Has the PM been taking tips from his Party Chairman?

David Cameron was in Brussels the other day for a meeting of EU leaders. He was quoted as saying this:

“When I first came here as prime minister five years ago, Britain and Greece were virtually in the same boat, we had similar sized budget deficits. The reason we are in a different position is we took long-term difficult decisions and we had all of the hard work and effort of the British people. I am determined we do not go backwards.”

As whoppers go, this is Shapps-esque. If only Greece had had a #longtermeconomicplan, all would be rosy now. The sun would be starting to shine once more. To say this is ‘misleading’, doesn’t really begin to cover it. Greece is a member of the Eurozone. We are not. When the crisis hit Greece, its options were much more limited than ours, and ot was forced into accepting a bailout. The conditions attached to this bailout included austerity several orders of magnitude greater than we have seen here. The on Greece’s economy are quite nicely subsidised in this infographic (found here):

Troika

So for Cameron to claim the difference between the two countries today is the ‘tough decisions’ taken by his Government is kind of insulting to both the Greek people and to the intelligence of all of us.

The real reason why the UK is in a lot better shape is firstly because we are not in the Euro and as a consequence of this did not need to go down the fiscal austerity road. Greece did go down that road in a big way, and the results are plain to see. It’s maybe to Cameron’s credit that the Government eased off on the cuts after 2012 (while still needlessly clobbering to poorest), but to admit that would be to admit everything they’ve said in the past five years has been a lie.

The Tory Party’s dodgy use of stats

At PMQs today, Ed Miliband questioned David Cameron on the NHS. In response to a wuestion on the 18 week target, Cameron claimed the number waiting 18 weeks had fallen since the election. Labour disagreed, saying the number had risen. Labour seem to be correct and Cameron wrong.

It’s not the first time the Tories have been caught out using dodgy stats (although Labour aren’t immune either). Here are some other instances courtesy of a comment I saw on the Guardian website:

1. Grant Shapps claims that “nearly a million people” (878,300) on incapacity benefit had dropped their claims, rather than face a new medical assessment for its successor, the employment and support allowance.

2. David Cameron falsely states in a Conservative Party political broadcast that the coalition “was paying down Britain’s debts”.

3. David Cameron and Jeremy Hunt rebuked by the Government’s own statistics watchdog yesterday for claiming that spending on the NHS had risen in real terms in recent years.

4. Boris Johnson rebuked over use of dodgy crime statistics

5. Iain Duncan Smith rebuked over immigration statistics

6. Statistics head Andrew Dilnot says a Treasury graph on infrastructure left readers with “a false impression of the relative size of investment between sectors”

7. Iain Duncan Smith rebuked for falsely claiming the coalition’s controversial benefits cap had already caused 8,000 people to move into jobs.

From this list we can conclude two things:

1. Sub-editors like using the word “rebuked”

2. Cameron’s error today was not an isolated incident

Now all parties spin stats in a way they think best suits their argument, so what’s the problem you might think? Well, if we are going to argue over whether a particular policy is working or not, it is essential to agree on some basic facts. If we can’t even do that, a proper evaluation of the policy is impossible. It also leads to a general mistrust of statistics to the extent that no figures (regardless or the source) are believed, whether they be on unemployment, crime or immigration.

 

 

The Bedroom Tax, Big Benefits Row and the degradation of the teaching profession

A lot to get through this week, but first up, the Bedroom Tax. UN Special Rapporteur Sharon Rolnik finally published her report in housing in the UK, and as expected, she repeated her call for the Bedroom tax to be scrapped. What was striking during her visit to the UK last year, was the willingness of Ministers like Grant Shapps to tell obvious lies about the visit, like she wasn’t invited (she was) or she hadn’t met any Ministers (she had). There was a similar reaction to her full report as this Guardian article explains:

Ministers savage UN report calling for abolition of UK’s bedroom tax

But Rolnik’s report wasn’t solely focused on the Bedoom Tax. Far from it. Jules Birch gives a very good summary of the report’s findings in a blog for Inside Housing:

Rights Row

And after some interesting decisions in the appeals courts regarding the Bedroom Tax, Joe Halewood – who has blogged tirelessly on this wretched policy – predicts the whole edifice may soon come crumbling down:

The Bedroom Tax is Dead here’s why

Moving on now, and this week Channel 5 hosted a debate provocatively titled “Big Benefits Row”. I watched it myself and found it to be quite shouty, although actually quite sympathetic to those claiming social security benefits. The two exceptions were Katie Hopkins and Edwina Currie. I’m not sure how much they say, they actually believe, as they both seem to make quite a bit of money from being invited on TV to voice opinions many find offensive, but if they are genuine, they would seem to be outstanding examples of Geogrge Lakoff’s “strict father figure” frame, which I blooged about here. In their world, those who do the right thing, work hard and play by the rules will always succeed, so anyone who is claiming benefits must be doing something wrong. You could see this in the show when a member of the audience explained (very robustly!) how she was volunteering, doing training and applying for endless jobs but still couldn’t find work. Edwina Currie’s response was just to shout back at her repeatedly “Get a job” or “Try harder”.

There were two good blog posts I noticed this week from people who were actually in the studio during the debate Jack Monroe and Sue Marsh:

Dear Edwina, Thankyou for last night. I hope it was as good for you as it was for me.

Diary of a Benefit Scrounger: The Big Benefits Row

Teaching now, and I came across this blog post written by a teacher who has recently left the profession. My partner is a teacher, and what what she tells me, a lot of this rings true. This paragraph in particular hits the nail on the head about the stresses teachers are under:

“What I couldn’t cope with was the toxic culture of fear that now pervades the whole profession. People no longer talk about ‘what this brilliant kid did’ – it’s always about who had a drop in and what grade they subsequently received. As a profession, we have been reduced from largely innovative, invested individuals to a bunch of approval-seeking junkies, because we know we’re only as good as our last Ofsted rating. Forget what the kids think of you; forget what the parents think of you, if Ofsted say ‘nope’, then that’s it. You’re not good enough.”

This is no way to treat dedicated professionals, and as the blog goes on to explain, it’s pretty terrible for the kids they teach too:

Life lessons, fear of failure and why I left teaching.

A couple of shout outs for blogs I like now. First, two posts from Irish blogger Robert Nielsen, one on concepts of freedom, and one on endogenous money:

The Two Types Of Freedom

Endogenous Money Or How Loans Create Deposits

And here’s one by Peter Martin on government budgets, and why when people like Ed Balls talk about balanced budgets and surpluses, we should treat them with scorn:

Why Governments Can’t Choose to Run Balanced Budgets.

Finally, with the Winter Olympics getting under way this week in Sochi, there’s been a lot of negative coverage of Russia and what it’s like for gay people there. Channel 4’s Dispatches program aired a documentary about Russian gangs who target gay people over there and video their actions. It’s pretty horrendous stuff. Here’s a video of some tough Russians from the Interior Ministry showing a softer (but obviously completely heterosexual) side:

High government debt doesn’t lead to high interest rates

At some point I seem to have got myself on the email distribution list for Tory Party spam, so I regularly get updates from the likes of Michael Green (Grant Shapps) and Mr Egg (Sajid Javed) about how wonderfully the current government are doing. A phrase they often include is “tackling the deficit to keep interest rates low”. This repeats the widely held belief that once government debt gets too high, the interest rate ‘the markets” demand to lend more money to the government will start to rise, at which point debt interest payments will get out of control and BAD THINGS WILL HAPPEN. Thank god for the coalition eh?

Today I came across these helpful charts presented by Paul Krugman in a recent conference paper which help us examine this assertion more closely (I found them in this post, which makes the same points I make here).

51062179debt-interest-rates-krugman-fig.1-2013-nov

In this chart, each dot is a country. The debt-GDP ratio is on the bottom access, and the interest they pay on 10-year debt is on the left-hand axis. Broadly speaking, there seems to be a clear positive relationship between higher debt and higher interest rates. The dot on the far right is Japan, which doesn’t fit the pattern, but they must be a special case right? Maybe Green/Shapps and Mr Egg are right then?

6981316debt-interest-rates-krugman-fig.2-2013-nov

Hang on though. This chart is the same, but Krugman has distinguished between Euro and Noneuro countries. The relationship between high debt and high interest rates for the Noneuro countries (like the UK) has disappeared. So what can we conclude:

1. High government debt does not lead to high interest rates if you have your own currency. Tories and Lib Dems are talking rubbish when they say “tackling the deficit to keep interest rates low”.

2. If we don’t need to fear high government debt, austerity is an even more horrendous policy

2. Don’t join the Euro. Ever. That means you too Scotland.

The right way to look at the deficit

Ed Miliband gave an interview to Martha Kearney on the World at One yesterday which has been widely regarded as being in car crash territory. He was talking about what he would be doing now and mentioned a temporary VAT cut. Kearney repeatedly asked him if this meant borrowing would go up in the short term, and Miliband failed to provide a satisfactory answer (he’s now said it would). Opponents responded gleefully to the interview. Here’s the idiotic Grant Shapps:

‘Ed Miliband is too weak to admit what his Shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls, has already said: that Labour’s plans mean more spending, more borrowing and more debt, exactly how Labour got us into this mess in the first place.’

The commonly held view then is that more borrowing is bad (even if it leads to growth), so the only thing to try to do is grow the economy while pursuing austerity at the same time (very difficult if not impossible). With this in mind I thought I’d share a good quote I came across today giving a different perspective on the deficit debate. Here’s economist L Randall Wray:

“Deficits are mostly nondiscretionary–the outcome of the automatic stabilizers. We could ramp up government spending today, and cut tax rates, and might find deficits actually go down. Or up. Or stay the same. Who cares? Not Moi. Functional. Finance. That is what we advocate. Sensible policy, not arbitrary deficit or debt ratios. Full employment. Low inflation.”

Short and sweet and makes a refreshing change from the usual nonsense we hear. How great would it be to hear this come out of a politicians mouth? Basically we are worrying about the wrong things. The size of the deficit is not important. Unemployment, housing, incomes, education, health. These are the things that really matter, and by making economic policy all about the deficit, we are setting ourselves up for massive problems down the road.

Who’s winning the welfare war?

Two significant events this week – the start of long-awaited cuts to certain benefits, and the conviction and sentencing of Mick Philpott – has led to the outbreak of a war of words over the rights and wrongs of our welfare system.

Grant Shapps and Iain Duncan Smith kicked things off last weekend, with Shapps pointing at some Government figures and then lying about what they told us about welfare and IDS telling Jon Humphrys he could live on £53 a week. This led to the heart-warming sight of a petition set up to challenge IDS to prove it garnering almost 450,000 signatures in less than a week. There were also stories about some of IDS expense claims, like £39 for one breakfast and £110 for a bluetooth headset added to the ridicule.

Then came Mick Philpott and the Daily Mail’s nasty front page on Wednesday:

daily mail philpott

There was also this fairly objectionable and fact-free piece in the Telegraph by Allison Pearson. At first, the linking of Philpott’s crimes to the welfare system were confined to the right-wing press but then George Osborne decided to give everyone the benefit of his wisdom on the matter saying:

“Philpott is responsible for these absolutely horrendous crimes… But I think there is a question for government and for society about the welfare state – and the taxpayers who pay for the welfare state – subsidising lifestyles like that, and I think that debate needs to be had.”

In response to this assault on the welfare state, many on the left pushed back admirably, providing detailed and fact-laden rebuttals to some of the propaganda being put out by the media and the politicians. Owen Jones in particular repeatedly called out those on the right who sought to score political points from the Philpott tragedy:

Bloggers also played an important role in getting some facts about welfare out there. In particular this post and this one struck me as being important contributions.

So I would say those of us defending the welfare state definitely have the facts on our side, but this brings me to the question posed in the title above – Who’s actually winning the welfare war?

People on the left like John Harris have been cautioning for a while that polling shows people in favour of more cuts to welfare, and George Osborne certainly thinks he is on the right side of the argument. At the same time, there are also voices from the right urging caution over appearing to be “foaming-at-the-mouth” over welfare. Owen Jones on the other hand sounds more optimistic, tweeting:

At the moment I’m somewhat less pessimistic about where this will go. The reason is amply illustrated in this video clip from one of Stewart Lee’s standup shows:

The truth is, an awful lot of people seem to be impervious to facts or reasoned argument. Here’s another (mindboggling) example. Look how Richard Dawkins patiently explains the evidence for evolution, while the creationist lady just keeps repeating “where is the evidence” (I like to imagine Dawkins just going into a room on his own and screaming after these type of interviews 🙂 ).

Bringing it back to this week’s welfare debate then, after tweeting a link to Johnny Void’s excellent post explaining in detail how it would be very difficult to make a profit from benefits by having more children, someone replied to my tweet to say:

The Daily Mail also ran a poll on Thursday asking whether people thought benefits contributed to Philpott’s crimes. Around 70% agreed. Now often, when the Mail runs hateful articles, the comments underneath show people in disagreement with the article’s content, but under this one, the three most popular comments were:

“It was not the benefits that killed the children but sure as hell he was the master of abusing the benefit system and he is the prime example why we need the benefit changes introduced and more to come hopefully.”

“Sound right to me. Why should I pay for the lifestyle choices of others? My wife an I stopped at 2 children because we could not afford more!. How many more are there claiming large amounts of money pushing out kids year after year?”

“This is what happens when there is benefits system that makes it pay to breed, the more kids the merrier. Limit all benefits payments to two children only NOW!”

Now to me, these comments (particularly the third one) are batshit crazy, but it seems to be what a lot of people actually think, hell, a lot of people I know personally think like that. I don’t think people are impervious to facts, just that it takes no time at all to repeat a lazy stereotype about welfare, but much longer to rebut it. It seems to be much easier to spread fear and resentment with a few lies and some unrepresentative extreme case than it is to persuade through coherent argument and facts and figures.

I think those who defend welfare (and public services in general) need to come up with some better strategies for dealing with misinformation of this kind, because there is undoubtedly a lot more of it on the way. Owen Jones is doing a good job, as are a number of Guardian columnists and notably some relentless disability campaigners who are trying to fight back, but the Labour Party don’t seem know which way to face at present. I’d be interested to hear if people agree with me, or are more optimistic. We all need a bit of hope!

Why do people drop their claims for ESA before assessment?

This week, some of the Coalition’s nastier benefit reforms become live, and because of this, we were subject to the spectacle of both Iain Duncan Smith and Tory Party Chairman Grant Shapps taking to the airwaves to give their spin on the reforms. On Monday, IDS came under fire for stating that if he had to, he could live on £53 a week. This gave rise to the inevitable petition, which, at the time of writing has garnered almost 150,000 signatures.

Shapps’ ‘contribution’ to the debate involved pointing to DWP figures showing that 878,000 claimants of Employment and Support Allowance had ceased their claim before undergoing the Work Capability Assessment. Shapps heavily implied (and this slant was run with in many of the media stories, e.g. here) that these claims had stopped because people were not actually sick and knew they would fail the assessment. As with much of what Shapps say though, to get to the truth, you have to go to the source.

Figures about assessments for Employment and Support Allowance are released quarterly here. So what does it say about the reason why 878,000 have ceased their claims?

“Current data does not allow anything conclusive to be said about the destinations of closed and in progress cases, nor to infer what would have been or would be the outcome of assessment.”

So at best there seems to be no evidence about why they have ceased their claim, so Shapps inference seems baseless. But it gets even worse for Shapps because the same publication does refer to some qualitative work also published by the DWP that did look at the reasons why people ceased their claims. It said this:

Most of the interviewees in this research whose claim had been closed or withdrawn before it was fully assessed said they had ended their ESA claim as their health condition had improved. Examples of the types of conditions that had improved included diabetes, mental health problems, including stress and depression, and conditions alleviated by routine operations. These people tended to be working or looking for work, often in the same type of work as they had done before, though not commonly with the same employer.

Some had proactively withdrawn their claim, informing Jobcentre Plus of this, while others simply stopped submitting medical certificates or did not return their ESA50, in the knowledge this would prompt Jobcentre Plus to close their claim. Nobody interviewed consciously ignored an invite to a WCA as a means of closing their claim.

A smaller number of customers had their claim closed by Jobcentre Plus because they had difficulty completing and returning the ESA50, submitting medical certificates, or attending a WCA, even though they did not really want to end their claim. In some cases, this was because the customer’s condition made co-operating with the assessment process difficult, while in others, other life events, such as bereavement, made it difficult for them to progress their claim.”

So the evidence (allbeit based on interviews with a relatively small number of claimants) suggests people do not stop their claims for ESA because they are not genuine, but because their conditions improved (not surprisingly as the period between initial claim and assessment can take months) or worse, because the process of claiming was too arduous for them given their medical condition. Shapps’ interpretation of the data was just another lazy attempt to smear some of the least fortunate in society and to provide some cover for his Government’s shameful welfare policies.

 

Conservative Party Steps Up Its Attack on the Victims of Austerity

George Osborne made a centrepiece of it in his Autumn Statement speech in Parliament 10 days ago. He wanted to conjure up the image of rewarding hard-working ‘strivers’ getting up early to go to work every day while hitting work-shy ‘scroungers’ who lie in bed all morning with the curtains closed. He was widely derided for it this at the time, particularly when it was pointed out that 60% of the people losing out from the real term cuts to working-age benefits were actually people in work.

I was somewhat surprised therefore (perhaps naively)  to learn that Tory Party Chaiman Michael Green (AKA Grant Shapps) found Osborne’s attack so inspiring, he’s decided to make it a central plank of his election strategy for fighting marginal seats. They are putting out these targeted banner ads:

banner1

banner2

banner3

The strategy is pretty straightforward then. Classic divide and rule, pitting those who are working against those who – in the vast majority of cases – are not working through no fault of their own. The Government have had some success in this strategy to date, over public sector pensions and the £26k benefit cap, but judging by the comments BTL here, people don’t seem to be buying this latest attack so far.

Shapps has coincided this campaign with a call for people to ‘have their say’ about the Government’s welfare policy, by launching an online petition. Judging by the wording of the questions, this doesn’t seem to be an honest attempt at gathering people’s view, rather an attempt to affirm his party’s long-held prejudices. Despite this, I would urge everyone to complete it, to let Shapps know exactly what you think of him and his shameful campaign.