Monday, 29 November 2021

The more there is of mine the less there is of yours

... said the Duchess. The quote is, of course, from Alice in Wonderland. I'm reminded of it by the mess the government has got itself into over the new care costs cap of £86k announced only in September.  The government has clarified that, as an individual's assets reduce below £100k and means testing comes into place, with councils making a contribution from the public purse so that the individual's dwindling assets last a bit longer, the contribution from the council does not count towards the £86k cap. People still have to shell out until they've coughed up £86k of their own money.

I must say I was astounded at the reaction. What part of an £86k cap on an individual's contribution would you expect to come from someone else, Alice?

To be fair I hadn't realised the original government announcement implied that the £86k cap wasn't really an £86k cap. And so those in high dudgeon have a point. Kind of.

It is that the cap hits folk in low cost housing areas (mainly but not exclusively the north) disproportionately. Sure, if you are wealthy, you'll never get the benefit of this council funded taper and will hit the £86k cap first. And in all probability have more left over once the cap comes in. So yes, the cap implies that rich people will pay the same and retain more than less affluent individuals. But that was always implicit in a cap.

Sir Richard Dilnott apparently predicted this situation in his original report, aeons ago and says the government has now got it wrong. But wait: Dilnott and others could have framed it the other way round: there's a minimum you can keep rather than a maximum you have to pay. Yes, I know that wouldn't work for the Tories. And might not work in a revenue generating sense: it's a perennial rule that you only generate a lot of tax by hitting ordinary people, not just the "rich". But in principle you could devise a progressive tax-like system. Except the government having inherited a situation where everyone had sat on their hands for more than a decade, had to do something quick, not good, so didn't have time to devise anything complicated.

Notwithstanding the current storm in a teacup, the real problem is that the government didn't "fix social care". Indeed it hasn't yet tried. It came up with a hastily devised revenue generating tax and a boosted cap to protect most people's assets to some extent. A cap will always favour the wealthy though the decision was, initially, almost pathetically well received in the less affluent areas characterised as 'red wall'. When you don't have so much you may be very grateful to keep some of it. Indeed a higher proportion in some cases, when you factor in inheritance tax thresholds. 

But isn't that the problem? The solution not only didn't address the actual issue of provision and quality of care, it left more rather than fewer anomalies in the way the care costs cap works with inheritance tax, when logically it was an IHT issue the government was actually addressing not a care costs issue. 

I don't know what those red wall voters, let alone Alice, will say when they realise the cap only applies to personal care, not 'hotel' costs. I don't know the balance but I'd have thought the hotel costs were the larger component. In a kind of cost-price averaging, nursing care home residents all pay the same weekly cost (in my experience) irrespective of their actual care needs. So if you need a lot of care, the others in your nursing home who don't end up subbing you. Just as the self funders sub the local authority funded residents, who pay a block rate driven down by bargaining power, to the short term benefit of council tax payers but creating even more anomalies and lower funding for a chronically underfunded service.

This could get messier yet. As I predicted in my post of 9 September Taxing Times, which noted that the PM didn't have a plan for social care, he had a funding mechanism which was actually more about protecting the value of people's houses than anything else.

And his problem is - that's what a lot of people thought, not just me.

Thursday, 25 November 2021

It's all an act

It won't surprise readers that I struggle with some of the concepts often brigaded under the banner of 'woke'. For example, I pondered aloud to Mrs H today that it didn't seem very inclusive that I can't be a lesbian. Unless, I went on to say, I first declare myself to be a trans woman, then - presumably - I could. Sort of.  Maybe I am getting the hang of it?

But I still can't get my mind round this next one. 

Without becoming a trans woman I could act the role of a lesbian. OK, I might need some drama lessons and a good dose of wardrobe and make up, but in principle I might achieve the credible appearance and some of the other attributes of a lesbian.

However, for many in the field of drama this is a no-no: they take the view that only gay people should be cast gay roles on TV and in film. I note in passing that this would appear to be a counter-productive stance for gay actors, condemning them to a minority of roles, since obviously and inter alia if only gays can play gays, logically they couldn't play straight roles.

I reflect on all this having read in last weekend's newspaper that Connor Curren, an autistic actor, has been cast in the role of Christopher Boone, who has characteristics similar to autism, in the National Theatre's production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in Night-Time. It's great for him to have that opportunity and good luck to him. The piece went on to quote Russell T Davies, who cast gay actors in the lead roles in Channel 4's It's A Sin: "You wouldn't cast someone able-bodied in a wheelchair, you wouldn't black someone up. Authenticity is leading us to joyous places". I can buy that as well, though I'm waiting for a white person to play a black person without blacking up as it's been done the other way round quite often. But journalist Liam Kelly went on to say:

"Attitudes have changed rapidly in the past few years. While Eddie Redmayne won critical acclaim and awards for his portrayal of Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything and a transgender woman in The Danish Girl released in 2014 and 2015 respectively, his casting in those roles might have produced a backlash were it to happen now".

And that's where I struggle. Redmayne brilliantly portrayed the cruel journey of Hawking's form of motor neurone disease from an able bodied man through to someone unable to speak let alone walk. But, reductio ad absurdum, how could someone who can't walk let alone speak portray the young Hawking?

In the limit if you are only allowed to act who you are, the only person you could portray would be yourself. And that's not acting.

Hopefully Connor Curren will in due course be considered for a full range of roles, not just people with autistic characteristics. But the converse also applies.

* Neurodiversity hands autistic actor his big break, Sunday Times 21 November

Friday, 19 November 2021

Tipping point reached?

There are some words that just seem to go together in the mind of the public and the sub editors who write newspaper headlines. "Sleaze" goes with "Tory" just as "militants" goes with "left wing".  The most remarkable thing about the present government crisis (for that's what it feels like) is that is entirely of its own making. Oh, there have been plenty of stories about PPE contracts and so on but the current situation was precipitated entirely by the prime minister's crashing lack of awareness in putting government support behind the original Commons vote on standards, apparently trying to retrospectively change rules to protect Owen Paterson.

It seems that even with a majority of 80 the PM is still not confident in taking on (or just ignoring) his backbench "Spartans". There was then a bizarre attempt to outflank Labour on poorly thought out new restrictions on MP's activities.

Banning second jobs for backbench MPs is, for me, a non-starter. After all, being a government minister is a very distracting second job which must diminish the attention of MPs to their constituents. So there is no argument on grounds of focus on constituents unless we go French style. The legislature and executive are totally separate in France: their equivalent of an MP has to resign if offered a ministerial post. That would be a fundamental change in the UK. It would deter many from standing. Lawyers and doctors are examples of many occupations who need to continue working at some level to preserve qualifications if they wish to be able to resume their career when subjected to the whim of the electorate.

Restricting the earnings of an MP to an arbitrary level seems daft. You mean it's ok to be distracted by poorly paid work but not to get paid a lot for doing less work? I suppose you could say preserving high earnings is a potential distraction and presents more risk of corruption but it's still a weird kind of proto-communist levelling down, that one.

However, the real problem for the PM is that the mud suddenly seems to be sticking, when you look at these headlines from just three days worth of normally Tory supporting newspapers, the Sunday Times and the Daily Mail, aka 'the paper that preaches hate' (© Democracy Man):

It seems they hate everyone, including Tories... 

Some of their examples of the "Tories-on-the-take club" were very odd, mind. Nick Fletcher, MP for Don Valley, was listed for being vice-chairman of the All-party Parliamentary Group on electric vehicles while also being a director of electric vehicle charging point firm Analogue Electrics. I'm not sure if the paper was suggesting that is a conflict of interest but, if so, only in the way anyone actually knowing something about a subject could be said to be tainted. It was also observed that he receives a company car, phone and health insurance worth £800 a month which doesn't seem particularly excessive to me but then the last time I had a company car over 13 years ago I'm sure even then with private health insurance it was worth over £800 a month. (The car was nice but not that swanky: a Mercedes E class, used  by the Germans as taxis). I remember the tax made the perk effectively neutral from an income point of view but it saved some hassle in terms of fixing insurance and servicing etc. So this snippet made me wonder not about sleaze but why companies still offer lease cars instead of just paying the benefit as money, which my company soon did so it didn't have the pain of operating a lease car fleet.

Fletcher also benefited to the grand amount of £2,000 paid as a political donation by his firm - not at all unusual I'd have thought, you'd hope your own company might provide modest support after all. Maybe the Mail has an aversion to a firm trying to influence the government to install more electric vehicle charging points? But, shock horror, he also has shares in his firm! If this is on the take I suggest the Daily Mail looks through some expenses claims in the public sector for an eye opener, with its generous overnight allowances for civil servants that they don't actually have to spend on their trips.

Filling up newspaper columns with such ridiculous tittle tattle along with the genuinely dodgy, like guaranteed seats in the Lords for party donations, dilutes the message for me but presumably the Mail thinks that a double page spread of such nonsense will make the problem look bigger.

Nevertheless, I wonder if a tipping point has been reached, just as it was with John Major's government in the 90s after the "cash for questions" scandal involving a government minister (Neil Hamilton) and the oddity of David Mellor's defenstration clashing with Major's "back to basics" message. These cases seem almost small beer now, especially Mellor who was stitched up by the press and a kiss and tell lover willing to lie. (Though the Chelsea shirt part of the story still makes me smirk). 

In the Major government's case the sleaze accusations combined with the "Black Wednesday" financial fiasco when the flawed strategy of being in the exchange rate mechanism came home to roost. Of course it should really be called "White Wednesday" (and is by some people) because from that point on the British economy recorded unusually solid growth for 16 years all the way through the the global financial crisis in 2008. The policy shift meant joining the euro was no longer a goal (though it took a while for Blair and some others to accept that) and the modern financial framework with its so far robust but soon to be tested inflation target came in to being.

Nevertheless, though with hindsight White Wednesday saved the UK economy from an awful fate, Major's government lost its reputation for competence at the same time as probity. I remember it feeling like the electorate had already decided to kick them out at the next election. Has the same tipping been been reached for Johnson?

There are some differences. Johnson's party has lost its reputation for low taxation after increasing it to the highest level since world war II. But perhaps not yet for economic competence. However if, as I fear, the current inflationary spike does not prove transitory it will do so. Once such a reputation is lost it is very difficult to regain before the electoral cycle rolls round. After all, Major's government with Ken Clarke as chancellor turned into one of the most competent governments we've seen in a long time, bequeathing a benign economic environment and a burgeoning economy to Blair and Brown. Johnson's government is an accident prone, strategy free zone in comparison.

But the other difference is that firstly John Smith and Tony Blair made Labour look electable after Neil Kinnock had turned the tide against the militants. Keir Starmer is a long way off that pace, though he has made progress sidelining the Corbynites. Blair and Brown continued to ruthlessly eliminate the negatives. But Blair also transmitted an air of hope and optimism. On that point Labour still looks like a black hole.

It is also a big ask to turn over the large Tory majority in one go, which Blair didn't have to do. There are a very large number of quite tight marginals so I don't rule it out, though while the SNP hold sway where there used to be swathes of Labour MPs it seems highly unlikely.

So the see saw is tipping but it might need much more weight on the other end for the electorate to decide, as they did with Major, that come the election mate, you're out.

* Black Wednesday, 20 years on: a bad day for the Tories but not for Britain. The Guardian 13 Sept 2012,

Wednesday, 17 November 2021

Cricket, racism and bananas

 Azeem Rafiq's testimony to the Commons DCMS select committee yesterday was a tough listen. It was compared today in a thoughtful column by Mike Atherton, the Times chief cricket correspondent, to Michael Holding's "magnificent monologue" about Black Lives Matter in the summer of 2020.

The after effects will run through cricket - and probably other sports and other institutions - for some time. As long as youngsters and their families of all backgounds aren't put off the sport the longer term impact should be positive. 

Though not for everyone: I can't see Michael Vaughan's career as a pundit continuing. Whether that is fair I can't judge. While it was Rafiq's word against Vaughan's denial we were in the usual grey area of 'not proven' but Adil Rashid's rather delayed backing for Rafiq's tesimony about what Vaughan said in 2009 will probably be decisive. 

Rafiq is a highly credible witness. And yet... Vaughan has always struck me as  a good character. I recall tipping him as a future England captain when he was first selected for the team. Though it didn't take much spotting: the sort of chap often dubbed "ideal son-in-law material". So I found the story a bit surprising. Clearly Rafiq suffered many micro and not so micro aggressions in his time at Yorkshire, though the fact that he was accompanied by at least three other ethnic minority players in the team that Vaughan is photographed addressing in 2009 and allegedly saying "there are too many of you lot" shows that those players were given more than a chance to make the team. Vaughan says he remembers the day well as a historic one for Yorkshire cricket as it was the first time four players of Asian heritage had been selected in the same Yorkshire team so he made a point of congratulating them:

While Rashid and a third player have supported Rafiq's testimony other Yorkshire players present that day, including Ajmal Shazad, have not. Witness testimony can be unreliable, especially after 12 years or so. And things people say can be misconstrued, even if the memory of the words is faultless, which may or may not be the case. Even if words like that were used, context can be all: Vaughan might have said "some people think....". But then he might not. Sky Sports footage has been unearthed which might shed light on what was said, though evidence of this type rarely proves conclusive. There didn't seem to be a lack of welcome in this scene:

Of course appearances can be deceptive and it's not great to be included only on unreasonable terms.

Vaughan will probably be colateral damage of a fight in what is clearly a good and necessary cause. One that has quite a long way to go yet in turning sport and plenty of other aspects of our life into the fair and inclusive society that most of us would want to see. After all, Rafiq's testimony was that things got worse when the Yorkshire head coach changed in 2016, so even if tempted we can't dismiss 2009 as ancient history.

The aspect I found most egregious in Rafiq's tesimony was his treatment after losing his stillborn baby son. Of course we don't know if his callous and inhuman treatment was necessarily driven by racism or just misplaced priorities by unsympathetic management. But given the overall picture it seems likely.

It is easy to wonder "why didn't you say something at the time?" but to the victim it may well feel better to keep your head down for fear of making things worse. This is why it's so important that there are rigorous complaints procedures which are applied properly in practice. And why management can't afford to turn a blind eye to low level "banter" (i.e. abuse). Or be so remote that there is no awareness of what is actually happening.

I was thinking about these issues yesterday before seeing Rafiq's testimony as the issue came up over coffee after a tight and entertaining betterball match at golf had put my group in a buoyant mood. One chap had been in the army before his current lucrative career as a train driver. He was in the Guards and was present when the first black guardsman was introduced to the mess. We went quiet as the hurt, bewilderment and anger were still there in his eyes and voice after more than three decades: "they threw bananas at him".  One of Tony's friends was designated as the new guard's "minder" to afford him at least some protection from the ongoing abuse.

In our now serious discussion about whether or not progress is being made we noted this was three decades on from the Windrush generation arriving to help us rebuild the British economy and another decade on from campaigns such as Rock Against Racism which helped to educate a generation in the 1970s. Across the board a lot of progress has been made but the worst incidents, when they occur, seem to be more hateful than ever.

Beyond the obvious aggravating factor of social media my buddy Tony has an explanation which I think has some validity. There was so much ignorance which has been lessened by education, he said. But this has made the real hard core racists, who as a result have fewer followers and copycats, much more virulent and aggressive as they see the battle being gradually lost.

This made me think back to my outrage in the 1990s when I was told one of my younger son's team-mates in the under 11s had been called the P word in a match by an opponent. I referreed the team's games on occasion and assured them if I heard anything similar when I was in charge an automatic red card would be issued. (The risk of a bit of an argument with a player's parent afterwards wouldn't have dissuaded me as those who know how much I like an argument will probably understand).

It also reminded me of my school days and the introduction of the first black pupil to our grammar school when I was about 13 or 14. The lad was in my year but not my class and, very soon after his arrival, we happened to engage each other in conversation one day as we walked away from the school for a hundred yards or so until I turned off toward's my parents' house. "What were you talking to him for?" I was subsequently challenged. "Why not?" was my response. But this was how it worked - peer pressure from the alpha males meant that this young scholar and the ones who gradually followed were cold-shouldered. So even though there was no banana throwing and very little blatant hostility the extent of integration was, to choose an odd phrase, skin deep at best.

Tony's analysis is that more and more people are refusing to follow the few who spread the poison which in turn is making them ever more aggressive.

If so we need to push harder. In that context Azeem Rafiq's brave testimony can only have helped.