The right thing to do

An excellent piece by Jonathan Allsopp on the NHS.  Originally posted on his blog, which despite its title has lots to say, and always says it well.

nowt much to say


In the autumn of 2011, shortly after taking part in a one day strike in protest at the proposed changes to NHS pensions and the wider destruction of the NHS proposed in the Health and Social Care legislation which was then passing through parliament, I was chatting about the NHS, over a beer, with the finance director of a central London hospital. Whilst she admired the strikers for standing up for what they believed in, her view was that there was “no alternative” for the NHS other than to face up to the bleak financial reality of years of “efficiency savings” following the financial crisis of 2008. It was a view that was widespread at the time, and still is, amongst senior NHS figures. A view that says that we must pay for the global financial crisis by slimming down public services like the NHS; it’s considered the “the right…

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Why I voted for Jeremy Corbyn

I was brought up to vote Labour.  My parents were socialists, pacifists, anti-apartheid – good people who cared, a lot.  I remember my Mum being in agonies because she had accidentally picked up a can of South African peaches in the supermarket.  And my Dad took me to my first demo, about Rhodesia, although he whisked me away pretty sharpish when things got messy.  We always talked about politics, over tea time, half an eye on the BBC News and another on the Guardian front page.  These days we don’t always agree with each other, but we do all believe that politics is important and that its not just about pragmatism but about what’s right and what’s fair.

I was a Labour Party member for a while in Sheffield, in the days when Kinnock/Hattersley looked like a dream team.  The Militant boys always sat at the back, sneering and occasionally heckling, but mostly automatically gainsaying.  And then I moved into the only Tory constituency in the People’s Republic of South Yorkshire.

Labour stood no chance of dislodging John Osborn, or Irvine Patnick who followed him.  When things started to shift, it was clear that it was the Lib Dems who could do the job, and they did, in 1997 – Labour polled 6k in that year, against the Lib Dem 23 and Tory 15.  So tactical voting it was, until 2010 when Nick Clegg stood in the rose garden with David Cameron.

I am certain that the Lib Dems made a difference and moderated some policies that might have been implemented in the last Parliament, and probably will be in this one.  Given the electoral position at the 2010 election I can see why they agreed to go into coalition.  But one of the outcomes was that the Opposition was feeble and ineffectual.  The Lib Dems were signed up to what was being done, however much some of them may have argued against it, or privately loathed it.  And Labour was failing, time and again, to take the argument back to the Government, to challenge them and harry them and call them out.

Owen Jones interviewed me along with other Clegg constituents, a little while after the election and I said then that I would not vote Lib Dem whilst they were in coalition with the Tories (that headline should read ‘I’d consider voting’, not ‘I’d vote’.  Bloody journalists).

No more tactical voting – I’d vote with my heart, vote for what/who I believed.  The problem was, my heart was heavy when I thought of Labour.  The good things they’d done in power had been utterly tainted by the war, above all.  I wanted to believe in Ed, I really did, but it never quite happened, and I voted Labour in 2015, in (faint) hope rather than expectation.

I rejoined the party almost immediately after the election.  That’s where my heart is, always has been.

I can’t argue with people who say that Corbyn is unelectable – I can’t prove he isn’t, any more than they can prove that their chosen candidate is.  Probably none of them are just now.  But Corbyn alone amongst the candidates has inspired real excitement, and presents the possibility of mobilising some of those who couldn’t be arsed to vote last time because they did the time before and look what happened, and reigniting the fire in some of those in whom it had been well and truly doused over the years.  Young people, too, going against the received wisdom that the young won’t trust anyone over 30.

I have concerns, on foreign policy particularly – on the EU and more particularly on Hamas et al.  I don’t agree with everything Corbyn says, but then I don’t agree with everything anyone says (including myself).  The welfare bill was the clincher though – Corbyn was the only leadership candidate who voted against, who voted with his conscience and convictions rather than with expediency.  Whatever rationales have been offered by Burnham and Cooper for their abstention, I cannot, cannot accept that in this context abstention is anything other than a cop out.  And the last thing we need right now is more cop outs.

We’ve got five years to make a difference, to present a credible, passionate Opposition that speaks for the people who can’t speak for themselves.  Five years to challenge the narrative that the Opposition since 2010 seemed to have passively accepted, on the economy, on welfare and on immigration.  Five years to get people believing that politics can make a difference, that they’re not all the same.

Read why Mike Press voted for Jeremy Corbyn.   Our story is a bit different (I am not now nor have I ever been, etc), but we came to the same conclusions, in the end.

Will he make a credible Prime Minister? I’ve no idea quite honestly, but for me and for Labour that’s not really the priority. The priority is for the party to ask itself why it exists. If it exists to gain power and be good managers, then fine — count me out. If it exists to make a better future, then I’m still in. And for me Jeremy Corbyn is the only person saying this. And Stella.

‘To abstain against austerity is to accept austerity’ (Harry Leslie Smith)

After the misery of defeat, the misery – for anyone who supports, or wishes they could support, the Labour Party – of watching their current contortions.   I’ve been agonising and trying to conjure up a coherent blog post about the leadership contest, and about the Party’s response to the Tory Welfare Bill – and failing to find the words.  Thankfully, others have found them for me.

Thank you to Sarah Thomasin and Libertarian Lou for these passionate, eloquent pieces.

And a voice from the past, from the 1860s, an attack on a complacent establishment that regarded exposes of the appalling conditions endured by the poor as ‘sensationalist’.  This article, only recently confirmed as being by Charles Dickens, is  ‘a great example of passionate reporting; still relevant, still an inspiration to anyone who sees their role as giving a voice to those who cannot be heard’.  Now isn’t that what the Labour Party should be doing?

I don’t want to bash the Labour Party.  I want them to be what they could be, what we need them to be.  I want ‘what is the point of the Labour Party’ not even to be a question.

Thanks to those who didn’t abstain but voted against the Bill, who did the right thing just because it was the right thing to do.

Clamping down and toughening up

Our plan to control immigration will put you, your family and the British people first. We will reduce the number of people coming to our country with tough new welfare conditions and robust enforcement. We will: keep our ambition of delivering annual net migration in the tens of thousands, not the hundreds of thousands; control migration from the European Union, by reforming welfare rules; clamp down on illegal immigration and abuse of the Minimum Wage; enhance our border security and strengthen the enforcement of immigration rules; develop a fund to ease pressure on local areas and public services.

We must work to control immigration and put Britain first

Controlling immigration – surely everyone agrees that some control is needed? Surely we all know that we can’t just take in anyone who wants to come here, whether or not they can contribute, whatever the cost? Well, I certainly haven’t heard anyone arguing that we should just shut down the border controls and let ‘em all come.

But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be concerned about how these controls are to be implemented, about what the criteria are, and how they are interpreted in real cases, and about what level of net migration we should be aiming it, if indeed having that kind of target is helpful.

The government promised to get annual net migration down to the tens of thousands. It failed, fairly dramatically, to do so, but reasserts that ambition in the Manifesto. The truth, almost universally acknowledged, is that these targets were never worked out in any systematic way, they were a back of a fag packet attempt to come up with a figure that might appease the Ukippers. There are all sorts of problems with the way the net migration figures are worked out, and all sorts of arguments about what should and shouldn’t be included.

The failure to meet this arbitrary target is blamed in the manifesto on EU migrants turning up in larger numbers than had been anticipated. But given that we are not currently in a position to limit free movement within the EU, the weight falls all the more heavily on those categories that they can control – those coming here from outside the EU on student visas or work permits, or to join family members already here.

So there are three aspects to the policy that is likely to be announced in the Queen’s speech and enacted in this Parliament – the attempt to negotiate new rules with the EU to control migration by deterring those who would need to claim benefits when they get here, further tightening of rules about student visas and skilled workers from outside the EU, and ‘clamping down’ on illegal immigration.

Overall the rhetoric is familiar – they’re controlling immigration to put me, my family and the British people first. They’re changing the culture of something for nothing. They’re clamping down on ‘so-called satellite campuses’, on ‘spurious’ legal challenges, and on appeals based on the ‘so-called right to family life’.

As with benefits, the assumption is that there is abuse of the system. I don’t doubt that there is, but, as with benefits, I would question whether the abuse is on a scale that could significantly affect net migration figures if it were to be prevented.

There’s a huge amount of information on all of these aspects – more than I can grasp and re-present here. I suspect this topic will merit more than one blog post. In particular, I’m putting the EU aspects to one side – for now – and focusing on the student visa system, close to my heart, as I work for a University which not only benefits from its overseas student fee income, but celebrates the contribution that those students make to its culture, and to the local economy.

Michael Heseltine has argued – and he has considerable support for this view – that international students should not in any case be included in the migration figures.  But there seems little likelihood at present that this argument will be heard.

No one doubts that in the past there were dodgy ‘educational establishments’ set up primarily to milk overseas students of hefty tuition fees without providing them with the educational benefits that those fees should have ensured. But the safeguards put in place which mean that students have to be registered on proper courses at proper Universities, and pass language tests at appropriate levels in order to do so, surely mean that this is not an area where widespread abuse still goes on. The risks of an approach which appears to treat all overseas students as potential illegal immigrants are that, firstly, Universities have to devote increasing resources to policing student attendance and, more importantly, students who have paid very considerable sums to receive an education which will enable them to pursue a successful career will feel insulted by this treatment, and will discourage others from coming. We have already seen some effect of the negative message sent out by UK visa policies that students from overseas are not really welcome here.

The manifesto is exercised also by ‘so-called’ satellite campuses. It’s puzzling why these are described in this way – clearly they are satellites of universities based elsewhere in the UK, set up to attract not only foreign but also domestic students attracted to doing their studies in the capital rather than, say, Sunderland. There are pros and cons of these developments, from the perspective of the Universities concerned and their competitors. But it seems to be merely the fact that these campuses appeal to foreign students that causes them to be treated with such suspicion.

And then there’s the issue of ‘overstaying’. There used to be a post-study visa system that allowed international graduates from UK universities to remain in the UK for a year after graduation, and thus to gain some UK work experience before returning to their home country, or applying for a further visa category to remain in the UK for longer. That was shut down a couple of years ago. Now, once you have graduated, you have four months to leave, unless you can obtain a Tier 1 Graduate Entrepreneur visa (for ‘high-value’ migrants), a doctorate extension, or a work permit. I can see how people might make genuine mistakes about what the rules are – they change with such frequency, and it’s well known that if you ring for information on the same point more than once you can get a different answer every time. I’m less convinced that graduates with qualifications in medicine, engineering, business and other disciplines, who’ve had the funds to cover the fees for their studies, would prefer to eke out an existence in the shadow economy of the UK rather than to return home to use the skills they’ve gained. I’m not saying it’s impossible – but again, if the government is counting on ‘clamping down’ on these alleged abuses of the system in order to meet its targets, one fears that they will simply have to become more and more draconian, and thus penalise people who could have continued to make a contribution to the UK economy themselves, and could have been ambassadors for a UK education back home.

The next hurdle is the proposed review of the Highly Trusted Sponsor status for Universities. Back in 2014 concern was being expressed by the Overseas Student Service Centre about the effects of the tightening of these rules:

As part of its continuing “crackdown” on immigrants, and on international students in particular, the British Government has announced new, stricter, requirements for Highly Trusted Sponsor status for universities in the UK. Highly Trusted Sponsor status, as its name suggests, is the highest Home Office classification for universities in terms of perceived integrity and organisation. At present there is a rule – and one that many people might find rather curious – that Highly Trusted Sponsor universities have to somehow ensure that no more than 20% of students who apply to study there have their visa applications refused by UK Visas & Immigration. If the figure exceeds 20% then the university will lose its Highly Trusted Sponsor status. In November this year this figure will change to 10%, and the rule will become even more curious.

Those who have experience in the immigration business generally know that decision-making by the UKVI (and most particularly by Entry Clearance Officers in British diplomatic posts abroad) is a nebulous subject. Inside information informs us that these ECOs have to meet targets in terms of the number of applications they process per day. Even if we didn’t know this it would be tolerably obvious – a lot of decision-making is very poor and evidently rushed. On occasion ECOs do not even notice documents that are included in the application and on other occasions they do not read them sufficiently carefully.

On top of this ECOs can refuse student applications on grounds of “credibility” and “genuineness”, which are of course very difficult to measure, and – bearing in mind that there is no full right of appeal against student visa application refusals from abroad – such a refusal decision can be extremely difficult to overturn.

It seems likely that any further tightening of these rules will result in some Universities losing their HTS status. If they do, they lose very substantial amounts of income (income which in effect subsidises the cost of all courses), and the students themselves may lose their visas and their University places.

Who gains from any of this? The only possible beneficiary will be the Home Secretary who can claim – supposing these changes are implemented so rigorously that they do make a dent in the net migration numbers – that they have met their target. Everyone else loses.

These issues may not be the most heart-rending aspect of the immigration rules – I hope to cover the rules relating to non-EU spouses, for example, in another post, and to look at the ‘so-called’ right to a family life. But the targeting of international students shows particularly clearly the wrong-headedness of the current approach to reducing net migration. Arbitrary, ill thought out targets. A steadfast refusal to acknowledge the flaws in the targets. And the resultant cracking down, clamping down, toughening up, in all the wrong places.!Tougher-Criteria-for-Highly-Trusted-Sponsor-Universities/c7a5/345BC57D-83A7-44C0-AC98-14E5FFC8E339

Doing the Right Thing

The Conservative party manifesto pledges ‘to create a fairer welfare system where benefits are capped to the level that makes work pay – so you are rewarded for working hard and doing the right thing.’

This is elaborated here:

Under Labour, those who worked hard found more and more of their earnings taken away in tax to support a welfare system that allowed, and even encouraged, people to choose benefits when they could be earning a living. This sent out terrible signals: if you did the right thing, you were penalised – and if you did the wrong thing, you were rewarded, with the unfairness of it all infuriating hardworking people.

There’s a lot of sub-text here. Doing the right thing = working hard. Few would argue with that.  But what constitutes doing the wrong thing? Choosing to live on benefits when they could be in work – or just being on benefits?

The unfairness of it all, that’s a running thread through the document. It’s not fair that 18-21 year olds should go straight on to benefits without having contributed first, it’s not fair that taxpayers have to pay for those young people to get housing benefit so they can leave home, it’s not fair that tenants in Housing Associations miss out on the right to buy their homes, it’s not fair that Scottish MPs are able to vote on matters that only affect England and Wales, while English and Welsh MPs cannot vote on matters that only affect Scotland.

But particularly the message is that it’s unfair on taxpayers. Hardworking taxpayers. Hardworking families. Those phrases repeat and repeat and repeat.

I’m one of those, and yet I’m not infuriated about people on benefits. I’m infuriated with those who have massive resources and use them to find ways of not paying as much tax as they should/could, to help those without resources. I’m infuriated with a system that gives job centre staff incentives to stop people’s benefits for minor infringements, leaving them with nothing. I’m infuriated with assessments of those claiming disability benefits which ignore medical reports and insist that people are able to work, in the face of the evidence.

I don’t like the idea of people cheating to get benefits to which they’re not entitled. I’d question, though, the scale of this problem.

And experience over the last five years suggests that the default view of those claiming benefits will be that they are trying to get away with something, trying to get something for nothing, trying to scam us hardworking taxpayers. The rhetoric of ‘skivers versus strivers’ has been with us for years – and has barely been challenged by politicians. One of those who did was Lib Dem Sarah Teather:

Sarah Teather, who on Tuesday was one of the pitifully few (four) Lib Dems voting against the welfare bill, described the so-called “skivers” she encounters in her constituency office: “People who come to my constituency office these days for help with some kind of error in their benefits often spend the first few minutes trying to justify their worth. They usually begin by trying to explain their history of working and that they have paid tax. They are desperate to get over the point that they are not like other benefit claimants – they are not a scrounger. It is perhaps a feature of the way in which the term ‘scroungers’ has become so pervasive in social consciousness that even those on benefits do not attempt to debunk the entire category, only to excuse themselves from the label.”

There’s so much that could have been done to challenge the rhetoric, not just with worthy or woolly minded pieties, but with facts. The fact that almost all who are in receipt of housing benefit are in work, for example. Or that only 1% of households without work have two generations who have never worked. Members of the public surveyed by YouGov in 2012 massively overestimated the proportion of the welfare budget spent on unemployment benefits and the amount of benefit fraud. I wonder why.

The government plans to save £12 billion on welfare in this Parliament. Looking back at the last five years, when they were, at least to some extent, restrained by their coalition partners, there is plenty of reason to be fearful.

Hard work is an excellent thing. But to extrapolate from success and financial security being a reward for hard work, to poverty and failure being a punishment for idleness is unfair. No one achieves success and financial security without an element of luck. No one gets there without state help – for themselves or for their workforce and their business. Luck can suddenly desert any of us, and the line between security and penury is not as clear-cut as we may think. The narrative of homelessness doesn’t start in the gutter, it may start with someone in work, owning their own home, doing OK. Something goes wrong – they lose their job, fall behind on the mortgage and the bills, their family breaks up, their health begins to suffer. And that striver becomes a skiver, dependent on benefits in order to get by, or falling through the gaps altogether into a life on the streets. It’s not impossible, not for any of us.

We have to challenge the rhetoric. Those of us who are strivers, hardworking taxpayers, must protest if we’re invoked to support attacks on those who allegedly choose a life on benefits. We don’t have to let them do this in our name.

And we have to protest, loudly and clearly, when the implementation of these welfare cuts makes people suffer, locks them into a miserable existence, a half-life, with no way out. Could they just ‘do the right thing’ and choose to be a striver rather than a skiver? Not if they have to make daily choices between heating and eating. Not if their health precludes most available jobs, not if the job they could get is impossible to reach on public transport, not if childcare is too expensive, not if they don’t have the skills or the qualifications, not if the training places or apprenticeships aren’t available…

If we care at all, if our hearts are not rock hard, if we have any capacity for empathy, if we are human, we cannot be complacent in our status as hardworking taxpayers when people are dying.  Read this, and weep. Read this, and get angry.

What came to my mind as I read these accounts was a passage from Dickens (from Bleak House, the greatest novel in the English language – fact).  More than any other writer he shone a light on the darkness of the poverty he saw around him and challenged his readers to care.  We can tell ourselves how different things are now – and they are.  But still:

Dead, your Majesty. Dead, my lords and gentlemen. Dead, Right Reverends and Wrong Reverends of every order. Dead, men and women, born with Heavenly compassion in your hearts. And dying thus around us, every day.

DIckens knew that it is easier not to see these tragedies, easier not to know, not to imagine.   We have no right to take that route, to be complacent in our hard working taxpayer homes whilst people are dying thus around us.  Fewer people may die of starvation here than in other parts of the world.  Fewer people may take their lives in desperation here.  But that there are so many and that their numbers seem to be growing, should be a matter of shame, and a cause for anger.

There are lots of incredible organisations out there (a few are listed below), on the front line of poverty, supporting people who need help. We have to help them do that.

Because it really isn’t fair.

The end of passive tolerance

We will confront all forms of extremism, including non-violent extremism

We have already reformed the Prevent strategy so that it focuses on non-violent as well as violent extremism. We will now go even further. We will outlaw groups that foment hate with the introduction of new Banning Orders for extremist organisations. These could be applied to dangerous organisations that fall short of the existing thresholds for proscription under terrorism legislation. To restrict the harmful activities of extremist individuals, we will create new Extremism Disruption Orders. These new powers might, for instance, prevent those who are seeking to radicalise young British people online from using the internet or communicating via social media. We will develop a strategy to tackle the infiltration of extremists into our schools and public services. We will strengthen Ofcom’s role so that tough measures can be taken against channels that broadcast extremist content. We will enable employers to check whether an individual is an extremist and bar them from working with children. And we will take further measures to ensure colleges and universities do not give a platform to extremist speakers. (Conservative Party manifesto, p. 63)

Cameron will tell the NSC: “For too long, we have been a passively tolerant society, saying to our citizens: as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone. It’s often meant we have stood neutral between different values. And that’s helped foster a narrative of extremism and grievance. This government will conclusively turn the page on this failed approach. As the party of one nation, we will govern as one nation and bring our country together. That means actively promoting certain values. Freedom of speech. Freedom of worship. Democracy. The rule of law. Equal rights regardless of race, gender or sexuality. We must say to our citizens: this is what defines us as a society.”

The home secretary, Theresa May, will say: “The twisted narrative of extremism cannot be ignored or wished away. This government will challenge those who seek to spread hatred and intolerance by forming a new partnership of every person and organisation in this country that wants to defeat the extremists.”


I generally take a dim view of the fomenting of hate. Anyone who occasionally glances at my blog will know that I am unlikely to be hugely sympathetic to anyone who might enable or advocate terrorist acts, or who might be a recruiting agent for any of the murderous groups who carry out such acts, at home or abroad.

So why would these proposals worry me?

Because the tricky bit here is, who gets to define extremism? Where is the line to be drawn, between ideas that are profoundly, shockingly, far from the mainstream consensus but which can be allowed free expression, and ideas which are so damaging and dangerous that any infringement of the civil liberties of those who propagate them (and by extension, of all of us) is justified?

And who gets to define ‘British values’? Within the Conservative manifesto, it is invoked in the context of ensuring that migrants taking up jobs here, or marrying British citizens, speak our language. It is invoked in the notion that ‘ you do not just enjoy the freedom to live how you choose; you have a responsibility to respect others too’.  British values also involve ‘intervening to stop a massacre in Libya, leading the world in tackling sexual violence in conflict, and helping women and children who have fled violence in Syria.’ They involve support ‘for the freedom of people of all religions – and non-religious people – to practise their beliefs in peace and safety’, for the Commonwealth’s focus on promoting democratic values and development, the Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative, global processes on arms control, and for universal human rights.

These are laudable values.  And what’s more, not altogether the ones that you might expect a Conservative Prime Minister to select as the most representative of ‘our shared values’.  But If you asked a representative sample of the British electorate – even of the Conservative voters within the British electorate – whether these points represented their view of ‘British values’, I doubt you would find a consensus. Indeed, if you asked the Conservative MPs who form the new government, plenty would take issue with at least some of those defining values.

I’m not sure that I would trust anyone, other than a small and select group of my own choosing, to arrive at such definitions.   Actually, I’m not even sure I would trust myself. And if we don’t know what British values are, how do we define the kind of extremism that is so dangerous that civil liberties can be compromised in opposing it?

With this kind of vague rhetoric in play, we cannot know whose communications will be monitored or restricted, whose employment prospects will be at risk, whose freedom of speech will be curtailed.

And even if we’re sure that this doesn’t mean us, that because we’re reasonable, moderate folk we could never fall foul of these provisions, are we OK with being roped in, as employers, as teachers, as University managers, with identifying and proscribing those who do?  If we’re not OK with that, will we be deemed to be outside Teresa May’s partnership of ‘every person and organisation in this country that wants to defeat the extremists’?

We don’t yet know exactly what is planned. But I think we should be worried.

Analysis: BBC home editor Mark Easton

Under the proposals, ministers would be able to silence any group or individual they believe is undermining democracy or the British values of tolerance and mutual respect.

One can understand a government’s determination to prevent extremism that might lead to radicalisation and terrorism. But where to draw the line? And indeed, how do we draw up a definition?

There is, it seems to me, an inherent contradiction between banning orders and the core British value that one should be tolerant of different viewpoints.

History tells us that the development of new ideas of governance and government require people to think radically. Extreme views are necessary to test the wisdom of the mainstream.

Would those who oppose homosexuality or multiculturalism or feminism be accused of threatening values of tolerance and equality? Could Russell Brand’s argument against voting be regarded as threatening democracy?