Guaranteed jobs and enforced work (aka I WANT MY HOVERBOARD)

Labour has just announced what looks likely to become a central plank in their electoral strategy in a couple of years. They are guaranteeing the offer of a job for anyone who has been out of work for 2 years. On the face of it, and stated like that, this looks great – long term unemployment is a real problem for people stuck in it, and for children growing up surrounded by it. Giving people the opportunity and experience to work is likely to benefit them and the people around them.

However, there are a few questions I think need answering to clarify what this policy really is. The answers to these will really strongly colour how I feel about this policy. At best, this is a good policy badly let down by how it has been presented, and at worst an economically and socially illiterate tax funded subsidy to those least in need using the forced labour of the demonised poor.

1. Why are we compelling people to work at all?
Balls has stated that benefits will be withdrawn for anyone choosing not to accept the job ‘offer’. This fits with a general social idea that people should be forced to work as part of a social contract. This is in many ways the biggest challenge I have, and the one I’ll need to look into the most before I’m happy to state my own position, but my initial reaction is that it is barbaric to force people to work against their will.

I want to live in a society that demonstrates compassion, that doesn’t force people to act against their will, and that provides a decent standard of living for everyone in it. Deciding to make people suffer where it is in our gift to support and nurture them is cruel and I want no part of it. I will take some convincing that it is somehow better to force people under threat of starvation and homelessness than accept that decision not to work and ensure that they are comfortable and able to provide well for their children and dependants.

The economic argument to withdraw benefits after two years of unemployment seems trivial in the grand scheme or things – much smaller to both individuals and the state than the costs incurred by the NHS de-organisation, the education de-organisation, the privatisation then partial unprivatisation of the railways, and the avoidance of tax by large international companies.

I am tempted initially to support something like the Citizens Wage, described and argued for here on A Latent Existence with links to handy further reading, which gives each citizen a set amount of money. This provides everyone the opportunity to feed, clothe and shelter themselves to a basic level, without living under duress. However, I’ll need to look into that more before committing.

2. Where will these jobs come from?
Even if we accept that people should be forced to work, its not clear how there can be the jobs required to make this guarantee. The economy is currently difficult, and there aren’t enough jobs to go around. The numbers of unemployed, long term unemployed and underemployed have risen over the last few years. I am yet to be convinced that any initially promising signs in employment numbers mean a sustainable growth of any kind, let alone one that could provide employment for every long term unemployee as well as everyone who has been disemployed in the last two years.

The proposed method of paying for this scheme seems like a socialist dream, in that raising tax on the wealthiest is being suggested to fund work for the long term unemployed. I am behind that in principle, and as long as the money stacks up, this is not a point of contention at all for me.

New jobs will have to be created to meet this need, and I can think of D) ways of doing this.

A) Provide subsidised work to the private sector.
This is mentioned in the initial version of the policy proposed today, but I really hope this changes before the next election. I struggle to see how this could legitimately increase the number of jobs, as private employers would use this labour to replace their existing low skilled, low paid workers as they have done with the workfare schemes. I suppose criteria for using the workers could include conditions that force expansion, but I don’t see any modern political party forcing the hand of industry in that way, and private industry would still only take these on if it improved profitability in some way.

However this is formulated and implemented, this ends up with the state subsidising shareholders in private industry without really creating work. I am not comfortable with tax revenue being paid to private companies to replace low paid work with even lower paid work.

B) Provide subsidised workers to the public sector.
The public sector has contracted significantly since the election, as I’m sure it would have under a Labour led government, and I don’t think there are many publicly funded bodies not feeling a significant pinch. This is leading to a decrease in public unemployment even where people are not being made redundant, through natural wastage. I am sure many public sector organisations would jump at the chance to have cheap labour, but they will recognise that there are often significant skill gaps between long-term unemployed and high quality nurses, firemen, administrators and managers. And to be clear THE PUBLIC SECTOR NEEDS ENOUGH GOOD ADMINISTRATORS AND MANAGERS. Frontline staff cannot magically do everything.

So this ends up looking like the government is just providing essential funding to deliver services from a different pot, with strict limits on the staff it can be used to employ. Although this may allow public bodies to deliver some services, it looks like a massively inefficient way of using public money to do so.

C) Dig a hole and fill it up
Keynes argued that it was more worthwhile to employ someone to dig a hole and someone else to fill it up than it was to have two people without work. I agree with this when opposed to the austerity and deficit porn Osborne and, sadly, Balls seem stuck on. The value to communities, families and individuals of people working is much greater than difference between the benefits and tax bills. It is both financial and psychological – and is depressingly widely seen as a measure of social worth.

However, this seems like a massive missed opportunity – if people are going to be offered a job after two years, make it a useful one. People who feel engaged in their work will get more from the job, and be more likely to stay in it for the long haul, and pass on a strong work ethic to others in the community.

D) Create genuine public sector work
This is superficially similar to the above, but involves a great increase in spending on genuine public services rather than with concentration on those jobs that can be reasonably filled by the long term unemployed. If you increase public spending across the board, more jobs will be created and these will be filled. Additionally, really big projects could be undertaken that those involved could be proud of.

Is there any good reason the entire rail network could not be upgraded quickly? How about a decent national cycle network? Why isn’t every public building covered in solar panels? Why don’t I have a hover board? Is every public building wheelchair accessible? Could children stand to have more after school sports, arts, music, science and tech clubs? Could jet packs be made safe and affordable? Is fibre optic and 4g coverage available everywhere? Do we recycle plastics other than bottles properly? Is every library book in the country on the right shelf? When can I go to the moon? Are there any old or disabled people that could use some support? I want a goddamn flying car already.

If the answer to this question ends up as D, I am a very happy pixie, not least because I really want that hover board. I could sadly live with the wasted chance of C in preference to continued public sector slashing. I couldn’t support B as although the intention is probably good, the practice would almost certainly be more destructive to public services than the benefit to individuals is worth. A would really, really grind my beans for reasons I’m sure I don’t need to go further into.

3. How individualised will these jobs be?
It is important that people starting work for the first time in a while have a good experience to increase the chances of staying in a post for the longer haul. Will there be a process whereby they can reasonably choose between different working conditions? A hard physical job outside would be very unsuitable to those who have multiple health conditions but have been taken off health related benefits by ATOS, but may well suit an ex-factory or dock worker. How people are matched to jobs will make a huge difference in how suitable a match it is, and this needs to be spelled out. Of course, not everyone can get the perfect job, but everyone should get an acceptable job.

Other important factors include the locations for these jobs. For people based in London, Manchester or Birmingham I don’t imagine there will be much difficulty finding work, but this won’t be the same in Fleetwood and Darwen. Will people be expected to spend more than fifty percent of their probably minimum wage on travelling three hours a day to get to the nearest city with jobs? Or should people move away from their family, friends and homes to take up a job they have to take?

I will only be happy if there is some assurance that people will be offered jobs that they are suited to and in a suitable location, and that they are likely to get skills and experience that make it more likely that they can move on to other jobs as and when they choose.

4. Why is it being presented as it is?
The initial piece that I read was by Ed Balls, and the Twitter account of the Labour press office mentioned this on several occasions. They are really emphasising the ‘tough’ aspect, although of course not all Labour supporters like that. Now, this rhetoric makes me feel really uncomfortable – in a world where there is currently, and potentially indefinitely, less work to do than people to do it, we should not be punishing people for not having work. There is no reason to be ‘tough’ with people for not finding work that doesn’t exist. I agree strongly with giving people the opportunity, skills and any other support to help them find work, but shouldn’t be demonising people who haven’t yet been able to do it for themselves.

What we need is a positive approach that understands the challenges a rapidly changing highly industrialised society, with pockets of disenfranchised people in the second or more generation of unemployment. The same policy would be much better simply for a positive presentation of those people, as it would help create a more inclusive, supportive society. Of course, it wouldn’t pander to the centre ground of politics, which is increasingly authoritarian, petty and unpleasant around out groups such as the poor, the unwell and the foreign. I sadly suspect this short term party political posturing explains the damaging presentation, as Labour compete with the Conservatives to be the toughest kid on the block.

Could this policy work?

So, in the guise presented originally I am really worried about this proposal, but from the ashes of this policy could rise a really good policy. The changes or clarifications that I feel must be made to make this a decent, progressive and socially beneficial policy are roughly:

  • Remove the compulsion aspect – offer everyone a paid job and encourage and support them to do it
  • Make sure the job is suited to the person in terms of work required, such as physical and mental effort
  • Make sure the job is where the person wants and needs to be
  • Make the job worthwhile – make it serve a public good rather than shareholder interests
  • Stop talking about getting tough with people, and recognise that it’s tough for people

I hope  that between now and 2015 Miliband and Balls recognise these problems, and use this opportunity to create  jobs, improve public services, and protect those in need from public invective stirred up by the unpleasant posturing of the Conservatives.

Labour – Please, be the party of the left and use the proposed pension tax on the richest to fund a better society for all of us, and not a worse.


Optimist On Tour poster

Hello all. Here is the poster for the next Lancaster Skeptics in the Pub – please feel free to print this out and stick it wherever you’re allowed.

Remember, this has had to move to Monday 25th, and will kick off slightly later than usual, at about 8.15

Thanks, and see you there!

Mark Stevenson poster

Martin Robbins poster

Hello all,

I have done the new poster for the next Lancaster Skeptics talk with Martin Robbins about Bad Science in Africa. Please feel free to print this out and stick it up anywhere you are allowed! As ever, I am finding it difficult to get the time to do this myself, but will try to get as many out as possible over the next week or so.

I saw an earlier version of this at London SitP, and am really looking forward to this. This is upstairs at The Park Hotel, Lancaster on Sunday 27 May.

See you there!Image

Facts as the basis for media regulation in health

Today I went to an event organised by the Democratic Society to discuss regulation of the media. This is the penultimate stage in their ongoing project, whereby a number of writers have contributed posts on particular aspects of the subject. I wrote a draft piece making the case for change, based on the harm arising from the misrepresentation of science in healthcare.

A lot of interesting discussion was had around how we can encourage the public to participate in the production of the media, how the culture of journalists can be changed for the better, and what oversight and regulation can and should be put in place.

One point of discussion today was the basis on which cases presented to a regulator should be judged. To me, the obvious imperative is to ensure that what is reported is true, or at least not clearly known not to be true. I understand that this is a difficult criteria on which to legislate, for a number of reasons. I also know, having been to a couple of talks by legal blogger and onion knower David Allen Green, that the basis of British law is not the finding of facts, but the determination of liability.

If my understanding is correct following todays discussion, the current system for complaints in the press arena, outside of clearly illegal activities, is based largely on the harm to the individual complainant. The complainant has to demonstrate that the particular story was either an invasion of their privacy, harmed their reputation through implication, or made false statements about them. This is a practical solution to the difficulties of resolving disputes between parties, and could be made to protect parties of lesser power and wealth, although it currently does not.

It seems that much of what was discussed revolved around the manipulation of public perception and the reporting of private lives of individuals. What I feel this misses, though, is the direct protection of the public from directly harmful untruths; it only protects us from untruths that are likely to be harmful to parties that are able to bring the kind of action required, and even then only minimally. I feel it is very important to protect people from wider, currently largely unchallenged untruths that can lead to people making the wrong healthcare choices, and causing unnecessary suffering or death.

It is clear from the large sets of scientific data that there is no link between the MMR vaccine and autism, that drinking alcoholic increases cancer risk, and that homeopathy does not protect against malaria. To say otherwise is both clearly factually inaccurate, and dangerous. My position is that publications that make claims like this should not have to be challenged by an individual that has been directly and demonstrably harmed by that particular article, but should be made to retract claims that are counter to the body of evidence and everything we have learned about healthcare.

Exactly what the mechanism for this would be I do not know, and I am not sufficiently versed in the formations of political and regulatory bodies to speculate on the best fit. However, I am unsure where the significant difference is between the case being brought on the grounds that the claim is wrong or that the claim is potentially harmful. If a claim in the health field is harmful, it is because it is factually wrong. If a healthcare claim is factually wrong it is therefore potentially harmful. These two cannot be clearly distinguished in this instance, as the potential to harm is a necessary property of incorrect health claims – if it doesn’t harm relative to alternative claims, it is not wrong.

What I want to be clear about, though, is a key distinction I would draw. I am convinced that people should be protected from dangerous untruths and that to allow them to be printed unchallenged is a threat to public health, but I do not wish to suppress innovation, new ideas and challenge within science. As long as the facts are presented fairly and accurately and the distinction between fact and speculation is clear, I am positively happy to see people thinking about new forms of treatment based on cutting edge technology, genetic discoveries or refined drugs. It is through innovation and challenge that we make the great breakthroughs.

The best ideas should then be tested thoroughly using appropriate trial designs, to see what is likely to work. These tests will produce a new set of data to add to the pre-existing, on which further theories and speculations can be based. Once again, though, having done the testing, it should be required that the results are accurately described – the facts are the immutable foundations on which any theory should be built. Often several competing ones can be reasonably developed, at least until further testing discriminates between them.

However, in the more developed areas, there tends to be little room for controversy in the evidence, as these controversial areas are the first to get further research to provide clarity on what it is that is happening. The simple facts of the trials to look at the supposed link between MMR and autism are available – no well designed study, of which there have been several, has found evidence of a link. This does not logically prove that the link is not there, but provides a very robust level of evidence – certainly greater than much evidence used to convict people of crimes.

Based on this, I believe the statement ‘there is no link between MMR and autism’ is acceptable as a reasonable summary of the evidence, whereas the statement ‘there is a link between MMR and autism’ is not. It is inaccurate and dangerous, and is exactly the sort of statement that any worthwhile media regulator should be tackling.

The details of how a particular statement is deemed a reasonable summary of the evidence is not clear to me in all cases. Those areas that have live, genuine scientific debate should be allowed to work themselves out through the scientific discourse. Individual facts resulting from experiments should of course never be manipulated or misrepresented, but there will be occasions where there is more than one summary of the available evidence that is reasonable, and the interplay between these is where the interesting science will happen. There is no crime in being wrong when it was a reasonable position to take based on the knowledge available, but continuing to promote a disproven hypothesis in medicine is dangerous.

All the above is simply an expansion on the famous observation that you are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts. I think more than that, the media are entitled to give us their opinion, but they are not entitled to give us their own facts. In many areas this is problematic, but in healthcare it leads directly to poor health decisions, and avoidable suffering and death. This must be a priority for a regulator.

Loneliness of the long distance runner

So on Sunday I ran the London marathon, raising money for MS Society, a charity that invests in research into possible treatments and cures for Multiple Sclerosis.

I had a place last year, which I got through the ballot. I had never really run before and wasn’t particularly sporty. I entered on a whim, largely because a heavily pregnant colleague was doing, and I thought that if she could do it surely I could. I trained pretty well, until about 8 weeks out when I tweaked something in my knee. When it still hadn’t sorted itself at 2 weeks to go I realised I had to postpone until this year, so I hung up my running shoes until about the turn of the year.

My training was a lot less than it should have been, largely due to working long days with an hour commute either side, and weekends being the only time I get to see my fiancée and therefore at something of a premium. I had gone to about 17 miles three weeks in advance, but had to walk the last couple of miles. I was pretty sure that I struggled because I was knackered, it was late at night, I hadn’t eaten well, and I’d run 10 miles the day before, and had covered a huge distance up and down stairs at work all week. But whatever the excuses you can make, failure to run your distance on the last chance for a big training run is really dispiriting, and made me nervous before the big day.

I didn’t find there to be a loneliness during training. I guess I was aided by the vast number of podcasts I listened to, so I was constantly learning about science and technology, getting riled by politics, or laughing at the comedy. I could start running and get lost in something wonderful, in a way that I think has only really become possible in the last few years. It also helped that when at home, I have some beautiful countryside to go through, and there is little more beautiful that clear winter sky.

I have never taken part in a big sporting event like this before, so didn’t really know what to expect. Of course, I had the images in my head of huge hoards crossing the start line, and saw that there were a few spectators at the key points. That didn’t prepare me at all for the number of people all the way round, the amount of noise they made, and the effect that would have on me as a runner. There were bands, some official and some spilling out of the local communities, every half mile or so. Thousands of people came and lined the streets holding out sweets or fruit for the runners, and cheered people on. Many of the spectators didn’t have a particular runner, but were just taking part in the event.

My favourite spectators were the young lads in hoodies, from the poorer parts of town that we went through. In everyday life I think I would probably be a bit intimidated by a group of surly looking youths, but those same guys with the same surly faces were high fiving runners, enjoying the event and providing really valuable support.

I don’t think I’ve experienced such a positive coming together of such a wide range of people.

My finishing time was 4:29:18, which was pretty much exactly what I paced for. I’m really pleased by that, although I think that with a bit of a training run I could improve, and with a real go I could probably take an hour or more off.

For the first 10 miles or so I was holding back, running just under 10 minutes a mile. I felt like running faster, and nearly gave in to goal creep. By about mile 14, my pace had dropped a bit going at a bit over 10 minutes. From around mile 21 to mile 25 I really struggled to keep my speed up, despite knowing just how fast I needed to go to get a 4:30 time. I can really see why people stop at this point, as while those last 3 or 4 miles don’t seem a lot from the outside, trying to force your legs to keep going when every fibre of your being wants to stop and rest is tough and 3 or 4 miles seems impossible. Those four miles were much harder than the rest put together. 25 to the finish was probably my quickest mile – I certainly belted the last 800 yards, knowing how close I was to the finish and the time I had planned.

One of the symptoms of the difficulty in those later miles, and probably one of the reasons I carried on, was the weight of the event I felt. The great majority of the people there were raising money for charity, and the number of vests that were dedicated to missed loved ones was huge. I was part of something that was honouring those that had suffered and died, and raising vast amounts of money to reduce this in the future. I had become, by accident, part of something massive, much bigger than the achievement of running alone. I got a bit emotional, and although I didn’t cry, I wasn’t too far off.

I’m sure London is very different in many respects from other, smaller, marathons, as you don’t get the same turn out for any others and there is not the same sense of scale. I imagine there is a real risk of loneliness if you stop running and have to walk four miles without support. But in my one experience, long distance running has made me feel more connected than ever to a huge number of people. We did something special last Sunday, and I feel inordinately proud for my part and for everyone else.

NHS, more fury, the media and activism

Oh dear, I’ve gotten quite angry again.

These last ten or so days have seen some massive stories – let’s just describe a few of them.

Look at all that. That’s just the stuff I thought of while eating my noodles at lunchtime, and each one is massive.

And what have been the two stories of the week? VAT got standardised to include pasties, and there isn’t a strike happening. That’s right, 20p on a £1 food item and people going about their regular job is bigger than everything above.

I have seen it suggested that the pasty tax accounts for somewhere between 0.02% and 0.03% of the economy, which, given the recent budget and the cost of healthcare is peanuts. We know that Cameron either lied or got confused about eating a Cornish pasty at Leeds. I can easily imagine misremembering where and when I ate a pasty, so I’m happy to be charitable on that. Hell, even if he lied I’m not particularly bothered as it’s so inconsequential, and we know he lies about much more important things already.

The strike that was discussed was, on the face of it, horrifically handled, initially by Francis Maude ably supported by the tabloid press. Telling people to top up and to keep some in a jerry can at home, to be on the safe side, is the equivalent of shouting fire in a crowded theatre – the only predictable outcome was massive queues and empty petrol stations, and sadly people getting hurt. And after all that, the strike isn’t even going ahead. Without wanting to sound like a conspiracy theorist, the boost to a weak economic quarter may well be a good thing for the government when those first quarter financial figures get announced. However, this story is one of poor politics and mismanagement. On the grand scheme, the fact a strike was discussed does not warrant higher billing than the stories I mentioned up front.

So, why have these two relatively minor stories won the day? Why have we largely ignored the damage being done to those most in need in favour of those with the greatest privilege, with the whiff of corruption looming?

I don’t know, but the mainstream media certainly has a role. The rolling and allotted news programs seem to focus on really simple, easy to tell stories, spending ever more time telling us ever less news. There is also an expected turnover period, meaning that once a story has been told there isn’t space for going into the same area in more depth – I noticed a tweet (sorry, I’ve lost the source) that said a BBC staffer preparing the audience for BBC Question Time said, this week, that the questions had to be topical, and so the NHS shouldn’t be raised. This in the week the Risk Register was leaked.

I sat and watched the ITN News while I was folding letters for the NHS pledge campaign. I saw politicians of all flavours trying to look comfortable and natural while ordering pasties and sausage rolls, while clearly bullshitting about how many they have each week. I saw government ministers telling people to top up their cars and keep jerry cans in the garage. I saw fearmongering about the pace at which drilling technology is being implemented. Nothing about the Risk Register, the economy or increasing social inequality.

These editing decisions, not putting the NHS above the pie tax or the economy above petrol buying, on the nations main news source are either laughably incompetent or criminally biased. Sadly, although I am not a consumer of that many news sources and haven’t monitored them that closely, I understand the problem is across the board. The stories get mentioned, but have not been investigated and examined in the way they should. People should be shown, or at least have easy access to, a clear picture on the important stuff: what is happening to the health service, what is happening to the economy, and how wealth and services are distributed between those that need them and those that can afford £250k to eat with Cameron and Osborne.

In part, the politicians are at fault here. Cameron and the Conservatives should be very pleased overall, as people talking about pie tax is massively preferable to people explaining why he has taken actions that will cause people to die because they are poor, and allowed his friends and business partners to profit from it. I don’t know how the Liberal Democrat leadership should feel, but then I haven’t cared even slightly about that for a while now.

The real political culprits here are Labour. They have had a week of open goals, and there have been occasional scores, but for the Eds to spend a day out and about eating sausage rolls, rather than pointing out the damage Osborne has done and continues to do to the economy, is barmy. They should be publicly pledging to repeal the NHS Bill.
But we can’t just blame politicians or the media, they are both built to give us what we want. We just aren’t aware or interested enough. The politicians literally get their jobs through a series of popularity contests. The media outlets are set up to ensure they maximise their profits – that’s why idiots like Delingpole and Mel Phillips are around – they draw huge numbers of clicks. This means that what they give you is what they think you want. I wrote a bit about media and healthcare reporting here, which looks at the tension between profit and quality healthcare reporting, and there has been a series of articles on media regulation at So in addition to good regulation, we need to be savvy consumers if we want good media coverage of real political arguments. As a consumer, you should be demanding that you get critical analysis of the important issues.

After my rant on the day the Health and Social Care Bill was passed, lots of my Facebook friends got angry and wrote things on their walls. They largely hadn’t realised that they’d missed it, that the process had gone on for over a year, three readings in each house, and a pause for consultation. I am pleased that they felt a bit of outrage, and hope that some of them decided to do something with it; it’s just a shame they hadn’t been up to speed earlier. Writing on your Facebook page, or a blog like this unless you have a very wide readership, is useful in mobilising a small number of people, but largely it isn’t my Facebook friends or twitter followers that make the important political decisions. You need to tell MPs what you want and you have to tell media companies that you expect high quality factual reporting. When they balls it up let them know, and when they get it right let them know.

We are missing out on debate about the biggest decisions of our time, and everyone is gawping at fucking pies. I despair sometimes, I really do. Get on it people, or you will continue to get the media and debate you deserve.

NHS Pledge

As I suggested in my previous post, I am going to be contacting MPs and parliamentary candidates to ask them to pledge to repeal the Health and Social Care Bill. To keep track of this, I have started a new blog at to keep track of any responses I get. I might even tweet at @NHSpledge as news comes in.

If you get in touch with your MP and get a response, please let me know, and I will try to keep track of it all there.