Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Government Aim To Make Philanthropy Pay

This enlightening article from The Telegraph reveals new philanthropic plans in development by the coalition. Potentially, every time you use a bank card or take money from your bank account you will be asked to make a charitable donation. Pin machines will be forced to ask you whether you want to 'round up the pound' and give the surplus to charity. It's all part of the effort to create the 'Big Society' and won't we all feel better for it?

Well, no. Not really.

I am a fairly philanthropic person myself. I drop money into boxes when I have change to hand and occasionally give money online. I try to be well-informed about events and organisations and in the new year I'm considering volunteering for one of several deserving causes (I hasten to point out that this is a personal choice and not one encouraged in any way, shape or form by Mr Cameron and his shabby ensemble). What I detest are the charitable organisations who approach you in the street with their clipboards aloft, determined to cajole you into making a monthly payment to the charity of their choice. This will be a similar scheme on a giant scale.

I can see it having one major repercussion. In my eyes, poor innocent cashiers will take the brunt of any irritation stemming from this question. The less refined amongst us will look up from the machine and make a smart and scathing remark. Nobody likes being told what to do and the pressure is always on when those machines ask you a question you want to say no to. In restaurants when they ask you whether you want to leave a tip (and then charge you the 'standard' tipping price) there is always the knowledge that the server can see you pressing the red button. Will this persuade people to give money they don't want to (and in some cases can't afford to)?

You can't tell people what they should do with their income. Alright, the official argument will be that this is merely encouragement but many people will feel pressured and annoyed by this move should it be put into practice. They will see it as a government ploy to make up with donations the amount they are cutting in the charitable budget. Personally, I think we are a selfish bunch of people. We'll throw money at a charity in order to alleviate any guilt but we won't volunteer at a soup kitchen or deliver food to the elderly. As the article points out, how does this scheme make that situation any better?

We're a fragmented country. Some of what David Cameron is attempting to do I admire. Encouraging those dependant on welfare is good in theory, as is repealing the Human Rights Act (if he ever gets around to it). However, most of his decisions aren't based on a genuine regard for the people of this country. He's trying to save money.

This is simply another one of those tricks. Unfortunately, if it passes into common usage it will be one of those things which never goes away. After all, the public can't begrudge a little more of their money being given to charity surely?

I think if they take much more then it will become a huge issue.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Stop Talking About Terry Jones

It seems simple enough. If you stop giving media coverage to an extremist individual whose outrageous speeches are usually only heard by a congregation of fifty or so people then there's every chance the extremist individual will disappear into the ether. After all, he just wants attention and the world media is currently playing right into that trap.

Most people know the name of Terry Jones by now. He is the US pastor who threatened to burn the Koran on September 11th this year in protest at radical Islam. The amount of coverage he garnered was ridiculous for a man of his standing yet the American public and beyond continued to watch him from a distance and marvel at the way one man could not only disrespect another religion so violently and vehemently but also show a complete disregard for the potential disasters he could have caused. Since then he has tried to qualify his views by saying that they apply to so-called 'radical Islam' only. The trouble is, Jones has yet to qualify what he means by 'radical' and I suspect his views on that change depending on which interviewer he is speaking to.

Now it has been announced that the English Defence League (EDL, a group who protest their fascist label at every opportunity) have invited him to speak at one of their rallies in the UK. These rallies have previously resulted in violent clashes between the EDL and groups such as Unite Against Fascism. Jones joining such a rally is indeed a coup for the EDL and Home Secretary, Theresa May, has revealed that she would try banning him from the UK on the grounds of national security.

Mr Jones must be laughing at the world. From one well-calculated publicity stunt he has gained the attention of several major governments. He is considered such a threat to our society that we Brits are trying to stop him setting foot on our soil. In the meantime, he is headlining on every major news site in the country, has a section in all the newspapers and is easily recognisable. I've even written this blog about him.

Yes, I'm adding to the problem but this is a widespread issue. We consistently give room to sensational stories in the name of free press. All this does is publicise organisations we'd rather weren't on public display. The furore surrounding every rally the EDL holds is a prime example of this. Nick Griffin's appearance on Question Time as leader of the British National Party was the media offering a sensational slice of television that basically turned into a rant against the BNP. It was never about opening the floor to a lesser party; it was about showing a vicious argument on national television.

Do you remember in school you were told to ignore bullies and they'd eventually go away? Thanks to our reluctance to do that with Terry Jones he's now here to stay.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Students Have Lost Any Public Support They Had

The scenes of protest and destruction in London last night by my fellow students makes me feel ashamed to be honest. Yes, they were angry (and justifiably so) but there is clear evidence to suggest some people attended the march with the specific intention of causing trouble. After all, who routinely carries around baubles filled with paint for protection? What yesterday will be remembered for is not the travesty of the fees rise as it should have been. No, it will be the image of Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall looking shocked as their Rolls Royce is attacked by rioters.

At the moment we don't know how many of the protesters were students and how many were thugs looking for a fight. But that won't alter the public perception that we have thrown our toys out of the pram in the most idiotic fashion. If we are the next generation and the future of our country then it's a worrying measure of our intellect that we resort to violence to illustrate our points.

Public support towards students has been thin over the last few weeks as frustrations have mounted. It was clear a while ago that the vote was going to go the Coalition's way. Many members of the public see students as an over-privileged work-shy collective who don't want to pay for their own education. Unfortunately, I agree with them to an extent. Some people expect a free education because their parents had a free education. This ignores public debt, an increase in the number of people going to university and the fate of many graduates in so-called 'softer' subjects. However, the majority of students seem willing to pay fees but aren't happy about the cap trebling in this manner. A lot of the anger is based on the Liberal Democrat pledge. If they hadn't signed that piece of paper these protests would've been a lot more controllable and muted.

Whatever the arguments for and against the fees rise, they've ceased to matter now. We've actually given the Coalition their strongest weapon yet: why should we be allowed to go to university when our reaction to something we don't like is to attack the heir to the throne? The Royal Family are not part of our political system. They deliberately stay out of it and as such they did not deserve to be attacked in that manner.

Friday, 3 December 2010

Perspective Please

There has been a lot of talk over the last twenty-four hours about our nation's 'shame' at failing to secure the 2018 World Cup. I, for one, find it quite unbelievable that everybody is paying this much attention to a sporting event which (depending on how corrupt you think the game is) we never had any chance of hosting in the first place.

It's sad, yes, that we won't get the economic boost of a second major sporting event in the next decade. It's disappointing that the media apparently (and I use that word with care) scuppered our chances of success. However, it is not half as 'shameful' as some of the other things occurring in our country.

Personally, I find it shameful that our troops are so ill-equipped in Afghanistan. Whether I agree with the war there or not, I detest the idea of our government sending anybody out there without the strongest hope that they will return and therefore funding them properly. It's reminiscent of sending soldiers to fight in WWI with barely a thought for their safety.

It's shameful that our politicians are prepared to sell their principles for their shot at power. It's shameful that two pensioners have frozen in this terrible weather over the last few days. It's shameful that our transport infrastructure cannot cope with this weather. It is NOT shameful that we failed to win a bid for a sporting event.

There is no shame in that and I think people may be confusing shame with disappointment and anger. By all means, be disappointed that we have failed to bring revenue and publicity to this country. Feel free to be angry that Fifa's seemingly corrupt nature has deprived us of the chance. But, please, don't be ashamed of our country for that when there are so many more important things to be ashamed about.

Monday, 22 November 2010

The Council House Debate

The plans to offer fixed-term tenancies for council houses are coming into force as from today. This will ensure, as Grant Shapps has just so eloquently orated on Radio 2, that families who no longer need council housing can be moved to make way for those who do. When put in those simple terms it seems a fair decision, but that masks several uncomfortable truths about the situation.

Firstly, as several of Jeremy Vine's listeners pointed out, it runs the risk of creating slum areas. People are moved into a council house and know that they may very well be asked to leave in a few years: what is the point in them taking any pride in their 'home' at all? It won't be a home in the true sense of the word; more like a temporary lay-by until people are able to move on. What you'll end up with are a collective of transient families moving in and then moving out, and then you have the staples of society who are simply unable to move. These proposals leave them residing in slum areas where there is no notion of community or pride.

The idea that people should relinquish council houses to those in need are good in theory. For example, who would deny the right of a family who have suffered from the recession a short-term haven in the form of a council tenancy? And I'm not denying that living off the state has become a persistent problem in our society. Experience has taught certain groups that if they want an easy life they can claim benefits, have children and get a council house. Some of the measures the Coalition are bringing in aim to attack those groups (though, personally, I think it's a mindset rooted deeper than the Government can probe) but that doesn't combat the current shortage of council properties.

Should someone have a 'home for life' subsidised by the state? Well, the arbitrary figures the Government may employ for deciding the threshold could suggest otherwise. If someone lives in a council house close to a city centre, for instance, then the chances are they will be priced out of either buying a property nearby or privately renting. Their financial circumstances may have changed but all this does is separate them from the area they've grown accustomed to and can require the upheaval of children from school and the like.

As with most Coalition decisions, this one demonstrates a blatant disregard for the individual. Let's take my grandmother as an example. She moved into her council house on Eastmoor Estate in Wakefield when my mum was nine months old, having put herself and her husband on the waiting list as soon as she found out she was pregnant. The result was a two-bedroomed house with a mid-sized rear garden and a pit at the bottom of the street. Over the years my grandfather made various improvements to the garden and they made it into a home. When she married my mum moved out and in 1986 my grandfather died. The house had suddenly become too big for my grandmother judging by the Coalition guidelines but she could she be expected to move into a small flat, move away from the house where she'd spent her marriage? She lived there for a further twenty years until her health deteriorated and she moved into sheltered accommodation. I firmly think that if she had been forced to move earlier her health would've suffered and the community she'd built on that estate would've been shattered.

There needs to be a long-term solution to the shortage of council housing but forcing people to move when they aren't ready or able is just plain cruel. Why not expand the number of council houses on the books, considering the number of empty properties lying around? However, this would be against the Tory ideology, wouldn't it? I wonder if Labour have any suggestions.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Voting No Against Prisoners

Prisoners are to get the right to vote. I'm appalled but not surprised.

Although I'm tempted to turn this into a rant against our EU membership I'll refrain. Let me just say that the ECHR ruling is a violation of our rights as a country. But back to the issue at hand.

Why shouldn't prisoners be allowed to vote? Well, they sacrificed their rights to such privileges when they committed their crime. I realise, however, that it's a generalisation and that there are different categories of offender. However, the idea that 'serious offenders' may still be prevented from voting doesn't solve that problem. You could have a perfectly harmless elderly man who killed his suffering wife. He's labelled as a murderer but surely he's more worthy of the vote than the BNP thug in the next cell who only glassed someone in the face?

Of course, there is the idea that judges will decide at sentencing whether the prisoner will be allowed to vote or not. This could be a solution but it relies on the personal prejudices of a judge. This isn't to suggest that they are any more discriminatory than the rest of us but cases are bound to occur where a 'fit' prisoner is deemed unable to vote. All the prisoner has to do is appeal the ruling and suddenly you might find that we aren't allowed any restrictions at all.

I see one probable outcome to this. As a nation we're distinctly uninterested in politics. The turnout at elections is paltry compared to what it used to be and many people would have difficulty naming members of the current Coalition Cabinet. I would hazard a guess that the turnout amongst eligible prisoners would be significantly higher than the average public turnout.

Is this democracy? When the views of the guilty influence more than the views of the innocent but disinterested?

Sunday, 24 October 2010

To Cap Or Not To Cap?

Today both Nick Clegg and Vince Cable have made noises to the effect that there will be some kind of cap placed on tuition fees, contrary to the advice given in the Browne Report earlier this month. It is initially thought this cap could be around £12,000, the level at which the Government would've started penalising universities anyway.

A victory for students? I'm not sure.

Removing the cap at the current level to allow for a reduction in funding to universities is an unpopular decision. It also looks likely to deter students from going into higher education. Now to some people this isn't completely a bad thing: the country is over-stretched as it is with graduates who offer little practical application to society once they leave university. However, the merits of individual courses aren't the issue here. What I'm wondering at the moment is whether we should be raising the cap to £12,000 instead of scrapping it altogether.

I know removing the cap is an unpopular idea but tripling it could be as costly to students. Isn't it likely that universities, eager to recoup their losses from their battering in the Spending Review, will raise their fees as a unit? All of a sudden even an education at a below-par institution could cost a fortune.

Of course, we expect there to be a lot of auditing of universities to ensure they are worth the fees they are charging. But how reliable are these procedures going to be? Considering the Government's attitude towards quangos isn't it likely that surveillance of fees will pass straight into the pocket of some harassed junior minister already struggling to deal with everything else thrown at his department?

I don't think the cap should be moved from its current level. Or, if it is, it should just be an upward nudge of perhaps £1000. However, if the cap is removed and a marketplace is created in the higher education sector then students will have the opportunity to choose. There will still be some universities who keep their fees relatively low to attract the less well-off. Equally, there will be competition between the prestigious universities: they will have to battle each other for their students and this process should demonstrate value for money.

I'm a little undecided here. I don't want the cap raised, I'd prefer it not to be moved at all. But if it must move I'd prefer it to be removed completely. What Clegg and Cable are doing in their pacification of disgruntled Lib Dems might just make the situation worse.

Friday, 22 October 2010

Iain Duncan Smith - Ignoring the Human Element

Iain Duncan Smith has irritated me today - and probably half the nation.

His comments, harking back to Norman Tebbit thirty years ago, have suggested that the next step in his battle to wean people off welfare will be to send them to jobs potentially several hours away. This is an excerpt from the interview:

There are jobs. They may not be absolutely in the town that you are living in. That's the key point. They may be in a neighbouring town... My point was, you need to recognise that the jobs don't always come to you, sometimes you need to go to the job.

Now, on principle, I agree.

I spent six months commuting from Darlington to Stockton by train with a significant walk to the station at the Darlington end. I was temping whilst studying for my MA in Middlesbrough and was happy to land any job to keep me going. I started work at 8:30 and routinely set off before 7:00. It was a tad cold on those winter mornings but I had my Ipod and a book for the train. It worked out fine, even on the two nights of the week when I had to continue my day onto Middlesbrough and study until 9:00 PM. I think I complained of exhaustion on more than one occasion but I got through it because I knew it wasn't forever.

Perhaps that's the point. I'm not sure if IDS expects such a working situation to be long-term but your life could start to suffer as a result if he does. I'm lucky. I didn't have childcare arrangements or a mortgage (I paid my rent upfront at the beginning of the year). My household bills, my food and my transport costs were all I had to worry about. However, I was lucky.

If you're in a situation where both halves of a couple have a lengthy commute to work then surely extra childcare comes into play? This is notoriously expensive, particularly after-hours. Some people are lucky enough to have family to help out: many haven't. There is no guarantee that when travel costs and extra items such as childcare are deducted from the commuter's wage that they will actually be better off than they were on benefits. Bear in mind that train fares are set to soar and bus subsidies have been cut.

Admittedly, we're in a sticky situation. There is no quick fix and individuals are going to have to make difficult decisions for some time to come. One of these may be commuting to the next town until things settle down. But how long can families sustain this? More importantly, will there be jobs to go to?

It does come down to a desire to take control of your own life and finances. I am wholeheartedly in favour of this. However, the point where the politicians are failing at the moment is when they persist in lumping the idle scroungers together in one category with the people who have genuinely assessed these options.

There needs to be a human element considered when politicians make these sweeping statements. As we've seen with George Osbourne in the last few days, the human element is usually sadly lacking from their consideration.