner; just as there are reasons some pregnant women opt for a home delivery even though the risks to them and their baby might be very slightly higher.

Yet, in this context, many patients with dementia do not get to exercise that choice. So they end up in an unfamiliar environment, among strangers and by the very nature of their condition they then make "unreasonable" demands on the time and patience of staff. And that's before the impact on other patients is considered.

And the cottage hospitals are increasingly closed, at the initiative not of the patients or their families but rather to meet the working preferences of the medical professions I have referred to above. Worse still, that preference is sometimes disguised as being "medically" justified.

Jackie Baillie had a plan for a National Care Service to merge the current functions of the NHS and Social Work in this area. Whether that will ever happen I doubt, for public sector reform has not been one of the Scottish Parliament's strengths under any administration, but that this is an issue that will only grow with time is something that cannot easily be ignored. We might not yet have had a Stafford Hospital in Scotland but I use the word yet advisedly. And if any single person reading this can't name at least one NHS Hospital in Scotland where they would not want to be an elderly patient then they're speaking "in terms of the debate".

*I should say that her treatment was paid for by the Government of Pakistan

Sunday 3 February 2013


I tweeted mid-week that I was bored with the referendum. I suspect I'm not alone.

There is currently a definite Groundhog Day element to the whole thing. Neither side has a fresh argument but, at least as importantly, neither side has even a fresh face. For us it is Anas, Ruth Davidson, Alistair Darling and Michael Moore on a continuous loop. For them, Blair Jenkins, Eck and Nicola.

Sure, very occasionally, you'll see Maggie Curran or Charlie Kennedy; Humza Yousaf or Patrick Harvie. But even the stand ins have a sameness to them.

Now, at least on our part, there might be some logic to this as visible demonstration that not all our politicians are "obsessed" with Independence but how it benefits the Nationalists to create the impression that their cause is in the hands of a handful of monomaniacs is a complete mystery to me. Where are any of their numerous Holyrood backbenchers? They are by no means all numpties.

Anyway, until something interesting happens I've decided to forgo blogging about the referendum and instead  talk about some of the real policy challenges facing Scotland.

And, since I enjoy an argument, I thought I'd start with a controversial issue. Fertility rates.

Here's an interesting wee graph. It shows the number of live births in Scotland over the period covered. And its evidence is stark. There has been a dramatic decrease in the number of children being born in Scotland

Figure 11: Births in Scotland (1951-2009) (thousands)
And here is an interesting fraction: 1.73. That is the average number of children now (2011) born to a woman in Scotland.

Now you don't have to be some sort of mathematical genius to work out that this is nothing approaching a "replacement" rate. (In fact, to allow for early mortality, the replacement rate in advanced economies is generally accepted to be 2.1)

Of course it is not as simple as that for it excludes the issue of immigration. But, for the avoidance of any doubt, factoring in natural native emigration, a birth rate of 1.73 anticipates that, simply to maintain the settled population, something approaching one young adult in six will have to have been born outside Scotland. And also that this will continue indefinitely.

Now, for the avoidance of any doubt, I am not opposed to immigration but you don't have to be some mad ethnic nationalist to have concerns about a small country's ability to manage that level of continuous demographic change. And, even then, to worry about absolute dependency on an inflow of population from people who have an entirely free choice as to whether to come here at all.

But, of course, the ability of women (and couples) to control their own fertility is an absolutely given positive on the left. And quite right too. So, if there is a problem, as I believe there is, then the focus must be on trying to comprehend why that control is producing the 1.73 result rather than to condemn or restrict the means.

And, of course, the principal reason is that women now regard themselves as being entitled to a career as well as a family. And quite right too again.

But society has only conceded that up to a certain point. Even in the most progressive of employments, the approach to maternity leave at a managerial level is too often that while one child might be understandable and two (at least in close succession) acceptable, any more smacks of self-indulgence. Bluntly, that has to change.

And so has the attitude of "progressive" men. Too often the "difficult" bits of child rearing: illness, unreasonableness, just plain randomness are ultimately left to the mother. As indeed is the assumption of the "default" principal child care responsibility when a relationship breaks down.

But most important of all is the fact that we do not recognise the extent to which it is expensive to have children. Not just expensive in terms of upkeep but also expensive in terms of what, in a different, personal injury, context, lawyers define as "loss of opportunity". And no amount of employment law tweaks will ever correct that.

Bevan said that the language of priorities is the religion of socialism. Surely, without translation, the first priority must be not only to look after children, out of sentiment and as the workers and taxpayers of tomorrow, but also to ensure they have sufficient progenitors. I struggle, currently, to see a single government policy, at Holyrood or Westminster, designed to that end.

And the significance of 1.4? That's the Italian equivalent of our 1.73. So if you were a potential immigrant with a choice where to go?